Monday, February 29, 2016

The Twins Forgotten Man

As a new Major League Baseball season approaches, a renewed sense of hope imparts itself upon Twins Territorians. After a near playoff run a season ago, Paul Molitor's club will be looking to take the next step forward in the year ahead. Typically, that step isn't taken by every player, as regression candidates rear their heads. By now, you're probably aware that for 2016, my pick is none other than Eddie Rosario. Should that narrative play out, we find ourselves staring at one of the Twins most forgotten men.

No doubt, Rosario heads into Spring Training with a grasp on the starting left field job. Someday (and possibly even this year), it may be turned over to German phenom Max Kepler. First though, a hulking Venezuelan will get his [final] crack.

Enter Oswaldo Arcia.

Before there was Eddie Rosario in left field, prior to the defensive wizardry the position provided a year ago, and before the speed that the Twins employed, the role was Arcia's. Just a year removed from a 20 home run season, Arcia seemingly is everything Rosario is not in left. He doesn't play great defense, covering ground isn't his thing, but he's also no stranger to the long ball.

After a successful debut season in 2013, Arcia followed up his performance with a solid Sophomore season as well. On top of the new career high in homers (20), Arcia turned in a triple slash line of .231/.300/.452. His OPS was 18 points higher than in his debut year, and while he still struck out far too often, he kept his similar pace when taking walks. By this point, it had become apparent Arcia's contribution would be in the long ball or bust, and that's something the Twins would need to decide if they could live with.

Given just 19 games at the big league level a season ago, Arcia seemed a shell of his former self. While his average was a career best (.276) and his OBP topped out at .338, the small sample size led to almost no power production (just two homers and eight runs batted in). The home runs also were the only extra base hits Arcia generated at the big league level a season ago. Finally, the Twins had seen enough and a demotion came.

At Triple-A Rochester, things only got worse for the slugger. Outside of a torrid stretch in July (8 HR 19 RBI .367/.446/.918) his season was a disaster. In 79 games, he hit below the Mendoza Line (.199/.257/.372), while striking out 82 times and drawing just 18 walks. No doubt wanting to get back to the big leagues, he did nothing to warrant the trip and spent September watching from the couch.

Now out of options, Arcia must make 2015 look like a mirage. He posted career worsts in swinging strike percentage (19.6%), chased pitches out of the zone over 40% of the time, and generated "hard" contact over 10% less often (just 22.7% of the time) than he had in the first two years of his career. To say that a season ago, Arcia took a step back, would be putting it lightly.

Despite reports that Arcia has taken a new focus on the entirety of his game, including his defense, there's little doubt that his production will often be offensively fueled. Now with his back against the wall, he must make things stick in the year ahead. Working in his favor however, is that there should be opportunities.

Both Rosario and Arcia bat left-handed, so a platoon situation doesn't make sense for the Twins. However, if he has to start with a bench bat role, Arcia's numbers against righties has to be where he makes his case. Owning an .807 OPS against right-handers (nearly .200 points better than against lefties), Arcia has slugged 30 of his 36 career homers against righties.

At some point in 2016, things will come to a head for the Twins left field situation. Rosario could stumble, Arcia will need to hit (for power), and Max Kepler will be looking to weasel his way into the mix. There's a lot of moving pieces, but the guy without options, has been somewhat of a forgotten part of the puzzle. If Oswaldo Arcia's story with the Twins is to have a happy ending, it will have to happen, and now.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Reality Of Escobar

It's become a point of contention in some circles that the Minnesota Twins may not have a level of certainty at the shortstop position. Unfortunately, that notion couldn't be further from the truth, at least for the time being. Going into 2016, there's no doubt Eduardo Escobar has earned the right to start every day, and the expectation should be that he'll succeed.

Way back when, I touched on the Twins continuing to benefit from the trade that sent Francisco Liriano to the Chicago White Sox. Escobar was the return, and it relatively early on it appeared to be a good one. Over the course of the last season however, that return looked great.

Going into the 2015 season, Escobar was the utility man looked at as a secondary option for arguably the infield's most pivotal position. After Danny Santana looked the part of a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2014, he was going to be given every opportunity to start at short for first year manager Paul Molitor. You'd be hard pressed to find many that weren't ok with that decision. Santana looked prime for regression, but his new infield role was one he also seemed capable of taking over.

Then the season got underway.

It was always fair to assume that Santana was going to take a step back offensively. After owning a .405 BABIP in 2014, there was a less than zero chance he was going to put up the same kind of slash line (.319/.353/.472). What actually took place though was a level of regression that would be teetering on the brink of catastrophe.

Not only did Santana regress at the plate, he feel off completely. In 91 major league games during the 2015 season, Santana slashed a paltry .215/.241/.291. He took a grand total of six walks in over 260 at bats, and stuck out nearly 70 times. As bad as his offensive game was though, it wasn't even the real problem. At shortstop, Santana started 65 games and turned in 16 errors while being worth -15 DRS. By all statistical measures, Santana was one of the worst players in all of baseball at the position.

Enter Eduardo Escobar.

Following Santana's [prolonged] demotion, Escobar was given his opportunity. Fortunately for both Molitor and the Twins, he did everything he could with it. When the dust settled on 2015, Escobar owned a .262/.309/.445 slash line. He provided the Twins with 12 homers and doubled 31 times. His OPS was 4th best among shortstops, better than everyone not named Brandon Crawford, Tulo, or Bogaerts. In the final month of the season, Escobar only got more impressive slashing .280/.331/.486.

On the defensive side of the ball, Escobar provided an uptick as well. He ended up starting 71 games for the Twins a season ago, making just four errors. His 2 DRS and 2.6 UZR marks were some of the best posted by a Twins shortstop (and his complete game made him a significantly better fit than the defensive minded Pedro Florimon). Looking at his contributions as a whole, Escobar more than got the job done for Minnesota.

At points throughout 2015, it might have been fair to wonder whether or not the Twins would be in on free agent Ian Desmond (who still remains an unsigned FA after rejecting the Nationals qualifying offer). What became apparent as the months drew on however, is that the Twins had an internal option, and a relatively good one at that.

Despite having youth with promise at the shortstop position on the farm, both Nick Gordon and Wander Javier being representative of that, Escobar can make the role his for the time being. At just 27 years old, it appears Escobar would be a late-prime player, and someone the Twins can pencil in as they push towards playoff relevancy once again. Far more than simply a stopgap option, Escobar vaulted himself into the conversation as one of the big leagues most complete at a premium spot.

Never are the Twins going to see Escobar be a high on base guy, he simply doesn't walk enough. However, he makes a ton of contact, actually decreased his swing and miss tendencies a year ago, and doesn't chase all that often. His approach at the plate should be capable of repeating his 2015 performance, and a full season of that kind of production is only going to benefit the Twins.

Sure, Escobar isn't the flashy name that Troy Tulowtizki is, and he may never be another Xander Bogaerts, but asking the Twins to do better is telling them to replace someone that is already competing at a very high level. For the first time since [the thought of] J.J. Hardy, the Twins have the shortstop position figured out.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

On The Twins Creativity, Or Lack Thereof

Taking cues from another Twitter conversation, seriously you're missing out if you aren't following along (find me at @tlschwerz), the creativity surrounding baseball moves has been a hot topic of late. When looking at how the Twins have handled player acquisition in recent years, there's something to be said about what has been done well, and well, what hasn't.

I first got to thinking about this after reading a very well thought out piece over on Twins Daily. In it, Bill Parker sparks the conversation in regards to what the Twins could have done differently during their years of losing. Payroll and debates about contracts have generally surrounded the mid-market Twins. It's been a point of contention for the fan base, and likely will continue to be. The biggest takeaway from the piece comes down to smart spending, and the lack thereof.

Parker discusses past free agent contracts, and what the Twins might have passed on during their seasons of 90 loss seasons. While Terry Ryan and the Twins took dart throws to the effect of a marginal amount of added victories, a big splash likely would not have saved those teams from themselves either. Unfortunately, it's that strategy that continues to be employed when it shouldn't be.

That brings us to Mike Bates' piece on Twins Daily. Bates discusses the Twins continuing to operate in a similar manner, despite the situation. While I can nitpick at pieces that I may or may not agree with throughout the article (we all know I think Sano can work in right field), there's a much larger point being hit on. Bates makes two points that should become a virtual backbone when discussing any roster configuration Minnesota employs.

He says, "The Twins have a profound lack of ambition in virtually everything they do." Furthering the point, he contends, "Instead of attempting to sign a single free agent starter with a higher upside at some point over the last three years (like a Jordan Zimmermann, a Jon Lester or a Johnny Cueto), and maybe a relative lottery ticket in Hughes, the Twins took small bites at the apple."

This leads us to the crux of this piece, and some examples of points in which the Twins seem to get it, and where they don't.

Over the past few years, the Twins have spent significant money on three starting pitchers.  Phil Hughes was given a three-year, $24 million deal in 2013 that was then extended another two seasons. Following that splash, Minnesota then inked Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million deal. Rounding out the group, the next offseason saw the Twins land Ervin Santana on a $55 million contract spanning four seasons.

Regardless of how the production has looked, only two of those moves ever made sense the day they were signed. With free agent contracts being earned off of past production, and some hope for an immediate return, pushing on upside is where a middle-of-the-road team like the Twins should be. Both Santana and Hughes had glints of upside.

Hughes owned an ERA in 2013 nearly three points lower on the road (3.88) than at Yankee Stadium (6.32). Getting out of the homer friendly park suggested he could be a significantly more effective pitcher in a different venue. That narrative immediately proved true in 2014, and despite 2015 regression, still had him post his third best ERA since 2011. For Santana, he was a guy that had a solid track record of an ERA somewhere in the middle-to-high three range. He was experienced in the AL, and posted one of his best seasons as a pro with the Royals just a year prior. Again, upside loomed large for the Twins.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Nolasco checked himself in. A career National League pitcher (spending eight year with the Marlins and briefly the Dodgers), a mediocre at best 4.37 ERA suggested who he was. His 3.76 FIP mark and 7.4 K/9 were more than likely only going to decrease in the less favorable, American League. Despite plenty of detractors, the Twins made him a $12 million man.

Similar misses have been made on much smaller scale minor league deals as well. It's more than fair to argue nearly any minor league deal has no downside for a major league club, the Twins don't always leave themselves much upside when looking to bring those types of veterans into the fold.

While all minor league transactions may be low risk, they are not created equal. Recently, I had a commenter suggest that dart throws are nothing more than a blind toss. It's unfair to assume however that a guy like Blaine Boyer (coming off a 2.93 FIP) wouldn't be a better use of a spring invite, than the walking corpse of Jason Kubel (who had been demoted to the minors hitting .216).

Ideally, a 25 man roster isn't going to be reliant upon a player looking to make the club following a minor league deal. Picking statistical inefficiencies to exploit no doubt helps to push contributions upward if you're going to take a flier however. There's belief behind Fernando Abad working, and Carlos Quentin is a worthy flier. If you had to bet on another Jason Kubel type though, you'd no doubt hope Ryan would aim higher.

Creativity is a very broad term, and employing it while 29 other terms are working towards the same goal is a tough ask. That said, looking for the Twins to target a more serious ceiling in free agency, rather than just checking a box is a safe place to start. Hoping for the dart throws to be aimed more towards the bullseye rather than just hitting the board is something else fair to ask for. No one expects Terry Ryan to reinvent the wheel, but having a more direct focus is something the Twins could afford to embrace.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

What Happens To Eddie Rosario?

If you follow me on Twitter (and if you aren't you should: @tlschwerz), you know that going into a new Twins season, there's generally a good bit of optimism. While toeing the line far away from being a homer, I generally try to place a good deal of scrutiny on regression candidates going into any given season. A year ago, it was Danny Santana and Kurt Suzuki that could be seen from a mile away. This season, my point of contention has been Eddie Rosario.

The talking point that has been Eddie Rosario has been met with some skepticism. He had a great 2015 campaign, and was an American League Rookie of the Year candidate. Considering my hesitation to heap praise on the rookie standout, I've received plenty of questions like the one below:
That leads us to the crossroads this piece is destined to address. Hate or distaste isn't the right categorization, but why is Eddie Rosario my most logical candidate for regression in 2016 among Minnesota Twins? Here we go.

In his rookie season, Rosario did a lot of things well. His slash line rested at .267/.289/.459. He led the big leagues in triples with 15, and he clubbed 13 homers. Defensively however, is where he showed even more value. With his glove in the outfield, Rosario was worth 11 defensive runs saved, and contributed 16 outfield assists. On the surface, his debut season was a resounding success.

Leaving spring training, Rosario was my pick to be the first of the Twins prospects called up. He looked the part of a guy pushing for immediate 25 man roster consideration, and being a former top 100 prospect, should have been capable of helping a Twins team looking to return to relevance. His narrative played out that way, but also now supports a different narrative going forward.

2015 saw the Twins send Rosario to the plate 474 times, being credited with 453 at bats. Across that action, he walked a grand total of 15 times, and struck out a resounding 118 times. He put together multiple stretches of eight or more games without a walk, including an 18 and 19 game stretch without drawing a free pass. In 35 games last season, Rosario struck out at least twice. Bad enough on their own, the primary numbers were supported by less than ideal secondary numbers.

The Twins left fielder owned a 14.5% swinging strike rate while chasing pitches out of the zone 46% of the time. He was also making contact on just north of 75% of pitches he was taking hacks at. Pitchers also were able to exploit Rosario's free swinging tendencies in challenging him early. He often got behind in counts as he faced first pitch strikes north of 65% of the time.

When making contact, Rosario saw the ill effects of his approach at the plate. Putting balls in play with "hard" contact just 29% of the time, Rosario often relied upon "medium" contact (52.8%) to get him on base. Utilizing his speed, Rosario often was looking to beat out balls with a lower trajectory, hitting line drives or ground balls over 59% of the time. Unlike Santana of 2014, Rosario's numbers were not inflated by an unrepeatable batting average on balls in play (just .332 in 2015).

Now that we have the detractors to put some context to what took place in 2015, it's worth looking at what's next for Rosario and the Twins. For both parties, the floor is a place that can be somewhat comfortable. Going into 2016, Rosario is going to be the Twins Opening Day left fielder, and his defensive prowess should play no matter what. It's his offensive ability that I expect to be the high water mark.

Should 2015 go down as Rosario's best season at the dish, Minnesota will have some decisions to make. No doubt Max Kepler still has to prove his worth at the major league level, but there's significant reason to believe that he will be a far better big leaguer than Rosario. Should Eddie stumble significantly, Kepler is the kind of depth any team would be envious to have. In the scenario that a swap is made, Minnesota should find themselves with an All Star capable type player in Kepler playing every day, and a very solid defensive replacement or fourth outfielder type in Rosario.

If the narrative above plays out, Rosario's story isn't one of complete doom for the Twins. He still serves a purpose even with his 2015 being a mirage. At this point, Rosario could represent a nice trade chip for the Twins, but that's a different argument altogether. It would be nice to see Rosario's approach at the plate change, but for a guy who's displayed a worsening OBP as he's risen through the system, it's not something I'd bet on.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Twins Setting The Table

As February quickly comes to a close, the Twins are ready to get fully underway with spring training activities down in Fort Myers. Pitchers and catchers have reported, with most of the roster following suit. With Paul Molitor eyeing an improvement on a strong first season, he knows that his club has some areas to work on.

Minnesota found themselves in a good deal of beneficial situations a season ago. The club, more often than not, excelled in clutch or high leverage situations. Despite having a bullpen deficiency, the offensive prowess generally kept them in games. With a quality pitching staff and added pop in the lineup for 2016, the Twins feel as though they have put themselves in a position to succeed.

Now one of the questions that remains unanswered for the Twins, is just how the lineup will take shape. I've discussed how I would set the lineup for the bulk of the 2016 season previously, but the leadoff batter still remains a point of contention. There's little reason to believe it won't be Brian Dozier, and the hope is that at some point Byron Buxton would take over, but in the long run, what's actually best for Minnesota?

Realistically, there aren't many candidates, but let's take a look at the few Molitor has to sort through in 2016.

Brian Dozier .236/.307/.444

Dozier is going to be the Twins leadoff hitter on Opening Day. He's got the most experience, is the easiest fit, and gives Molitor some immediate stability. That doesn't necessarily mean he's the best fit long term however. His .307 OBP in 2015 was his worst mark since his rookie season, and he set a new single season strikeout record for the Twins (148).

While the power numbers went up, Dozier walked less, and missed more (he owned a career worst 9.0% swing strike rate). Although Dozier does sell out for pull power (pulling the ball over 60% of the time), he generated a career best 29.0% hard hit rate a season ago. Then there's the fact that Dozier was actually better leading off in 2015 (.246/.313/.499) than he was batting second (.225/.292/.366). My biggest distaste for Dozier batting first is the amount of wasted (solo) home runs, but I suppose it's something you can live with.

Byron Buxton .209/.250/.326

Ideally, Buxton is a prototypical leadoff hitter. He's fast and gets on base, but if you look at the line above, none of that was remotely true in his first big league season. Baseball's top prospect owned a 44/6 K/BB ratio, and had a swinging strike rate of nearly 14%. The good news however is that should be far from what Minnesota can come to expect from the elite Buxton.

Across his two full seasons of minor league ball (2013 & 2015), Buxton slashed .334/.424/.520 and .305/.367/.500 respectively. His career minor league .384 OBP is more than impressive, and he's generated a ton of contact at the plate during his professional career. Obviously, it has to translate at the big league level, but when it does, there's no doubt Buxton has to be the Twins table setter.

Eduardo Escobar .262/.309/.445

There's very little case to be made for suggesting Escobar as a leadoff man. Molitor likes speed, and while Escobar has some of it, he's far from elite in that category. He does play a leadoff type position at short, but that's really where things ends. Escobar just doesn't take walks, and his OBP has generally suffered because of it (just a .303 career OBP).

It's not necessarily an indictment of Escobar as a player, but there's really no good reason to suggest leading him off. Hopefully his power surge in 2015 was real, and he could continue to blossom as a hitter, it should just happen at the lower third of the order.

Joe Mauer .265/.338/.380

Arguably the oddest inclusion in this group, but one that shouldn't be ignored. In his career, Mauer has just two plate appearances (no at bats) batting first in the lineup. He doesn't possess the speed threat generally desired for the role, and Molitor has said plenty of times that Joe won't bat first. In fact, it appears almost certain he'll bat second for the Twins in 2016. However, leadoff may be the thing that benefits this version of Mauer most.

Despite declining averages the past two seasons, Mauer has posted .361 and .338 OBP respectively. He takes walks, and while he strikes out more, he also generates extra base hits (61 doubles over the past two seasons). As a table setter, Mauer getting on base ahead of power threats like Dozier, Byung Ho Park, and Miguel Sano makes a ton of sense. It's probably not even going to happen, but Mauer the leadoff man, or Mauer hitting somewhere around 6th could be the best thing for his career.

At the end of the day, the Twins are almost certain to employ Brian Dozier as their table setter. While it's somewhat of a square peg in a round hole, it's a situation that Byron Buxton can help to change. The quicker things click for him offensively, the faster the shuffle happens. When that day comes, Molitor will once again have to re-evaluate how he rounds out his starting nine.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Who's Got The Over In The Central?

Now with every Major League Baseball team having hit their pitcher and catcher report dates, the upcoming season feels as close as ever. Despite snow being on the ground yet in some parts of the country, baseball is ready to bring back the feelings of summer. Prior to the action kicking off however, we have to take a look at how things are expected to play out.

Back in January, I outlined how I saw the AL Central taking shape. With the World Champion Kansas City Royals again pacing the group, it was a collection of five teams with no clear cut favorite. Now that the Las Vegas Superbook has unveiled it's over/under wins totals for each team, it's time to break down what makes sense in baseball's closest division.

Cleveland Indians 85.5

Yesterday (February 21, 2016) I offered up the following opinion on Twitter, "Despite being the favorite at multiple outlets, I have no faith in the Indians ability to win the AL Central in 2016." Hilariously, that tweet ended up going viral thanks to the Indians official account being a bit less than thrilled with my subtweet.

Regardless of the feelings coming from the club itself, I stand by that thought process. Cleveland's rotation is good, with an opportunity to be very good. The question is whether or not that offense can score enough runs. I don't see the Indians winning the central, and 86 wins may accomplish that. When it comes to Terry Francona's group, I'm taking a pass:

Verdict: Under

Kansas City Royals 83.5

Let's be clear, I've been down on the Royals for quite some time, and continued to be even after their World Series loss of 2014. That being said, the time in which I continue to scoff at Ned Yost's club has come and gone. Going into the 2016 season, Kansas City absolutely has to be the favorite to win the AL Central.

Sure, the Royals rotation is an absolute joke, and their offense is very likely going to take a step backwards. I don't believe in Lorenzo Cain being an MVP candidate for a second straight year, and while I'd love for Mike Moustakas to replicate his 2015, I think he more or less takes a slight step backwards. When the dust settles though, this club knows how to win, and they should do so more than 84 times.

Verdict: Over

Detroit Tigers 80.5

Laying some ground work here, I don't like the Tigers, and neither do the over/under numbers. 81 wins would constitute a .500 season, but would also be an increase of eight wins from where Detroit finished in 2015. For a team that is looking to stave off regression, it's a worthy cause that may not end up playing out.

The Tigers have plenty of questions coming into the 2016 season surrounding their current roster. What Justin Verlander is going to be available? Can Anibal Sanchez and Miguel Cabrera stay healthy? What kind of contributions will manager Brad Ausmus get (or need) from a relatively poor farm system? At the end of the day, the Tigers should be better than they were a year ago, but the eight win jump is probably a bit too rich for my taste.

Verdict: Under

Chicago White Sox 80.5

The White Sox are an interesting team to peg in 2016. They spent relatively heavily last offseason, and ended up falling flat. Totaling just 76 wins last season, there's no doubt manager Robin Ventura was hoping for significantly better. Improvement should be coming this season however.

Unlike the Tigers, the White Sox rotation is actually good, and has youth on its side. Chris Sale is among baseball's best pitchers, and having Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon behind him makes for a fearsome trio. The offense will continue to be formidable for Chicago, especially considering additions of Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie. If I'm taking a bottom of the division team to make a turnaround, it's the White Sox.

Verdict: Over

Minnesota Twins 79.5

In 2015, few teams in baseball were more lucky than Minnesota. With runners in scoring position, the Twins generated hits at a ridiculous pace. They found themselves coming up big in clutch situations far more often than not, and there's no doubt the win category thanked them for it. What's unfortunate about all of those facts is that they are unrepeatable from a conscious standpoint.

Looking at the Central as a whole, there's probably no team with a higher probability than the Twins to win it, or finish dead last. Minnesota is going to be able to pitch, and should have both an improved staff and pen from a season ago. The offense will be there, and should have a lot of pop, but there's going to be a ton of strikeouts. Paul Molitor's group will need things to go their way more often than not. It could happen, but it also very likely may not.

Verdict: Over 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Bold Predictions For The 2016 Twins

Going into the 2016 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins have plenty on their plate when it comes to expectations. After having a winning season for the first time since 2010, and making a push for the playoffs, second year manager Paul Molitor will have his hands full when trying to fight off taking a step backwards.

In 2015, the Twins did some things really well, but maybe more importantly than anything, they were handed a good deal of luck. Playing well above average in high leverage situations, and being gifted opportune situations, Minnesota took advantage as well as any team in baseball. Expecting those scenarios to replicate themselves isn't a good bet, so the Twins will need to push the envelope on their own.

Should the Twins find themselves in an opportune position come October, some of the following bold predictions will no doubt have to play out. Without further ado, here we go. Your 2nd annual Off The Baggy bold predictions for the Minnesota Twins:

Joe Mauer Will Hit .300 Again

This offseason, Mauer has spoken off the repercussions he has dealt with following his concussion troubles from behind the plate. Most notably, his vision problems have caused him to have trouble picking up the ball at the plate. Another season removed from the traumatic brain injury, Mauer will hit over .300 for the first time since the 2013 season.

At this point, he's settled in defensively at first base, and now it's time for his bat to come around. The power stroke won't be there, but Mauer should be capable of producing a .305/.390/.410 slash line. He's got extra lineup protection, and if Molitor dropped him in the lineup, an even bigger spike should be expected.

Alex Meyer Will Be An Impressive Piece Of The Twins Pen

In 2015, few parts of the Minnesota roster were worse off than the relief corps. Outside of an unreal first half by closer Glen Perkins, the group struck out no one, and couldn't be counted upon to hold down a lead. This year, flame throwing youth such as Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, and J.T. Chargois should change that. Before all of them though, former top prospect Alex Meyer should make the difference.

Meyer know doubt took his lumps as a starter in Triple-A during the 2015 campaign. Seen by many as a reliever long term though, the tall hurler put it together at the end. Deserving of a September call up, Meyer owned a 0.79 ERA and allowed just a .192/.293/.205 slash line against across his final 10 games (22.2 IP). In that time frame, he struck out 22 while walking just 10. With Meyer, there's always going to be heightened walk issues, but he's also capable of blowing it by big league hitters. 2016 should see Meyer become one of the most untouchable pitchers in the Twins bullpen.

Goodbye To Jorge Polanco Or Eddie Rosario

Defensively, you'd be hard pressed to find a better rookie in 2015 than Rosario. He gave the Twins 16 assists, was worth 11 defensive runs saved, and put up a 7.4 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). As a defender, Rosario was worthy of the highest praise. Offensively though, the story was much more smoke and mirrors. Despite a respectable .267/.289/.459 slash line, his numbers were bolstered by an unrepeatable 15 triples. The rookie swung and missed just shy of 15% of the time, and chased out of the zone nearly 50% of the time, neither a recipe for success.

Coming to Polanco, the story is virtually the opposite. Forced into playing shortstop, despite arm concerns, due to Brian Dozier holding down second base, Polanco struggled. In 102 games between AA-AAA in 2015, Polanco committed 28 errors at short. In fact, he totaled eight errors in just 19 games at the Triple-A level. His bat has rarely been a question, and his .288/.339/.386 slash across both levels suggests it's major league ready. Unfortunately with the Twins, he's a man without a position.

At some point in the year ahead, Max Kepler should push Rosario for playing time in left field. Should Rosario continue to swing and miss, he becomes a 4th outfielder for the Twins in a best case scenario. With value as high as it may even be, a trade could be the Twins best move. Similarly with Polanco, Minnesota will be forced into a decision. Dozier isn't moving any time soon, and Polanco hasn't given the Twins much defensive hope. Packaging him for some sort of return could be a good bet in the year ahead.

Byung Ho Launches 30 Homers

Surprising most of the baseball world, the Twins ended up winning the bid for the KBO superstar. Park comes to the Twins on an incredibly team friendly deal, even if things don't work out. The expectation though, should be that they will. Fresh off of two 50 home run seasons in Korea, Byung Ho brings his talents to the major leagues.

Having struck out 142 and 161 times in the past two seasons respectively, Park is going to eclipse the 200 strikeout mark for the Twins. Major league pitching will present a new test for him, but the 29 year old should also bring plenty of talent to the plate on his own. There's no doubt going to be an acclimation period, but Park surpassing the 30 home run barrier seems like a pretty good bet. Fellow KBO star, Jung Ho Kang smashed 15 homers for the Pirates in 2015 despite playing just 126 games and starting slow. Park, the superior talent, should dwarf that number and have the Twins thanking him for it.

Jose Berrios Impersonates Jacob deGrom

More than any time in recent memory, the Twins have significant pitching depth. With a handful of capable arms, they are looking for some to rise to the top. Enter top pitching prospect Jose Berrios. I expect him to debut sometime in May, and make over 20 starts for the Twins. With that kind of run in front of him, I expect the hard working Puerto Rican to push for Jacob deGrom type rookie numbers.

In his rookie season, deGrom won the NL Rookie of the Year behind a 2.69 ERA and a 9.2 K/9 while walking just 2.8 per nine innings. He gave up just seven homers and pitched just over 140 innings for the Mets. Berrios actually got better at Triple-A (2.62 ERA as opposed to 3.08 at Double-A) and owned a ridiculous 1.08 ERA across his final four starts. Berrios tallied two double-digit strikeout games in 12 Triple-A starts, and added two more starts with nine sat down. Often discounted by national types, Berrios should come onto the scene and immediately be viewed as an ace for Minnesota.

There you have it, your five bold predictions for the 2016 Minnesota Twins. No doubt not all of them will happen, but each of them presents a very solid opportunity for the Twins to bolster their chances at a realistic playoff run. Going out on a limb and suggesting what may be a bit of a reach, only puts the situation in play to be something to strive for. With the Twins bold predictions now handled, I'll leave you with this:

Royals Win The Central, But No Team Wins Or Loses 90 Games

Somewhat similar to my feelings last year on the latter half, I'll give the Royals their due in the former part of this equation. Coming off a World Series win, it's probably time to stop picking against Kansas City. I hate their rotation, and don't expect some of the offensive pieces to be as good as they were (Moustakas/Cain), but that probably isn't enough to knock them out of the top spot.

With no real clear cut favorite in the division, no team should run away with things, or fall too far behind. The Central should be a division that beats up on one another, and a group of teams in which no one is great or equally horrible. What that gives baseball fans is a full season worth of games that all make the outcome incredibly important.

Spring Training is nearly in full swing, and it's time to welcome back Major League Baseball. Here we go.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The End Of Minnesota's Mauer

Joe Mauer has been a living embodiment of what the Minnesota Twins represent for nearly his entire career. He's the milk-drinking, Minnesota-nice, head-down, hard working ballplayer that has been the face of the franchise for the better part of the last 10 years. After trending downwards for the past few seasons, it's fair to wonder when Mauer's reign comes to an end.

The immediate and shortest response is that the time has not yet come.

Sure, each of the past two seasons, Mauer's numbers have gone in the wrong direction. After batting a career worst .277/.361/.371 in 2014, Joe followed it up with an even worse .265/.338/.380 slash line last season. Although he hit double-digit home runs (10) after just four in 2014, his performance was largely buoyed by timely hitting in situations with runners in scoring position. His two year splits aren't good, and neither is the trend he's currently following.

That said, there's absolutely reason for hope. There's little room to argue that Mauer's production has been sapped by anything other than significant brain trauma. Despite the documented concussions that he's had to deal with behind the plate, the beating he took playing catcher also did him no favors. Although Mauer has since moved to first based, he's noted that vision issues have continued to persist, and no doubt, his athletic ability has decreased to a certain extent.

A season ago, Mauer played in 158 of 162 games for the Twins. As he further distances himself from the serious concussion issues he's dealt with, there's hope that his abilities begin to either somewhat return, or diminish at a slower pace. Following up a season in which he played the most games in his career, the Twins can only hope that 2016 is the next step in that turned corner.

Going into the year, Steamer projections have Mauer slated for a .274/.355/.390 slash line. He's projected to come in just under double-digit home runs (with 9) and see a slight dip in RBI (63). Mauer has always been more of a doubles hitter, and the projections see him nearing 30 (28) again in 2016. After posting a 0.3 fWAR in 2015, the expectation is that he improves by a full win (1.3). In total, that's production the Twins could absolutely be happy with.

Looking at where Mauer tops out at, age begins to become as much of a question as does the previous injury concerns. This being Mauer's age 33 season, it's probably now or never for the turnaround. A few days ago on Twitter, I offered the opinion that Mauer has a chance to hit .300 in 2016, but if he doesn't he won't ever again. That seems like a pretty fair assessment, and a relative summary of where I believe Mauer's career to be at.

While he is not old, he's also not young by baseball's standards. His previous brain injuries have taken the best parts of his game from him, and if we don't see a resurgence now, we likely never will. At this point, it's in the Twins best interest to find out if that resurgence is coming. Regardless of the fact that Mauer will never hit like a true first basemen, being a 1.0+ fWAR player still puts him in the asset category to manager Paul Molitor.

Minnesota shuffled positions this offseason in moving Miguel Sano to the outfield and bringing in Byung Ho Park. As things stand today, having Trevor Plouffe, Sano, Park, and Mauer all in the lineup gives the Twins the best chance to win. Should the summer months roll around and Mauer have regressed even further, the argument could begin to be made to look at other options. For now however, that shouldn't be the case.

If you want to move mauer down in the lineup (and I would), it makes sense. Asking him to be a replacement player at this point is jumping the gun however. His production has to be tied to logical expectations of what he is both capable of and helps the Twins, not what is deemed acceptable for the position he plays

When the dust settles on the 2016 Major League Baseball season, the Twins should have a pretty clear picture of where they can go with Joe Mauer. The season ahead is one that needs to play out for that picture to reveal itself however. Making assumptions or decisions based upon what has happened in his first two years at a new position is too knee jerk for me. Let the year ahead play out, and then begin to talk through the hard realities that may lie ahead.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sano Problem, He's Already One Of The Best

This offseason, the Minnesota Twins and Terry Ryan announced that they'd be moving their hulking slugger to right field. Despite having DH'd for the majority of 2015 and having played in the infield thus far, Miguel Sano was moving on to greener pastures. The changes has been met with skepticism, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

Let's start off internally. Minnesota employed Torii Hunter in right last year. He gave Paul Molitor a .240/.293/.409 slash line on offense, while making six errors in the field en route to a -8 DRS (defensive runs saved) total, and a 0.3 UZR (ultimate zone rating). In total, he was worth just 0.5 fWAR and was almost solely valuable for the locker room presence he was toted to bring with him.

Considering that narrative, it's pretty plausible to suggest that Sano is immediately going to be better for Minnesota than hunter was. Offensively, in just 80 games, the Dominican slugger posted a .269/.385/.530 slash line along with 18 homers and 52 runs batted in. By all indications, Sano is going to be an offensive juggernaut for years to come. Considering that offensive prowess, and the low bar Hunter left in right, Sano should have no problem settling in.

From there though, it's also a legitimate argument to look at Sano among baseball's best in right field.

Purely from an offensive standpoint, Sano takes a back seat to no one. After posting a 2.0 fWAR across just half a season, Steamer projects Sano to improve that mark to a 3.4 fWAR in 2016, and that may be conservative. Defensively, Sano shouldn't hurt his value too significantly (if at all), and a full season of offense could definitely vault him into the realm of a 4.0 fWAR player.

Looking at what right field offers across the landscape of big leaguers, Sano would come in 7th (just behind Jose Bautista) should he reach that 4.0 fWAR mark. The players ahead of him would be few, and include just Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward, Curtis Granderson, J.D. Martinez, Nelson Cruz, and the aforementioned Bautista. Looking at that group, it's also fair to suggest that with any bit of acclimation to his new role, Sano could overtake everyone from Granderson on down.

Pushing Sano to right field, while maybe not the most well received, seems to be shaping up like the correct move. A gifted athlete, Sano should have very little trouble once he settles in. Being a third basemen, it's more than fair to suggest that standing in right field would be a much less taxing defensive role. Utilizing his quickness from the hot corner, and his arm strength, Sano possesses some unteachable abilities. Surprisingly fleet of foot for his size, Sano can also be taught many of the nuances the position will demand should he commit to putting in the time.

On the surface, it's totally understandable to be somewhat taken aback or skeptical of the Twins decision to follow through with the Sano to the outfield campaign. When taking a deeper look at how it may play out though, there's little reason to suggest it doesn't put Molitor's best lineup on the field. Even if things work out moderately well, Minnesota will have to be pleased.

At the end of the day, if Miguel Sano can't play right field, he's not going to be able to play third base. The assumption though should be that he can, and will play right field. With a little bit of work and some luck, he could vault himself into the best at the position in The Show, and that's no small feat.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What Breaks The Twins In Florida?

Recently Off The Baggy took a look at what needs to play out for the Twins down in Fort Myers to start 2016 off on the right foot. Coming off a season of exceeded expectations, it's important to keep the momentum moving forward. It's hard to be optimistic without looking at what also could end up being detractors however.

While the AL Central is far from a juggernaut in the year ahead, their should be a good deal of parity. Expecting the Twins to be in the thick of things is probably a good bet, but they also profile as a team ripe for regression. With their win total being set by many right around 77, Paul Molitor will have to do what he can to stave off the step back for his club.

Down in Fort Myers, here's what the Twins need to avoid in order to sidestep a stumble out of the gate:

Another Misstep For Meyer

When Baseball Prospectus released the PECOTA numbers, Alex Meyer was among the Twins names needing to be looked at. His ERA in the low 3.00 range would be a welcomed addition to a mediocre 2015 Minnesota pen. Meyer may not make the club out of Spring Training, but he absolutely has to push the envelope. Now in his age 26 season, this needs to be the year he contributes at the big league level. Florida can't be filled with walks and inefficiency for the former top prospect, it's time for Meyer to break out.

Buxton Goes North...East

There's been a narrative conveyed far too often this offseason, and that's one of Byron Buxton not being the Twins Opening Day center fielders. Should that end up being the case, the Twins (and Major League Baseball's) top prospect would have fallen extremely flat on his face. In a scenario where Buxton goes to Rochester, his spring would've had to have been filled with next to no competent approach at the plate and horrible results. Continuing to suggest the narrative would seem to convey a belief that the worst is ahead for Buxton. At this point, Minnesota (as well as everyone else) should be operating under the belief that it's Buxton or bust, and it needs to be.

Condition For The Haul

The past two seasons, the Twins have watched two of their most important contributors hit massive second half collapses. Both Brian Dozier and Glen Perkins have struggled down the stretch (Perkins really only last year), and that needs to become a thing of the past. Molitor can't afford to have his big bats produce only part of the season. Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, Byung Ho Park, and Miguel Sano need to drive the Twins all season long. Whether getting into a groove or staying in pristine condition, the Twins bats (and their closer) need to put in a full 162.

Keep Surprises Out Of The Picture

At the end of the month long grind that is spring training, the Twins watched their expected ace be nailed with an 80 game suspension in 2015. That set plans in place to have Mike Pelfrey rejoin the rotation, and push the Twins in an uncomfortable spot right out of the gate. While you'd hope another drug related suspension isn't looming, injuries popping up need to be kept at bay as well. In 2016, the Twins will have some depth to their advantage, but it will be best utilized by players pushing each other rather than out of necessity.

A Perfect March, Not November

Sure, spring training is a must in baseball, but it's generally reflective of very little. Under Molitor, the Twins surprised a season ago. The focus needs to be on making that playoff push and getting to November, and that focus starts in spring training. While getting acclimated and conditioned is a must for the entire organization, a March focus isn't going to yield the results Minnesota wants. Keep production in perspective, and understand that the first month is simply a building block for what's yet to come, not the other way around.

It's probably a bit too over the top to suggest the Twins have a playoff team right now for the 2016 season. Considering the possibility for regression though, pushing the win total upwards is a great goal and focus to hone in on. Should the Twins bypass a step backwards, this team may actually be ahead of where it should be with its youth, and set itself up nicely for years to come. It all starts in Fort Myers though, and making sure to cease any of the above narratives from playing out is a very good thing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

What Must Happen For Twins In Florida?

Baseball fans, you've made it. At this point in the winter, the offseason is nearing its conclusion, and you are about to be rewarded with the month long grind that is spring training. For the Minnesota Twins, a team coming off of a breakout season a year ago, there's some key steps to be taken in the month ahead however.

As pitchers and catchers embark on sunny Fort Myers, the Twins will soon be in full swing over at the CenturyLink Sports Complex. Now in his second season as manager, Paul Molitor will have a few narratives he needs to force playing out. Should Terry Ryan's relative inactivity this offseason fail to hurt the Twins, it will be because of the internal scenarios making the best of themselves.

Here are the key areas of focus for the Twins as they build towards their return to Target Field.

Cement for the pen

A season ago, you'd have been hard pressed to find a bigger problem area for Molitor's club than in the relief arms it employed. Going into 2016, the only guarantees in the pen are Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen. From there, the expectation would be that Trevor May and Casey Fien are included in the group. Fernando Abad is the likely lefty, and Michael Tonkin is out of options. Ricky Nolasco probably figures into the situation as well. When camp breaks, Minnesota absolutely must have answers in relief.

Sano falls smoothly in right

Terry Ryan was hesitant to trade Trevor Plouffe, and for good reason. Minnesota held onto their third basemen, and that forced Miguel Sano to find another way into the field. Bringing Byung Ho Park into the fold, just bringing a bat to the park was a thing of the past for the Twins slugger. Now expected to take over for Torii Hunter in right field, Sano needs to make it work. A good athlete, and less than large defensive shoes to fill, Sano could very well succeed in his new role. Down in fort Myers, the Dominican native will need to do everything he can to push himself and get the stumbles out of the way prior to games counting.

Have bat, will travel for Byron Buxton

The Twins uber prospect Byron Buxton made his big league debut in 2015, and it was anything but ideal. His defensive prowess showed immediately, but his offensive game left Twins brass hoping for mediocrity. In his second big league season, Buxton will need to flash the offensive tools he's displayed on the farm. During spring training, Buxton will need to put balls in play, get on base, and cause havoc on the basepaths. It needs to be a big step forward for baseball's best prospect, and it'll start down in Florida.

Welcome Park to the big leagues

Terry Ryan shocked much of the baseball world this offseason when his Twins made the winning bid for Korean slugger Byung Ho Park. After two seasons in which he hit a combiner 100+ homers in the KBO, his power has to be his saving grace in the big leagues. Adept with the glove, it's the offense that Minnesota is relying on Park for. His average can dip, and with the strikeouts, it will. Park needs to get a couple of longballs under his belt down in Fort Myers, and his transition to the MLB game needs to happen as smoothly as possible.

Non-roster, non-issue

Almost more than any other season of memory, the Twins non-roster invitees for 2016 spring training are compiled of a star studded list. From Jose Berrios to Nick Burdi, the group is definitely pitcher heavy this time around. Considering the Twins are looking for front running rotation talent as well as bullpen arms, that's a good situation to be in. Down in Fort Myers, the non-roster guys need to step up. Berrios could do some serious work in regards to pushing himself closer to the 25 man, and Nick Burdi or Jake Reed could begin to force the Twins hand sooner rather than later.

Health above everything

Although depth is something this Twins team may have more than any other in the past, relying on it early isn't a good plan. Considering there's plenty of position and roster battles that will play out throughout the year, the last thing Paul Molitor wants is to see things decided by injury. Whether on the field or off of it, Minnesota needs to leave the Grapefruit League as healthy as they entered it.

The 2016 Minnesota Twins do not need to see all of these key areas play out to perfection to accomplish big things in the year ahead. However, the more they can count on out of the gate, the better chance they'll have to build on what was a successful 2015. We're almost there, and the smell of the freshly cut grass is more than apparent.

Monday, February 15, 2016

It's Giveaway Season For Twins

The winter is ending and baseball is nearly back, which can only mean one thing. The Minnesota Twins are looking to bring warm thoughts to Twins Territory with the unveiling of their 2016 promotional schedule. With bobbleheads once again the highlight, there were plenty of contenders for the year ahead.

With Minnesota having introduced plenty of youth to Target Field a year ago, and top prospects like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton gracing us with their presence, the resin dolls had no shortage of suitors. A season ago, it was players such as Brian Dozier and Phil Hughes, along with manager Paul Molitor, that were given the nodding headed honor. There's some fresh appearances for the season ahead however.

The first bobblehead date in 2016 will come during the first month of the summer on June 18. After exploding onto the scene a season ago, Miguel Sano will be given the honor. To date, Sano has not been cast as a Twins bobblehead, and I believe his only honor of record is in a Beloit Snappers giveaway. Following his torrid offensive 2015, it was probably expected that he play a big part of the promotional schedule.

At the time of his giveaway, Sano could likely be well on his way to a 30 home run season, and hopefully in the midst of a productive right field stint. If his body is anything to lend an idea, Sano's statue is going to be the biggest of the season.

Following the Sano giveaway, the month of July gets very busy. First, the Twins will turn to 2015 free agent acquisition, Ervin Santana. Despite missing the first half of the season due to a PED suspension a year ago, Santana turned it on down the stretch. July 2 will be the Santana bobblehead day, and Minnesota will be hoping he looks every bit the ace they pegged him as by this point.

No doubt the height of the bobblehead calendar, Torii Hunter will be honored during Twins Hall of Fame weekend on July 16. Fellow Hall of Famer, John Gordon, will join Hunter center stage in the middle of July. The pair will don collectable pins handed out to fans, while Hunter is the recipient of his first Twins bobblehead since 2006 (his Gold Glove giveaway). Expect this to be easily the most sought after bobblehead of the season.

Rounding out the group, the Twins will once again turn back the clock. On July 31, Minnesota will do another vintage bobblehead giveaway. Much like last year's version, fans can expect the vintage offering to have a different look as well as a dated feel to it. While not an actual picture, the promotional schedule was accompanied by this image of the vintage offering.

Looking at who may have been left out, there are certainly a few options. Joe Mauer has not graced a resin nodder for quite some time. Although his production has decreased, he remains Minnesota's own and would have been a welcomed addition. There is also the possibility that Byron Buxton was considered. Despite a slow start a year ago, Buxton remains one of the game's best young prospects, and his 2016 should be huge.

With meaningful baseball just around the corner, expect fans to flood Target Field throughout the season after returning to relevancy in 2015. The announcement of the promotions and bobbleheads should only add to the excitement. The list in its entirety can be found here, and there's even a Sano Globe offering.

Friday, February 12, 2016

What If Abad Is All Good?

This offseason, the Minnesota Twins had a serious need when it came to relief pitching. While left-handed arms were in short supply, the relief corps as a whole needed a jolt. Instead of forking over big money on the ever-inflating relief market, Terry Ryan and the Twins went a different route. Much like Blaine Boyer the year before, the club offered a minor league deal to Fernando Abad.

On the surface, Abad's deal doesn't really move the needle, but what happens when the performance does?

A season ago, Abad pitched in 62 games logging 47.2 IP for the Oakland Athletics. He tallied a 4.15 ERA backed by an ugly 5.50 FIP. It was no doubt the Abad's worst big league numbers since his 2012 season with the Astros. Despite his K/9 numbers holding strong at 8.5 (a career best), he also walked 3.6 per nine (his worst effort since 2012). The Twins however, believe that Abad was tipping his pitches, and they may be on to something.

Minnesota needs relief help, and if they can unlock what Abad was in 2014, they may have found something at a very low price. For the Athletics in 2014, Abad owned a 1.57 ERA across 57.1 IP. He put up an 8.0 K/9 rate and walked a respectable 2.4 per nine. It was easily the best campaign he's put together as a big leaguer.

Then there's the fact that Abad has been equally as competitive against both right and left-handed batters. Over his big league career, Abad has allowed a .253/.330/.423 slash line to righties and a .254/.304/.411 line to lefties. Far more than just a situational lefty, Abad if gotten back on track, could provide the Twins something they have not had in quite some time.

Previously filling the role Minnesota is hoping Abad takes over, was Brian Duensing. Duensing's numbers have never been what Abad's are. The former Twins lefty-reliever struck no one out, walked too many, and more often than not, pitched to significantly too much contact. Also, while being good against lefties (allowing a .238/.289/.325 slash line), he's been easily hit off of by righties (.292/.352/.462 line). With Duensing out of the picture, the Twins have plenty of room to improve.

No doubt Abad will have to turn away some unfortunate 2015 developments. He allowed hard hit contact 35% of the time last season, a number nearly 10% worse than his career average. He also watched as 17.2% of fly balls left the yard, a six percent bump over his career total. Then there's the fact that his fastball dropped nearly two miles per hour in velocity. In fact, it was slower than any at any point since 2012.

If Minnesota believes that Abad's struggles were a direct result of him tipping his pitches, that's one thing. Having seen enough film to notice that there were indications of what type of pitch was coming, this is more than a plausible belief. What the Twins have to figure out is how to reverse Abad's rhythm out of the situation he developed a year ago, and also help him to fix some of those ugly detractors.

At the end of the day, it's very possibly that Neil Allen takes Abad on as a project, rights the ship, and the Twins snag a very quality MLB reliever for next to nothing. Should things all go wrong, the risk isn't all that great either, but the club may be left searching for left-handed answers.

Regardless of how it plays out, a swap of Fernando Abad for Brian Duensing is a win for the Twins bullpen, and there's more reason to believe it works than there isn't.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Twins Making Sense Of Law

Keith Law, ESPN's Baseball Insider, posted his much-anticipated prospect analysis this week. First he launched his 2016 organizational rankings, and then he followed up with his pre-2016 top 100. With the Twins once again having a loaded system, ranked third overall by law, they had seven prospects show up in the top 100. As with all rankings, there's discussion, and that's where Off The Baggy comes in.

Looking at the organization rankings, there's not much to complain about with the Twins positioning. Despite graduating Miguel Sano and a host of other prospects a season ago, Minnesota trailed only the Braves and Dodgers when it came to organizational rankings. The Twins seven top 100 prospects also was in a three-way tie for first (with the other aforementioned organizations) as the most by any team in baseball.

The prospects themselves are where things start to get interesting for Law. As with all players, some evaluators are going to see certain skills and detractors in a higher light. Law has provided some ammunition for discussion, while also being incredibly fair across the board.

He has Byron Buxton sitting second behind only the Dodger Corey Seager on his top 100 list. Seager plays shortstop and is regarded as a premier talent. While Buxton's plus-plus tools also put him in the premier category, it's hard to ignore the hiccup that was his MLB debut. No doubt Minnesota is hoping for better out of their former first round pick, and it should come in 2016.

Despite his debut, Law still sees plenty of promise in the Georgia native. He notes, "a star even if he hits .240, as that would probably come with 50 steals, 10-12 homers and big defensive contributions." That being the floor for Buxton puts the Twins in a very good place. Eduardo Escobar smacked 12 longballs a year ago, and Buxton's smooth swing should help him replicate at least that amount. He has a good feel for hitting at the plate, and very well could hit for average if things click.

Over the past two years, Law has been incredibly tough on Jose Berrios. If there's a prospect I've been opposite on, it's this one. Law doesn't like Berrios' arm action, and his short stature leads to flat fastballs. He notes that as Berrios reaches the big leagues, the balls leaving the park could turn into a problem.

Despite having kept the ball in the park on his way up the ladder, Berrios continue to draw Law's ire. He gave up 12 homers a year ago across Double and Triple-A. That number could inflate to the high teens in the big leagues, but I'd guess it still shouldn't be much of a concern. A season ago, Law noted Berrios being a third starter at best. Where things stand now, I'd hope he sees him as a two at worst, with ace potential. He has the makings of a very, very good option for Minnesota.

Following the top two guys, Max Kepler squeezed into the top 50 for Law as well. He put himself on the map big time a season ago, and Kepler looks like he could be a real star. He does so many things really well, and he doesn't do too much poorly. Kepler should have plenty of opportunity to make waves for the Twins as early as this year, and all of the waiting on him may finally come to fruition.

On the back side of the top 50, Law's first inclusion was somewhat curious to me. Putting Kohl Stewart at 53 seems to be incredibly high. The Texas native has had two seasons with declining strikeout rates and shoulder issues. He's been billed as a potential ace, but his low level struggles should be serious reason for pauses.

At some point, Stewart is going to have to step out from behind the narrative that he's still transitioning from a football player, and he's going to need to make his splash. doing so in 2016 at Double-A would be a very good start, and no doubt get him back on track. Depending on how the year ahead goes, he could be an option for the Twins in 2017, or he could fall even further off of my radar.

Rounding out the group is a trio of interesting names. Tyler Jay appears first and remains tough to project. As a left-handed reliever, he's probably close to big league ready. Minnesota no doubt drafted him in the first round to start however, and that transition is going to take more time.

I've talked plenty about Jorge Polanco, and he remains one of the most interesting prospects for me in the year ahead. I'd contend he could start on a handful of big league teams at second base right now. The Twins don't have room, and I'd struggle to move Trevor Plouffe to put Polanco and his questionable arm at the hot corner. He's either going to hit his way into the Twins plans, or maybe more likely, into some other organizations.

Last but not least, Nick Gordon makes the list. Of all the Twins prospects Law included, it's Gordon that probably gets chastised the most. No longer seen as an All-Star type by the ESPN Insider, Law suggest Gordon is "very likely to remain at shortstop and become an above-average defender there."

Noting the change in long term belief in regards to Gordon, I struggle to see what Law is making such a brash decision off of. His evaluation is sound, but a half of a season at Low-A Cedar Rapids that started slow shouldn't be worthy of a complete reversal. Gordon slashed roughly the same at Low-A as he did in Rookie Ball, and it was his slow start that no doubt caused the dip in batting average. At just 20 years old, it's probably best to hold out on dropping his season until we see what he can do at either Fort Myers or Chattanooga in the not so distant future.

As the dust settles, Minnesota once again proves to have one of the best farm systems in all of baseball. The Twins have done a great job of drafting talent of late, and it has no doubt contributed to the renewed excitement around the ballclub. We should continue to see those efforts pay off in the years to come.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Emergence Of Eddie

A year ago, the Minnesota Twins had a glaring hole in the middle of their infield. While their were some concerns as to what might happen behind the plate with Kurt Suzuki being a regression candidate, it was a shortstop that bigger answers were needed. Danny Santana was given the starting role out of spring training (a move I agreed with), and he hung onto it for far too long. Then Eduardo Escobar emerged.

Following just under 100 games of Santana accumulating errors and failing to make plays, Paul Molitor turned the role over to former utility man Eduardo Escobar. Forever tied to Francisco Liriano for the Twins, Escobar was more than ready for the main stage.

In 2014, Escobar played 98 games at shortstop before going into 2015 spring training as the underdog. A year ago, he ended up starting 71 games at short, and has erased any doubt that he belongs there in the year ahead. Behind a strong offensive output, Escobar gave the Twins production they had not been capable of since J.J. Hardy owned the position.

During his 2015 campaign, Escobar slashed .262/.309/.405 on the season. He followed up his 35 doubles in 2014 with 31 last year, and set a new career high with 12 homers (doubling his previous best). His 58 runs batted in and 28 walks were also new high water marks. There were a few hot stretches that bolstered the Venezuelan's overall numbers, but it was consistency that got him through the year.

With his glove, Escobar may have made even bigger strides. In over 700 innings during the 2014 campaign, Eduardo was worth -6 DRS (defensive runs saved). He improved that number to a positive 2 mark in over 600 innings during 2015. Escobar also set a new career best UZR improving from 21 in 2014 to 2.6 a season ago.

There's some reason to believe that things keep happening for the Twins shortstop as well. His .301 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was down more than 30 points from where it was a year ago. His 13 point average dip from last year took the brunt of that difference. It's somewhat of a curious change as his hard hit rate stayed relatively the same a season ago (28.5% as opposed to 29.2% in 2014). Arguably, the biggest deficiency Escobar saw in his contact was a near 5% dip in line drives. With that number falling, it's easy to see why the average followed suit.

I have some concern that Escobar sudden power jolt may not be consistent. He'd never hit more than six homers in a season previously, and his home run to fly ball ratio pushed 10 last season, again nearly doubling the 2014 mark. Having hit just over 38% of batted balls in the air, Escobar could face some regression in the upcoming season. It was a 4% jump over his 2014 mark, and a new career high.

At the end of the day though, Escobar took the main stage and ran away with the starting role. The Twins needed someone to step up and hold down the role for the immediate future. Despite Engelb Vielma being a defensive wizard, and Nick Gordon being the presumed future, along with the signing of Wander Javier, Minnesota needed an answer now. Escobar provided them that and should continue to do so in the years ahead.

The way in which Francisco Liriano left Minnesota was less than ideal, but the return he provided continues to pay dividends.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Dangers In Depth For Twins?

Looking at the state of the Minnesota Twins heading into the 2016 Major League Baseball season, the word depth has come up often. Whether it be the surplus of young talent rising to the top of the system, the pitching staff and multiple arms competing to complete it, or the 25 man as a whole. For the first time in a while, the Twins have some depth working to their advantage. Quite possibly however, it could work to their disadvantage.

Some of the focus this offseason has been in regards to the starting rotation and the perception of depth among that group. Minnesota has three pitchers locked into starting roles including: Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, and Kyle Gibson. Behind them, a combination of Tyler Duffey, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios, Ricky Nolasco, Alex Meyer, and Trevor may will slot into the final two spots. As it pertains to pitching, the fear is their is more quantity than their is quality options.

It's pretty easy to suggest some of those starting pitching concerns are overblown. The Twins starting staff is going to be better than it was a season ago, and even significantly isn't much of a stretch. No matter who fills out those final two spots (though it likely will be Duffey and Milone), there's plenty of insurance options directly behind them.

Looking at the 25 man roster however, the Twins have another area where their depth may come into question. Looking at what the projected bench may be, Minnesota could find itself in some interesting spots. The goal for playoff and World Series team's alike is to have a better 25th player than that of your opponent. Some nights, it's going to be an uphill battle for the Twins to accomplish that feat.

Paul Molitor should have Eduardo Nunez, John Ryan Murphy, Oswaldo Arcia, and Danny Santana at his disposal on a nightly basis. Of them, you'd be hard pressed to argue any one of them is a complete player and offers immense upside for a 2016 Twins squad needing to squeeze out a few extra wins. Nunez is with the Twins on a one-year, arbitration deal, while Santana and Arcia are out of options, and Murphy is looking to carve into the starting lineup.

 A season ago, Nunez hit .282/.327/.431 in 72 games for Minnesota. That was easily the best slash line of his career, and a great deal better than the .267/.308/.388 career mark he's posted thus far. His 1.1 fWAR was nearly a full win above his previous career best, and considering his -0.6 fWAR career mark, a significant jump for a single season. Nunez also batted above .300 (.314 to be exact) on balls in play for just the second time of his career (the other time was in a 38 game sduring 2012 for the Yankees).

Nunez's hard hit rates didn't change much last season, and his contact rate actually dipped a little. He's still going to provide the Twins positional flexibility, but the offensive production is likely more mirage than it is indicative of what's to come.

Then there's Danny Santana. If there's a guy that knows about BABIP it's Santana. After hitting .319/.353/.472 in 2014, Santana's inflated .405 BABIP brought him back down to earth. Minnesota gave him an incredibly long leash a season ago, and in 91 games he slashed a terrible .215/.241/.291. His -15 DRS (defensive runs saved), and 16 errors at SS in just 66 games were beyond bad, and he's since been moved back to the outfield.

Santana is out of options in 2016, and that forces the Twins hand. He should be deployed as a super utility player that doesn't defend anywhere exceptionally well. His infield defense has been covered, and he's just a bit below average in center (a position in which he should only spell Byron Buxton). For Santana though, it comes down to whether he can hit at all, and a season ago, the Twins didn't see it.

That brings us to Arcia, who like Santana, absolutely needs to hit. Of the group thus far, Arcia no doubt presents the most offensive upside. He's just a year removed from a 20 homer output, and the hulking Venezuelan has real power when he connects. The issue is that doesn't happen often enough.

Despite posting a nice .276/.338/.379 slash line in 19 games with the Twins, the power didn't show itself enough to get him extended run. He reeled off a nice home run stretch at Triple-A in 2015, but he finished with an awful .199/.257/.372 slash line in 79 games for Rochester. He's never posted below a 15.0% swinging strike rate, and last season, he nearly swung and missed 20% of the time. With the Twins a year ago, he also chased pitches out of the zone nearly 50% of the time.

A bad outfielder (-27 DRS in 204 games played), Arcia has to hit to give the Twins any real benefit. Molitor can't afford to play him and Miguel Sano in the outfield at the same time, and coming off of the bench cold may not help his bat. Arcia, like Santana, is out of options, and without his bat catching fire, could do more harm for Minnesota than good.

Finally, the club will have a capable big league catcher to swap with Kurt Suzuki for the first time in a while. Gone are the days of calling up Four-A type players like Eric Fryer and Chris Herrmann. Murphy is far from a set-the-world-on-fire type, but he's got promise to develop into a nice big league starter. With Minnesota looking to avoid activating Suzuki's player option for 2017, the starting role should become Murphy's role sooner than later.

In his career, Murphy has never played more than 67 games at the big league level in a season. Over the last two years for the Yankees however (99 games) he's slashed .280/.324/.394. There's probably more doubles power than home run reliability there, but he looks the part of a capable big league hitter. Most importantly for the Twins is that Murphy possesses capable receiving skills as well as the ability to throw would be base-stealers out (did so at a 28% clip in 2015).

Paul Molitor is going to ease Murphy into the starting lineup, but he's more than a throw in secondary catcher. While not an offensive juggernaut, his role on the Twins bench is much more in line with future promise than his counterparts.

At the end of the day, planning to fill out your bench with starting caliber players isn't a realistic strategy. What the Twins have though may be more a by-product of their situation, and not exactly the depth on the 25 man roster you'd like to see. It's tough to envision top prospects like Jorge Polanco or Max Kepler coming up to the big league level in a reserve role, but the Twins could probably advance their overall ability be considering it at some point.

Should the Twins move towards a second playoff push in 2016, it will likely be some combination of their bench out producing expectations, and that bench transforming. No doubt making waves in October is about getting production from your best players, but the Twins will also be looking to push the envelope when it comes to the guys that round out the club as well.

Friday, February 5, 2016

How Good Is Trevor Plouffe?

The shortest answer to the proposed question possible; better than you think. Really though, Plouffe entered the offseason as an arbitration eligible player for the Twins, and secured a nice raise to the tune of a one-year $7.25 million deal. With another season of arbitration eligibility ahead of him, and the expected production to follow, he could enter a whole new tier by 2017.

Heading into the winter months, the Minnesota Twins were faced with a decision. Having Miguel Sano ready for more playing time, and needing to move out from a designated hitter only role, the Twins had to figure out what to do with Plouffe. Arguably one of the American League's best third basemen, his trade value was going to be somewhat muted by the fact that he's already 29, in his prime or not.

I took the stance in January that holding onto Plouffe was absolutely the right decision. For a young team like the Twins, moving on from top talent is not a great strategy, and a player like Plouffe is always going to be more valuable in Minnesota than wherever else he goes. Whether the return was a relief arm or something better, holding off on fielding offers was the smart play by GM Terry Ryan.

What Plouffe gave the Twins in 2015 was nothing to be disappointed about. He was worth 2.5 fWAR (down a bit from his 3.6 fWAR mark in 2014), and slashed a respectable .244/.307/.435. His 152 games played was easily a career high, and career marks were also set in runs scored (74), hits (140), triples (4), and RBI (86). Plouffe's 22 home runs were the second highest mark of his career, and helped him to eclipse the 20 plateau for the first time since 2012.

Unfortunately for Plouffe, his detractors led to some muted numbers. He led the league in times grounding into double plays (28), and struck out a career high 124 times. His on-base percentage being just north of .300 was a relative step back rom the .328 mark he posted during 2014. For Plouffe, some of it came down to tough luck.

In the year that was, Plouffe posted the best hard hit contact rate of his career (33.5%). Generating just a .274 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) however, suggests that the Twins third basemen didn't find a ton of holes on those hard hit balls. He also hit over 40% of his balls in play on the ground, while generating just above 18% of his batted balls as line drives. Hitting the ball hard into the ground, Plouffe's launch angles weren't going to help him accumulate extra base hits.

At the plate, Trevor's approach continues to be one that should benefit him in the long run. He doesn't chase often, and once again swung at less than 30% (26.2% to be exact) of pitches thrown outside of the zone. When swinging at pitches in the zone, he made contact over 88% of the time, and had a total contact rating over 80% for the fourth straight year. Not a big swing and miss guy, Plouffe whiffed on pitches just 8.7% of the time.

For brief stretches, it's all come together for Plouffe as well. From Opening Day through the end of May, Plouffe was arguably the best third basemen in baseball not named Josh Donaldson. Over that 46 game stretch, the Twins third basemen slashed .279/.352/.488. He clubbed eight homers, drove in 29 runs, and doubled 10 times. The results were also aided by the type of balls Plouffe was putting in play, as he owned a .317 BABIP over that stretch. From that point forward is where Plouffe's season took the opposite direction. His BABIP from June 1 through the end of the year was just .256, while his slash line rested at .229/.288/.411.

My belief going forward is that Plouffe is more the player the Twins saw at the beginning of 2015, rather than through the end of it. Having to struggle through unlucky bounces and poor circumstances, much of the hot start was overlooked. In making a few tweaks to get the ball off the ground a bit more often, the season could have ended significantly different for the California native.

The offseason has been one that's been incredibly busy for Plouffe. He's been a dad for the first time off the field, handed a nice raise, and is working towards an even better year ahead. The Twins didn't approach him about a long term extension during arbitration, but they may wish they had. Should Plouffe take another step forward in 2016, he's going to quickly surpass the $10 million average annual value mark, and enter into the discussion among the game's best third basemen.

Regardless of the positional shifts happening around him, Minnesota was best served to hold onto Trevor Plouffe. A late-bloomer that is in the midst of his prime, pushing towards a trip to San Diego in the middle of the summer shouldn't be out of the question. Plouffe may have become somewhat of a complimentary Twin, but make no mistake, there's more production there.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Is Santana The Ace Minnesota Needs?

Let's rewind back to March 2015. It was a simpler time for the Twins. Spring Training was well underway, and they were just on the brink of seeing their latest free agent acquisition pitching meaningful games at Target Field. Then a failed drug test happened, and it was followed by an 80 game suspension. Although Ervin Santana had plenty of promise for the Twins a season ago, I wondered before things went down hill, what exactly the expectations should have been.

Taking aim at Santana's Fielding Independent Pitching numbers, I questioned what he would look like in a Twins uniform. Knowing that the outfield was going to include Torii Hunter, and that left field seemed to be up in the air, things could have been ugly. Fortunately for Santana, his debut with the Twins came with defensive gem Eddie Rosario already entrenched in the every day lineup. What happened however, followed the cautionary mold.

In 2015, Santana made 17 starts for the Twins. He compiled a 4.00 ERA that was backed by a 4.17 FIP. His strikeout numbers took a dip (6.8 per nine as opposed to 8.2 the season before), and he allowed 12 long balls in just over 108 innings pitched. Far from poor numbers, Santana also didn't pitch to the tune of the rotational ace that the Twins had hoped he would be.

What Santana has going for him however is the way in which he ended the 2015 campaign. Following some rust needing to be knocked off (which took roughly 10 starts), Santana began to see things click. In his final seven games of the 2015 season, he was extremely impressive. Over the course of 50.0 IP, Santana owned a 1.62 ERA and allowed just a .209/.275/.294 batting average against. In those seven starts, he also surrendered just one home run, and he also struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings.

As a whole, Santana's performance equated to the lowest hard hit contact rate of his career (27.5%), and he shaved off over 3% of his line drive rate from 2014 (down to 21.5%). Neil Allen's work also showed through with the Twins newest acquisition in that Santana threw his curveball over 13% of the time for just the second season of his career.

This leads us back to where we are now. Santana should be in a significantly better place heading into the upcoming season, but one area remains a concern. Although Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario should help drive an ERA down much like that of the outfield defense the Royals employed for Santana, Miguel Sano isn't going to do him any favors. That will be a notion supported by the entirety of the Twins pitching staff, but one Santana will need to surely avoid.

Arguably the best part of the Twins pitching situation is in the fact that it's in a much better place than that of even a season ago. Regardless of the oddly capably season Mike Pelfrey gave Paul Molitor, it's a tough argument to suggest the depth and talent for 2016 isn't a much better grouping. With Phil Hughes as a prime rebound candidate, and Kyle Gibson looking to take another step forward, pressure should be lifted off of Santana's shoulders.

Seeing Ervin Santana mow down hitters at nearly a 9.0 K/9 rate likely isn't going to happen. His numbers in the National League were never realistically going to translate. However, the fear of his FIP numbers becoming more reflective of his total ability should be muted by the depth around him and the talent behind him.

Often times national writers want to point to the fact that the Twins don't have a de facto ace. You'd be hard pressed to tab any one pitcher as a one game playoff best bet. That said, Santana is more than capable of being a key cog in a rotation that, as a whole, should be one of the best in Twins recent history.

Resurgence Needed For Twins Prospects

In 2015, the Minnesota Twins saw the year of the position player. With Eddie Rosario leading the charge during spring training, and into the regular season, Paul Molitor watched as his 25 man roster was transformed with youth. One of baseball's best farm systems is far from depleted after a handful of graduations, but growth now needs to take place. For two former first round picks, the year ahead couldn't be any more important.

Enter Kohl Stewart and Travis Harrison.

Earlier this week, Jim Crikket highlighted both of these two players in his Prospects of Top Prospects piece. His assessment was that while both have a pedigree of performing, and have struggled through professional hiccups thus far, a resurgence is coming. While I'd like to find myself on that side of the fence, I'm not quite as sure as to what's next for both former first round picks.

The latter was the 50th overall pick by the Twins in the 2011 Major League Baseball draft. Hailing from Tustin High School in California, Harrison was drafted as a third basemen that could potentially shift to the outfield. To date in his professional career, he's stuck at a single level every season, and generally played against players as much as two years older than himself.

Through 433 minor league games, Harrison has compiled a slash line of .261/.366/.391. While not dreadful by any means, it's disappointing to note that the development hasn't followed the expected path. Player either infield or outfield on the corners, Harrison was expected to generate more pop with his bat. After a 15 home run season at Low-A Cedar Rapids in 2013, he's followed that performance up by hitting just three and five long balls at Fort Myers and Chattanooga respectively.

Looking at him as a whole, Harrison does a handful of things well. He's taken more than 60 walks each of the past three seasons, and he has clubbed more than 20 doubles at each of his last three stops as well. What's working against the former high school draftee is that he hasn't developed into doing anything exceptionally. Playing positions with organizational depth, he's at a point where he could get lost behind better talent.

Should Minnesota continue the trajectory that has followed Harrison thus far, he should be playing his age 23 season at Triple-A Rochester. Once again significantly younger than much of the competition, he'll have to show he can handle himself. In the outfield in upstate New York, he'll have plenty of battery mates. The signings of Joe Benson, Darin Mastroianni, Ryan Sweeney, and Carlos Quentin all need fall in somewhere. Those names also don't include the likely promotion of Double-A teammate Adam Brett Walker.

For Harrison, the year ahead is a critical one. Having now filled into his body, production at the next level will be about taking a significant step forward. Can he flash some exceptional ability in a few different categories that help him force his way into the Twins future plans. Not looking to get bench players that high in the draft, Minnesota is no doubt hoping it happens.

That brings us to the former player, and one whose situation is also much more dire. Kohl Stewart, the 4th overall pick out of St. Pius X High School in Texas during the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft, is at a much more significant crossroads. Having the pedigree of a top five pick, expectations for the pitcher were through the roof, and they haven't been close to being met.

Stewart's first 20 professional innings, spent in the Appalachian and Gulf Coast Leagues, were dominant as expected. He totaled just a 1.35 ERA and struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings. From there though, the story differs. Pitching in 87 innings at Low-A Cedar Rapids in 2014, Stewart's arm went through it's first issues. There were injuries due to should fatigue, and his electrifying stuff produced just 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings. His 2.59 ERA was still sparkling, but the secondary numbers all left a significant amount to be desired.

Heading into the 2015 season, Stewart made tweaks in his workout routine in hopes of conditioning himself for professional baseball. A Texas A&M quarterback recruit, he had spent a significant amount of time focusing on football, and throwing one, in his not so distant past. His belief was that a new throwing program would help to elevate his game during the 2015 season, while also providing him a more clean bill of health.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Stewart played all of 2015 with High-A Fort Myers, throwing a career high 129.1 innings. His ERA remained solid at 3.20, but his peripherals once again took a step backwards. In the Florida State League, Kohl fanned just 4.9 batters per nine innings, while walking a career high 3.1 per nine. His 134 hits surrendered put him over a hit per inning, and his 1.384 WHIP was no longer reflective of the dominant prospect he was billed as.

Having peaked on prospect lists at number 28 overall by Baseball Prospectus, Stewart has dropped out of the top 100 all together heading into 2016. His declining strikeout rates along with arm concerns have gained more recognition than anyone would have hoped. There's no doubt the year ahead is a massive one for the Texas native.

Whether Stewart heads to Double-A Chattanooga out of spring training, or is handed a locker for a brief time in Fort Myers, he's going to need to distance himself from his previous two seasons worth of results. Once projected as a top of the rotation arm, Stewart is trending in the wrong direction. To right the ship, sparking his strikeout totals while staying healthy no doubt has to be the focus in the year ahead.

For the Twins, the farm system is still filled with a ton of depth talent that should contribute at the major league level. What Terry Ryan can't have however, is first round picks that end up not panning out. Both Harrison and Stewart are no doubt on board with wanting more from themselves, the year ahead is one in which we should see what happens next.