Friday, July 29, 2016

Nunez Makes Antony Look Good

It's July 2016 and there's a significant contingent of people that are willing to describe Eduardo Nunez first and foremost as an All Star. They aren't wrong, but it's also far from indicative as to what kind of baseball player he is. Somehow though, in his first move as Interim General Manager of the Minnesota Twins, Rob Antony turned that phrase (and Nunez), into a top 100 prospect prior to the August 1 trade deadline.

The San Francisco Giants were looking for a utility player that could fill in at third base while Matt Duffy is coming back from an injury. Passing up on the likes of Steve Pearce (who has played just 12 MLB games at the hot corner) the Giants landed on Nunez. By definition, they landed an All Star, but it's hard not to be excited about how the Twins orchestrated this maneuver.

An All Star for no other reason than the mandatory Major League Baseball rule that every team have a representative at the mid-summer classic, Nunez has been worth just 1.6 fWAR on the season. He's hit well above his career average, but his line since June 1st equates to a paltry .680 OPS. Despite an incredibly strong start, Nunez has regressed back towards his career average, and really, he's sunk below even that.

Defensively, the hope is that Nunez can fill in for the Giants while they nurse guys back from injury, and then turn into a super utility role. As a regular, he's far from reliable. Nunez doesn't have a single infield position in which he hasn't tallied a negative defensive runs saved mark over his career. His defense in fact, is simply why he's been cast as little more than a bench bat and utility player for the bulk of his time in the majors.

At 29 years old, and with his best moments likely behind him, Nunez was never going to be a part of the Twins future. His value to the club had run it's course, and the best thing to do was clear way for more effective additions to the 25 man roster. The thought was opening up a spot for a player such as Jorge Polanco, no matter what the return, makes moving Nunez a win.

Rob Antony did better than that though.

In a situation where he could have been happy with a warm body or a bag of balls, Antony turned Nunez into a top 100 prospect. Adalberto Mejia was recently ranked as the 91st best prospect in baseball by Baseball America. He was graded out as the Giants 7th best prospect by MLB Pipeline, and he's supposedly got a three pitch mix that should equate into a back end of the rotation starter. There's potential that he reaches the big leagues this year, and even if he doesn't expecting Mejia to compete for a 2017 rotation spot seems more than plausible.

I had long suggested that Nunez belonged as a utility player on a winning team. He was a luxury that the Twins didn't need, nor did they have room for. Destined for at least 90 losses, a mediocre utility player that parlayed a good couple of months into an All Star appearance is not a necessity. With future pieces being held back, removing Nunez from the 25 man was an absolute must.

Sometimes the benefit of a trade is simply clearing space, and Minnesota could've been happy accomplishing just that in dealing their helmet-losing utility man. Instead, allowing Nunez to paint himself into a top 100 prospect with some project ability, this looks about as good as it can get for Antony and the Twins.

Now the question becomes, who's next. Fernando Abad and Brandon Kintzler both fit similar molds to Nunez. Neither are future pieces, and there's relief arms ready. Moving them to open the roster up needs to be a priority, but if Antony can spin anymore value there, well then it wouldn't be the first time right?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Twins Pen Showing Its True Colors

A season ago, the Minnesota Twins had one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Just narrowly missing out on the playoffs, a better relief corps could have been enough to get them over the hump. This season there were some holdovers and some dart throws to the pen, but no player has been more important, both in reality and principle, than Taylor Rogers.

Rogers, a 25 year old rookie, has now pitched 35.1 innings for Paul Molitor's club. An 11th round draft pick out of Kentucky in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft, Rogers went from minor league starter to big league reliever. Posting strong numbers at Double and Triple-A the past two seasons, Rogers looked deserving of a chance, but one that likely was destined to come in the pen.

If there's been something that's held true over his minor league career, it's been a level of consistency from Rogers. At Double-A New Britain in 2014, Rogers posted a 7.0 K/9 with a 2.3 BB/9 to total a 3.29 ERA. He followed that up a season ago with Triple-A Rochester to the tune of a 6.5 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, and a 3.98 ERA. Although nothing necessarily stood out as dominant, it was apparent that Rogers had honed his stuff to the level that he was able to compete as he rose the organization ladder.

In reaching the big leagues though, it's in the pen that Rogers has taken a step forward.

Generally, pitchers will watch their numbers play up in relief. Being able to throw harder for a shorter period of time, the results generally improve. I've pegged Rogers as a solid relief option for the Twins for a while now, and through this season, he's made good on that bet. Thus far, the former Wildcat owns a 2.80 ERA and has pushed his strikeout rate to 9.2 per 9 while decreasing his walk total to just 1.3 BB/9. in the midst of his impressive big league performance, Rogers owned a 16.0 scoreless inning streak, and struck out 18 while walking just one over that time frame.

To summarize, Taylor Rogers has been nothing short of exceptional for the Twins.

As I mentioned earlier though, Rogers signifies more than just a success story for Minnesota. He's part of a bigger puzzle piece that both Paul Molitor and the organization have to be willing to rely upon. Taylor Rogers is a product of development with the Twins, and one that has resulted in a quality relief arm. The reality is that there are significantly more on the way, but none that are being given the same belief or opportunity.

Just a level down, the Twins have J.T. Chargois dominating Triple-A. He was the lone organizational representative in the Futures Game, and he has the makings of a future closer. Through 100 games on the season, Minnesota has allowed Chargois just two big league outs. Despite owning a 1.12 ERA with an 11.0 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 at Rochester, Chargois opportunities has yet to be recalled.

Another level down, Trevor Hildenberger, Zack Jones, and Jake Reed are experiencing similar success at Double-A Chattanooga. Working as the closer, Hildenberger owns a 0.70 ERA, has tallied 16 saves, and is striking out more than 10 per nine innings. Jones, now healthy after returning from the Brewers organization following a Rule 5 selection, owns a 1.26 ERA through 14.1 IP. His 10+ K/9 has also played well in the Southern League. Rounding out the group, Reed owns a 3.88 ERA, that has been a 2.54 ERA across his last 28.1 IP. In totality, the three of them have consistently outperformed the competition of their current level.

If Rogers has taught the Twins anything, it's that they need to trust their own process (or part of it). Minnesota has failed to develop a quality starter for quite some time now (here's to hoping Jose Berrios breaks that trend), but the relief options have been promising. Michael Tonkin was underutilized a season ago, but didn't have the ceiling of any of the aforementioned names either. Now though, with a bad team and mediocre pen, it's time to promote more of those from the lineage of Rogers.

There's no reason Hildenberger, Jones, and Reed aren't at Triple-A. There's reason to suggest that they could even make the leap to the big league level at this point. Chargois should be up and given run as well. Through 100 games, the Twins haven't been very good, and the ship isn't going to be turned around. A season from now though, it's these names that should anchor what could be a pen comprised of arms with much higher ceilings, and getting them situated now makes way too much sense.

Minnesota had some nice hits on players like Buddy Boshers, Fernando Abad, and Brandon Kintzler, but they mean little going forward. It's time to trust the process that Taylor Rogers is proving has worked, and take off the training wheels hitched to some very projectable pieces that will be incredibly valuable in the years ahead.

A Weekend Of Fame

Over the past weekend, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza entered their rightful place inside the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. As the headliners of the show, Induction Weekend in Cooperstown was all about The Kid and the catcher from Pennsylvania. It would've been a great even no matter what, but being their in person took it over the top.

I've now been to Cooperstown twice in my lifetime. Induction Weekend was going to be something different altogether however. The first time I visited The Hall, there had to have been less than 100 people in Cooperstown altogether. A random weekday in mid-June, I made the trek through country roads to the quaint little upstate New York village. I took my time exploring some shops and other venues outside of the museum, but I was there to see the artifacts themselves. This weekend was different.

Upon getting into town on Saturday afternoon, the small town had grown immensely in population. With cars parked all over lawns everywhere, the city itself was overrun with baseball fans from all walks of life. It's hard to overstate how cool it is to see a place where your team allegiance is irrelevant, and instead the sport is celebrated. I made this trip with my dad, his first time to Cooperstown, and the memories started immediately.

In his low 50's, my dad's all time favorites include the likes of Ozzie Smith. He's met him before at the College World Series and seen him at other events. It was on Saturday in Cooperstown that took it to a new level though. Ozzie was outside of a storefront finishing up a signing, and being that close, watching my dad see one of his childhood favorites up close and personal was pretty cool. He ended up getting his jersey signed, and took a picture as well. I'd have to imagine that will be a story he hangs onto for quite some time.

Having gotten into town around 1 pm, the parade featuring the Hall of Famers in town wasn't set to begin until 6pm. The weather was in the upper 90s, and people all around didn't help to cool things at all. We made our way in and out of stores while enjoying the air conditioning while perusing so many different forms of baseball memorabilia. I was pretty set on buying a ball as a collector, but the inflated prices turned me off and I just couldn't justify it. Regardless of the tie to Cooperstown, knowing I could acquire any of those autographs on line at lesser prices, I decided to pass. Regardless, the day of window shopping turn in a gem when I stumbled across a ball signed by The Babe himself.

As the afternoon turned into early evening, it was time for the parade to start. Having decided to stand rather than plop down in a chair, we found a great spot to view the legends coming down the street in the back of their respective Ford trucks. It was pretty impressive to note the lack of aging some had seen, and sad to see how tough shape others looked. We both enjoyed seeing former Twins such as Bert Blyleven and Dave Winfield, but it was Rod Carew and the respect that was shown him that made me choke up a bit. Pedro Martinez was the most entertaining entrant (not a huge surprise) while both Griffey and Piazza drew big cheers at the end of the route.

Leaving town for the day, we stopped at a local CVS and grabbed a couple of lawn chairs. The setup for the Induction ceremonies were incredibly well done. We claimed a spot and went back to our hotel for the night.

Arriving on Sunday around 11:30, the field transformed into a viewing area was already plenty full. We had our spot relatively close to where the public was allowed to begin seating. Behind us, the crowd had filled in considerably. I spent about two hours waiting in line to go through the official merchandise tent while my dad waited in our seats taking it all in. Again in the upper 90s, it was going to be a long (albeit exciting) day.

Having just finished the line and checkout process, I rushed back to my seat as the ceremony was beginning. Orioles announcer Gary Thorne did a great job introducing all 48 of the Hall of Famers that were in town for the big moment. As Griffey and Piazza made their way to the stage though, I couldn't help but feel the goosebumps.

Both speeches were incredibly well delivered, but I have to note just how well Piazza did. He was incredibly articulate, and it was visible that he was a strong public speaker. A moving message, Piazza made more of an impact on me in a matter of that instance than he did over the entirety of his career. As he ended, I couldn't help but to be blown away by what I had witnessed.

Griffey brought forth different expectations. He's always been one of my favorites, and as he teared up about 20 seconds in, I knew I'd follow suit in short order. Griffey's speech was a little more disjointed than Piazza's before him, but again, was something I'll never forget. He capped it off (quite literally) with his signature backwards hat, and it brought the house down. As he had done so many times during his career The Kid became bigger than the moment.

Heading out of town one last time on Sunday afternoon, I left feeling a sense of completion. Induction Weekend for Ken Griffey Jr. was probably something I'd consider a bucket list item. It was the second largest crowd ever for The Hall ceremonies, and that brought forth a dual reality. I'd had a blast, but wouldn't want to experience Cooperstown in this way again.

Barring another must see enshrinement, my future trips to Cooperstown will be more focused around the museum, and less traffic in town. Having gone to Fenway for a day following the weekend, both my dad an I planned to make a trip out of a museum stop and a new stadium a yearly thing. We had now done the big induction, and follow up trips seemed best lent towards enjoying baseball in its purest sense.

All in all, Cooperstown had delivered once again. Griffey was the highlight for me, Ozzie for him. Both Piazza and Griffey had reached the pinnacle, and we were there to see it. The memories had been made and I know I wouldn't trade them for anything. The Kid had entered The Hall, and that makes everything right in the baseball world for me.

Friday, July 22, 2016

No, Thank You David Ortiz

It's been widely known since the beginning of the 2016 Major League Baseball season that this would be David Ortiz's last. No, not because he went on a city tour a la Kobe Bryant or Derek Jeter. Instead, simply because Ortiz suggested he'd hand them up. Recently, he wrote a piece on The Player's Tribune thanking Minnesota, where it all began. Really though, it's Minnesota that should be thanking him.

You see, without David Ortiz, the Minnesota Twins and Major League Baseball would look vastly different. And for the most part, the argument should be for the worse.

David Ortiz played 455 games in a Twins uniform. He owned an uninspiring .266/.348/.461 slash line and totaled just 58 homers in that time span. To summarize, Ortiz's time with the Twins was about as lackluster as the stadium the ball club played in.

Then it happened, Terry Ryan's worst mistake as General Manager of the Twins. He let David Ortiz go.

Ortiz went on to finish 5th in the MVP voting the next season for the Boston Red Sox. To date, he owns a .290/.386/.571 line with Boston. He's amassed 469 homers, over 2,000 hits, nearly 1,500 RBI, and he's currently leading the league in doubles, slugging, and OPS at the age of 40. Everything David Ortiz has done for the Red Sox has trumped his time in Minnesota.

But then there's this. David Ortiz provided more to the Twins, and baseball as a whole, than can be quantified in a stat column. For Minnesota, he became the black eye that some franchises need. After Terry Ryan had made that grave mistake, it was allowed to haunt Minnesota for years to come. Even now in 2016, Ortiz's name is brought up nearly every time a young player is DFA'd. Most recently, Oswaldo Arcia was given this treatment. Something along the lines of not wanting a guy to become "the next David Ortiz" is normally muttered around Twins Territory, and it no doubt causes pause within the front office as well. If it takes a massive mistake to make a group of people think twice, well then that's what Ortiz did for the collection of Twins front office personnel.

Then there's what he did for baseball. When he came to Minnesota, he was known as David Arias. Eventually becoming David Ortiz, and more importantly Big Papi, Ortiz had a flair for the dramatic. Creator of majestic long balls and booming home runs, he was everything the sport needed. Whether or not you want to tie PEDs to Ortiz, the fact remains that baseball necessarily welcomed the era. Post lockout and needing a revitalizing, Bud Selig saw his sport drew in fans because well, everyone digs the long ball. We'll never know definitively one way or another if Big Papi used PEDs, but it doesn't really matter. Baseball needed drugs to reclaim its relevance among the sports culture, and Ortiz's ability to make ballparks look small only helped to accelerate the movement. He was the Giancarlo Stanton, before the Marlins slugger was even Mike.

Finally, there's what David Ortiz did for latin players, and this country as a whole. In Boston, Big Papi found a home. He had a city that embraced him, and in turn, he embraced the city. Not only does Ortiz love Boston though, he loves this country. Working tirelessly from his time in Minnesota up until where he is today to speak the language and understand the culture, it's apparent Ortiz is proud of this country, and has adopted it as his own. In the wake of the Boston Bombing's, it was Ortiz who took the mic. He uttered a few choice words, and declared that this in fact was "our" city, and that he was as much a part of it, as it was him.

As David Arias became David Ortiz, and eventually Big Papi, the trio will all ride off into the sunset. Bitterness for what could have been in a Twins uniform has grown tired long ago. It's Ortiz that has given everything of himself to the sport, and this country, and at the end of the day is deserving of that thanks. For as much as the sport has done for you David Ortiz, thank you for doing equally as much for it.

Now, please take it easy on the Twins for the rest of the year.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Twins Reality Behind The Dish

There was a time when the Minnesota Twins could consider catcher as one of the least concerning positions on their roster. That time period ended when Joe Mauer suffered a traumatic brain injury that forced him to switch positions. Now, as the organization looks to solidify their backstop, more questions than answers are currently present.

In 2016, Kurt Suzuki has re-emerged as a viable option. After a 2014 season in which Suzuki was named to his first All Star Game, the Twins rewarded their free agent acquisition with a contract extension. It went as expected for the most part, poorly, until recently. prematurely rewarded, Suzuki has begun to make good on his long term deal with the Twins. Now through around 90 games in 2016, Suzuki is slashing .288/.326/.428, which puts him at the offensive ceiling of his career.

This story and narrative isn't about Suzuki though, instead, it's a cautionary tale of what's next. Suzuki is likely going to be traded by the Twins prior to August 1st, and if he isn't he becomes a free agent following this season.

Behind Suzuki is where things get murky. At the big league level, the Twins have Juan Centeno. He's a 26 year old that was drafted in the 32nd round of the 2007 MLB draft by the Mets. He's played in just 51 games at the big league level, and his .233/.275/.360 slash line for the Twins this season is probably the best that can ever be expected. He's got poor receiving skills and has looked overmatched at times behind the dish this season. He's caught just 11% of would be base stealers, which is terrible, and only compounds the problem.

That brings us to John Ryan Murphy, who the Twins grabbed in return for Aaron Hicks this last offseason. The trade hasn't gone well for either party. Hicks is batting below the Mendoza Line through 79 games for the Yankees and Murphy is at Triple-A for the Twins. Outside of a brief stint that looked like things were coming together, Murphy hasn't hit in Rochester either. He owns a .202/.264/.287 slash line through 55 Triple-A games and he's caught just 18% of base stealers.

We've made it through the two top rungs of the organization, and a realistic catching answer for the Twins is completely non existent. When things were going well for Minnesota behind the plate, the position was producing offensively as well as throwing out would be base stealers at right around a 30% clip (leading the league twice from 2007-13). Trying to replace what Joe Mauer was is never going to happen, but finding some sort of stability is an absolute must.

Further down the line, the Twins have a few prospect options. Stuart Turner has long been considered the defensive-ready option. He's thrown out 36% of base stealers this season, but he hasn't hit a lick. Batting just .229/.329/.361 this year, and owning a career .239/.327/.350, it's hard to imagine he'll be ready to be leaned on any time soon. His battery mate, Mitch Garver, has actually emerged even more so this season. He owns a .797 OPS and has thrown out 51% of would be base stealers. Garver is a guy that probably deserves a chance sooner rather than later.

If there's a frustration at the position, it's still the way in which Minnesota handled John Hicks. After being nabbed off of waivers from the Mariners, the Twins released him so they could add David Murphy to the 40 man roster. Murphy instead chose to retire. Since joining the Tigers organization, Hicks has hit .289/.344/.452 at Triple-A. He's caught over 40% of would be base stealers, and would be an immensely better option at the MLB level than Centeno has proved to be. I don't know that he's a big league starter, but Minnesota would have been hard pressed to scoff at the idea of finding out.

Over the offseason, the Twins will absolutely have to figure some things out. Suzuki won't be around, and that means the questions will get louder. I've opined that former prospect Wilson Ramos may be worth spending on over the winter, but it won't be cheap with the incredible season he's had for the Washington Nationals.

Suggesting a drastic step may not be the best idea, but pieces will begin to move once the Suzuki era ends. If that is prior to the trade deadline as it should be, Garver may be best suited to take his place. If you want to leave Centeno in the picture, I can understand why. Murphy hasn't earned a promotion, but the role is likely going to be between himself and Garver for in house options a year from now.

Regardless of how things shake out, there's significantly more questions than answers right now for the Twins behind the dish. Minnesota is going to have to come up with some plans, and in a relative hurry.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Joe Mauer Isn't Done With Award Ceremonies

A trip down memory lane would reveal that Joe Mauer the catcher is a player both the Minnesota Twins and Major League Baseball miss. He was one of the best to ever play the position, and his bat combined with his glove, made him one of the most athletic backstops ever. Concussions and injuries ended that narrative way too soon, but Mauer is emerging in his new home now as well.

That whole elite athlete narrative, well Mauer personifies it. Turning down a scholarship to go and play quarterback for Florida State, he went on to be the 1st overall pick in the 2001 Major League Baseball draft. After starting his career as a catcher, he's quickly transitioned into being one of the best at his new position as well. Now in his third full season playing first base, Mauer appears to have unlocked a new level.

Of course there's always going to be some detractors for Mauer at first. Offensively, he's miscast as a corner infielder. He's not the home run threat a 28-bomb season in the Metrodome made him out to be. His doubles prowess has even been sapped in recent seasons (and significantly in 2016). Regardless, it's his glove over at first that might trump all of that.

Through 62 games at first base this season, Mauer has been worth 5 defensive runs saved. It surpasses his previous career high of 4 in 2014, despite having played in 100 games total at first that year. His 3.0 Ultimate Zone Rating is also the best of his career, and with a previous high of 1.5 UZR, it's not particularly close.

Among first basemen, only two have better DRS numbers than Mauer. Both in the National League, Anthony Rizzo (8) and Brandon Belt (6) have posted higher totals than Mauer. Among American League competition, Mauer has been tied by the likes of the Rangers Mitch Moreland, and the Orioles Chris Davis. No one else in the AL has more than 3 DRS. Also, among those atop the leaderboard, Mauer has played 100-200 less innings in the field. Having been used as the Twins designated hitter 23 times in 2016, he's missed some considerable time in the field.

In terms of Ultimate Zone Rating, which measures a result against statistical data suggesting what the result should have been in relation to "average," Mauer is seen favorably as well. He's 4th in all of baseball among first basemen, and only the Tigers Miguel Cabrera (5.8) and Rangers Moreland (4.6) have better marks. Both using you'd define as the eye test, and sabermetric results, Mauer's leather has put on a fine display at first base this season.

A season ago, the American League Gold Glove winner at first base was the Royals Eric Hosmer. He posted one DRS and a 1.0 UZR across 154 games started at the position. Among qualified players, those numbers were 6th and 4th respectively. What Hosmer did do a season ago was play nearly 200 more innings than any other first basemen in the AL (Joe Mauer was second).

It's pretty widely accepted that the Rawlings Gold Glove awards generally snub the most deserving players. Not quite the mockery that is All Star fan voting, the Gold Glove awards get it wrong almost as equally often as they get it right. Whether a flashy player wins, or a less deserving candidate is selected, the numbers typically don't seem to agree with the results.

That leaves how things shake out very much up to chance. Whether or not Joe Mauer wins a Gold Glove or not is far from a certain thing either way. Thus far into the 2016 season however, he's got as good of a claim as anyone to taking one home, and it'd be far from a shock if he does. What was once one of the best catcher's the game of baseball has ever seen, Mauer is currently one of the best defensive first basemen in the land.

It's not a batting title, he won't have a ton of home runs, he's probably not going to hit .300, and the Twins really are having a tough year. When the dust settles though. Joe Mauer winning a Gold Glove, three years into taking up a new position, at the age of 33 would be hardly anything to scoff at.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

It's Time Twins Stop Passing The Buck

There's a saying that goes something like, "No one knows you're clueless until you open your mouth and remove all doubt." On July 18, 2016 the Minnesota Twins fired long time General Manager Terry Ryan. It was a much needed move, and one that could have been made a long time ago. But then Jim Pohlad spoke, and so did Dave St. Peter.

Pohlad is the owner of the Minnesota Twins. He's one of the most disconnected, at least based on appearances, in the world of sports. On May 6, 2016. he was featured in the Star Tribune by columnist Chip Scoggins for calling the entirety of the organization a "Total System Failure." The problem is, he wasn't wrong, but he still appears to not have much of an idea what that actually means.

That whole opening your mouth and removing doubt bit, it couldn't have been more on display than when Pohlad explained his baseball understanding of other front offices around the big leagues. When asked if he had studied or looked at what other teams are doing in setting up their organization structures and the success of them, he muttered, "Yes I have. I’ve gone through all the media guides and looked at titles and structures and the emerging trends of president of baseball operations or whatever. Yes, I’ve studied that.” Sorry Jim, but you'll probably want to do a bit better than perusing some media guides to have any clue about the effectiveness of organization you currently oversee.

In his press conference following the firing of Terry Ryan, Pohlad didn't offer just one head scratching comment though. He talked of his desire to promote from within, how that's something he and the Twins have always felt good about doing. It's a direct contradiction to the "Total System Failure" comments, and it's tone deaf to the reality that Rob Antony, St. Peter, and even Pohlad himself are all part of the problem that has the Twins where they are.

At this point, the Twins have taken a massive baby step. While that's seemingly an oxymoron, it adequately describes what's currently going on. Firing a GM that has long underperformed is indicative of Minnesota coming to grips with a change that was long overdue. Ryan wasn't allowed to simply bow out (even though he was given a month to craft his exit), but instead was fired. A message was sent that the Twins do have a slight shred of accountability left within the organization. 

That's where the other part of the narrative comes into play however, the change can't end there. Simply hiring from within, rather than using the opportunity to make sweeping changes, would be a catastrophic missuse of the massive part of this equation. If making the initial move was the baby step, it is in the follow up that the future direction and turnaround of the Twins lies.

Following the push forward, the Twins may have already slipped up once, and they simply can't afford to do it again.

With both Pohlad and St. Peter handcuffing their future GM to current manager Paul Molitor, the Twins have failed to get out of their own way from the start. It may not hamper the quality of the final candidate, but it sure stacks the deck against them from the onset. Molitor doesn't have the equity in the managerial game to be given the safety net that he has now, and his 2016 season has all but wiped away any semblance of in game acumen that was displayed a year ago.

Right now, the organizational structure for the Twins is headlined by an out-of-touch owner and a haughty President. Both Pohlad and St. Peter are more a part of the problem than they will ever signify the solution. As they work to right the ship, owning that, and ceasing a trickle down effect is going to need to be part of the process.

For the first time since the early 90's, Minnesota has a chance to make an organizational shift that leverages a strong system begging to win. A missed opportunity could be catastrophic, and as we've seen before, there's no telling how long the organization may need to wait to get it right.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Traditional Twins Make Non-Traditional Waves

That really just happened. In the middle of the 2016 season, just weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline, the Minnesota Twins made one of the most monumental moves in franchise history. Terry Ryan's time as General Manager has finally come to an end. In the midst of a near guaranteed 90 loss season, Jim Pohlad has finally seen enough.

When it comes to baseball minds, there are few better in the game than Terry Ryan. He is an adept talent evaluator, a great person for the sport, and arguably an even better person. I'm not a journalist, and I don't pretend to have even the slightest semblance of a relationship with the Twins former head honcho. I've interacted with him in limited amounts during spring training trips, and he's always been great, but he's far from someone I know.

What I do know however, is that as big as the decision to remove Terry Ryan from his duties at the General Manager of the Minnesota Twins is for him, it's even more earth shattering for the organization. This is a man who has become the Twins as equally as they've become him. If there have been constants in life over the past 20 years, it's death, taxes, and Terry Ryan as the face of Twins baseball.

In deciding to turn the page, the Twins have in turn done something that was absolutely needed for themselves. The organization and front office had become one that the sport had passed by. Minnesota couldn't have been further from the industry leaders, and despite the talented youth throughout the organization, those expected to unleash it in the most balanced form consistently have failed. Terry Ryan had failed, Rob Antony had failed, and those on down the line had failed.

For now, Antony will take over. It's the middle of the season, and the Twins wouldn't be doing themselves any favors to make a rushed decision on who the next man in charge is. Presumably, Antony won't be granted anything higher than his immediate interim label, and that's absolutely for the better. With pieces at their disposal, whoever is handed the task of turning the Twins around will have some pretty attractive assets to work with.

There's going to be plenty of moving pieces for a while. The initial decision comes as a shock to both those inside of the organization, as well as plenty around Twins Territory. While not saying it wasn't warranted, the removal of Terry Ryan at the current time is quite the blindside. The future remains bright however, and maybe even more so with a more capable party in charge.

As the dust settles, July 18, 2016 will likely go down as one of the most monumental days in Twins history. Not only did the Pohlad family step away from a company figurehead, but they also chose to do so on their own actions, and for the betterment of the ball club as a whole. While being a massive shift, it's a baby step, but one that lands in what has to be considered the correct direction.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Why Not Axe The Traditional Bat?

About a week ago, I wrote a piece about baseball embracing a new piece of technology. As hitters have gone up to the plate for the last hundred or so years using a relatively similar form of lumber, the baseball bat has become dated technology. As local journalists around the Twin Cities reported on Kurt Suzuki's adaptation to a new way of hitting, I was interested to learn more.

The previous piece highlighted the bat in which those aforementioned journalists (Cold Omaha and Pioneer Press) dissected Kurt Suzuki's use of. After writing in a broader sense last week about acceptance of the Axe Bat in Major League Baseball, I wanted to know more. Having already talked with Hugh Tompkin's of Baden Sports, I wanted to see first hand what it was that was different about the tool Dustin Pedroia, Kurt Suzuki, and now Mookie Betts were brandishing.

With the M271 Pro Hard Maple Axe Bat in my possession, it was time to go hands on. Obviously I don't have anywhere near the level of baseball skill that professionals using the new product do. I last played competitive baseball as a Freshman in college before heading into 400 meter sprints in track and field. That said, I have played baseball at a relatively high level for the majority of my life, and most importantly, have used more than my fair share of different bats.

Initially taking the Axe Bat to the cage, I wanted to get a feel for what my eyes could already see. The most advantageous piece to the Axe Bat is the handle. Regardless of having a lack of ball tracking ability in a batting cage, feeling the swing, responsiveness of the handle, and difference of the bat as a whole was more than doable. It was in the cage that Tompkins quote to me in my initial story, "We set out to build a better mouse trap," rang true.

The Axe Bat's handle is modeled simply after an axe. With the swinging motion utilized to chop down a tree, the axe handle has less desire to free rotate through your grip. Designed to sit comfortable within the contours of your hand, through the swing plane and into my follow through, the Axe Bat seemed to sit still. It was a smooth cut time in and time out, while allowing my grip to have a place that suggested "home" on the bat.

Having accomplished the initial feel for the new stick in the cage, I took to another test on an actual diamond. Facing batting practice pitching, I'm not sure that I was expecting significantly different results, and that's probably for the best. The Axe Bat isn't a case of a slow pitch or BBCOR bat in which a different level of "pop" is achieved due to the technology. Instead, I was hoping that the same level of results as witness by any other wood bat would be produced. As stated above, what Baden Sports did with the Axe Bat was far from reinventing the wheel; they just made the wheel better.

Going through multiple rounds of batting practice, I couldn't help but think bat to my discussion with Tompkins and Baden PR guy Matt Peterson. In describing the bat making process, both touched on the ability to create a completely customized bat. With their pro players, the hitting zone, sweet spot, and barrel are all calculated based upon swing planes and each player's path to the ball. Because the Axe Bat is cut on a CNC machine, the grain of the wood can then be tailored to make the hitting zone on the bat the most optimum place for the batter to make contact with a pitch.

Surely my bat doesn't have this level of exact specifications tailored to it, but in swinging it repeatedly, it became apparent how beneficial achieving that could be. With the contact point on my Axe Bat remaining relatively similar due to my consistent grip, a small set of tweaks would no doubt heighten the level of personalization that's already achievable simply by keeping a consistent grip.

Now having used the Axe Bat for what's amounted to right around a week and a half, I've been able to put some significant cuts on it. The bat itself has held up to the same degree as any other top of the line wood bat should be expected to, but it's been the one minor difference that keeps resonating with me. The grip, and challenge of the status quo, suggests that this should be the way in which every professional hitter is attacking the game.

At some point, the round knob of a baseball bat became outdated. The technology is over a century old, and until now, no one challenged for a way to do it any better. Since the emergence of Baden Sports' Axe Bat, it's seemingly a disadvantage to continue utilizing something that has been surpassed in relevance. For whatever reason, comfort, consistency, or otherwise, it will take a while for the growth of the Axe Bat to catch fire. Thus far Baden Sports has gone with a completely organic model, and up until the signing of Mookie Betts, they had no endorsers. It's by design though, and that's because the bat speaks for itself.

Sooner or later, more and more big leaguers will have to start wondering why they continue to use round knobbed baseball bats. As they level to the point of answering, "Because we always have," a shift should then take place. The Axe Bat has done more than just create a better mouse trap, it's reinvented the standard at the plate for the game of baseball.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Outfielder Of Intrigue Down The Stretch

Coming into the 2016 Major League Baseball season, the Twins outfield was expected to have plenty of youth. Phenom Byron Buxton had taken over in center field, while slugger Miguel Sano was being asked to play in right. Expectations for Buxton to compete in the Rookie of the Year race were there, and the Twins had high hopes. Through the first half, it's been the guy who came up last, Max Kepler, that may have stolen the show.

Making his MLB debut on September 27, 2015, Max Kepler had seen the bright lights and big stadiums a year ago. This time though, it wasn't a September cup of coffee, and with the way that Minnesota's outfield had shifted, there was absolutely room for him to stay.

Kepler received a quick call from the Twins this season. After playing in just two games for Triple-A Rochester, he was summoned to the show. A brief seven game stint in which he was only giving 12 at bats quickly saw him back down on the farm. When he returned to Rochester, he did what he has done most of his minor league career, he hit. Slashing .288/.380/.471 across 28 games, Kepler had again earned the Twins attention and was given the call.

Fast forward to today, and Max Kepler has been up with the Twins during his second stint of the season for 36 games. His slash line of .244/.322/.496 leaves room for improvement, but that .818 OPS is indicative of a guy that's given Paul Molitor much more than he could have imagined. Through 150 plate appearances since his promotion, Kepler has nine doubles and eight home runs. His 33 runs batted rank fourth on the club, and behind only Brian Dozier, Eduardo Nunez, and Miguel Sano (all guys that have spent the entire season in the big leagues).

If you've been following me on Twitter for any amount of time (if you're not, you're missing out), you know that I've been high on Kepler for quite some time. While I have always suggested that Buxton has the higher ceiling and will likely see more accolades over his career, it's Kepler who's the consistent and projectable star. With All Star level talent, Kepler is far more than just a guy to fill out a spot on the 25 man roster.

When trying to figure out the formula for success that Kepler is currently operating under, it's hard to look much further than his smooth stroke. With hands that get to, and drive through the baseball, his swing plane produces gap power that plays all over the field. Thus far this season, he's making hard contact just under 40% of the time. His pull tendencies aren't heavy using the center of the field a solid 37% of the time. Generating line drives with just under 19% of his batted balls, the power generation from him driving through the ball has equated to an incredible 19% of his fly balls leaving the yard.

Not a traditional power hitter, there's no doubt the Twins and Kepler himself would like to see his 79.1% contact rate rise some. In doing so, he'll see a relatively significant boost in his batting average. The fact that he's swung at pitches outside of the zone just 30% of the time, and missed only 9.2% of the time suggests that he'll barrel the ball more often as he acclimates to the big league level.

As things stand currently, Kepler has put himself in a very good position. He's erupted onto the Twins scene and he's making a name for himself. There's plenty of room for improvement, and he's got just under 80 games left ahead of him to continue to accomplish that. Kepler is going to need to keep making tweaks and see the results follow if he's going to make a serious Rookie of the Year push. Regardless, he's been given the keys to right field for the Twins, and settling in for 2017 is a must.

As Byron Buxton starts to turn a corner in the final stretch of the 2016 season, he'll have a teammate that is just a bit ahead of him in that process. Kepler has been an exciting development for Minnesota this season, but if it was unexpected, you were looking in the wrong places all along.

The son of German ballet dancers, Max Kepler has arrived, and the show has only just begun.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Consistency Must Be Twins Focus In Second Half

A season ago, the Minnesota Twins finished 83-79, just missing a playoff berth for the first time since 2010. While the season was a significant turnaround from the four straight 90 loss campaigns that preceded it, the final result was one that seemed somewhat of a mirage. Fast forward to where we are now, and the lack of consistency that was an underlying message a year earlier, has once against been this club's biggest problem.

In 2015, Paul Molitor amassed 83 victories in his first year at the helm. A respectable total in and of itself, it was backed by just two winning months over the course of the season. A 20-7 May set the ton, and had it not been for a 15-13 September, the Twins very likely could've been staring at year another sub .500 mark.

Coming into 2016, the expectation was that, despite the luck that had been bolstering outcomes for Minnesota, the playoffs seemed like a realistic venture. Although a handful of things would need to break in their favor, the Twins competing for the Wild Card was not out of the question. Then, again, consistency failed Molitor, Terry Ryan, and the entirety of the organization throughout the season's first 88 games.

Prior to the All Star Break, Minnesota's lone winning month is the current one (July). At 7-3 through the first 10 games, the Twins have also raced out to a +41 run differential. On the season, outside of July, the club owns a -112 run differential and an ugly 25-53 record. As much as the nice play of late has been a position, Molitor's group absolutely needs to find the middle ground going forward.

Over the course of the season's first 78 games, the Twins scored 4.1 runs per game while giving up 5.5. During the recent ten game stretch, they've plated 7.8 runs per game while allowing just 3.7. The drastic swing between the two polar opposite ends of the spectrum is not an enviable position to be in. It took Minnesota 70 games to score double digits for the first time this season, and then they went on to do so four more times over their last eight games.

At 4.97, the Twins have the worst team ERA in the American League thus far. They've allowed opposing batters to hit .283 (also dead last) off of them, and they've also surrendered a league worst 119 homers. Being at the bottom of the barrel in pitching categories is a trend that the Twins need to abandon in the worst way.

On the offensive side of things, Minnesota has done better, but still has significant room for improvement. Their 395 runs ranks 10th in the AL, as does their .253 batting average. Minnesota fins themselves 9th with 105 homers while being tied for 5th in the league with 743 strikeouts. It's not the doom and gloom that the mound has produced, but for a team expected to be powered by offense, there's a lot to be desired.

As we've seen over the course of the past couple of weeks, the youth movement is starting to happen. Miguel Sano has returned from the DL with an affinity for the longball. Max Kepler is one of the best things Minnesota has going for it, and Byron Buxton is starting to figure things out at the plate. Offensively, it's the youth that has powered the resurgence, and that needs to continue.

On the mound however, the Twins have a few more questions to answer. While Ervin Santana has been incredible of late, it's probably in the club's best interest to deal him. In doing so, they'll be looking to Jose Berrios to help carry the load. Despite struggling in his debut, an emergence along the lines of Kepler's would be far from a shock. What's more important however, is that the pen continues to be bolstered by the young arms.

Taylor Rogers' effectiveness has been far from unexpected this season. he owns a 2.93 ERA and has struck out 9.4 per nine while walking just 1.3 per nine. Looking like a fixture of what should hopefully be an improved relief corps in the not so distant future, he needs some friends. Asking J.T. Chargois, Jake Reed, and Mason Melotakis to join him before the season is done is probably a big ask. It's one Minnesota should explore though, and hopefully find some solid results with.

We've seen Twins teams in back-to-back years that have been virtually polar opposites of each other. A year ago, luck carried Minnesota to a record that masked a ton of their deficiencies. Now in 2016, youth was relied upon too heavily too early, and things crashed and burned. As the club needs to find a middle ground roster wise, so too does the production need to follow.

In order to emerge as a playoff team once again, and maybe as early as 2017, Molitor's club doesn't need to be the best at everything. In fact, they really don't need to be great at anything. What the focus has to be is on being solid across the board. The Twins can't afford to be among the league's worst in any categories. Find the middle ground, exploit a niche, and stay there.

The future is in the hands of the developed prospects residing in the Twins organization. Making it a bright one relies upon a level of consistency that has been absent among the organization for quite some time. In a lost season, finish out the slate pushing for that middle ground is as good of a goal as any.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ryan's Minor League Finds Highlight Biggest Asset

It's funny sometimes how others share a similar thought process to your own. That happened for me today as I prepared my coverage of the Twins for the week here at Off The Baggy. One topic I wanted to highlight and touch on was the ability Terry Ryan has shown to nab some very solid minor league signings heading into the season. MLB Trade Rumors released a piece with the best of the 2016 year, and of course, Minnesota had three entrants.

It's pretty easy to pick out that the Twins have gotten considerable run from Fernando Abad, Brandon Kintzler, and Robbie Grossman in 2016. Both Abad and Kintzler were non-roster guys that received spring training invites and minor league deals with the Twins. It was expected from the get go that Abad would make the team as the club's lefty reliever, and Minnesota thought his down 2015 was simply due to tipping his pitches.

After posting a 4.15 ERA with the Athletics a season ago, Abad has been incredible for the Twins. No longer tipping his pitches, he's made it through the first half with a 2.83 ERA and a 3.63 FIP. His 8.2 FIP is along the lines of his last three seasons, and he's danced around the a career worst 4.1 BB/9. Despite a recent rough stretch, Abad has been able to get both righties (.725 OPS) and lefties (.451 OPS) out. Obviously looking at those numbers, he's absolutely dominated left-handed batters, to the tune of a .163/.196/.256 slash line.

Despite being a long shot to make the 25 man roster, Kintzler obviously saw a pretty solid chance to make the Twins at some point after the club had such a poor pen a season ago. He owned a 3.52 ERA in 10 games with Triple-A Rochester prior to his promotion to the big league club. Since, he's owned a 2.42 ERA and walked next to no one (0.7 BB/9). His FIP leaves plenty to be desired, but he;s now working as the Twins (miscast) closer, having picked up his first five major league saves.

Rounding out the trio of guys touched on by MLB Trade Rumors was Robbie Grossman. Cast off by the Cleveland Indians, Ryan and the Twins saw an opportunity to solidify their revolving outfield. Grossman, just 26, had shown promise with the Astros but had never lived up to his billing. With the Twins, he's been an on base machine, and has slashed .289/.421/.465 through 48 games. He's already matched his career high in homer (6), and is just four doubles shy of tying his career high (14).

It's pretty safe to say that each of the three aforementioned guys have been among the Twins best players in 2016. This isn't something new though for a Terry Ryan club, and it's really not even isolated to this trio for the current year.

Buddy Boshers was another non roster guy that the Twins brought in out of Indy Ball for the 2016 season. He was a part of the roster squeeze a few days back, but he posted a 1.38 ERA across 13.0 IP and amassed a 9.7 K/9 with a 1.4 BB/9 in his first major league action since 2013.

A season ago, Minnesota could've used Mark Hamburger in their pen. He was lights out at Triple-A Rochester, posting a 3.44 ERA in 68.0 IP with an 8.3 K/9. Now pitching in Indy Ball with the St. Paul Saints and working as a starter, he's compiled a 2.59 ERA across 11 outings. In an uncertain outfield, Minnesota brought in Shane Robinson who turned out 3 defensive runs saved in just over 450 innings. Before that, it was signings like Blaine Boyer (2.49 ERA across 65.0 IP in 2015 for Twins), that showed Ryan's acumen.

At it's core, the highlighting of small splashes like those noted above are what Terry Ryan has done best. It follows the narrative of the Twins being a small market team, but is really indicative of a different story altogether. It's not that the Twins don't have the money to spend, but instead that when they do, Ryan generally misses the mark.

It's in deals like those handed out to Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes that Ryan looks to make the big wave and comes up short. Rather, when he uses his adept scouting knowledge and looks to squeeze what's left out of something lesser, the Twins GM generally finds his mark. Seeing the Twins turn out decent non-roster deals or small market contracts is far from a surprise, and once again should benefit them in 2016.

As the trade deadline approaches, Abad should be an easy piece to move. Kintzler is a usable option for a competing team, and Grossman's approach should be able to help another club unless the Twins see him as a fourth outfielder in the year ahead. What hitting on situations like these does is allow for a bad team, like the Twins have been, to try and stockpile assets moving forward. You won't get the cream of the crop, but your return on investment should be through the roof.

When push comes to shove at the end of the season, Minnesota would be best served to fire Terry Ryan. Don't let him walk away on his own terms, don't let him step down. Send the message that he has failed as General Manager, there's no soft way to put that. If the club has a problem cutting ties or wants to utilize his true talent though, Ryan serving in a scouting capacity of some sort would be far from a bad option. If there's something Ryan had proven over his tenure with the Twins, it's that he knows what he's looking for when scouting that diamond in the rough. He's just been miscast in executing it.

Twins Showing Assumed Colors

The 2016 Major League Baseball season wasn't supposed to go like this for the Minnesota Twins, but then again, maybe it was. Reliant upon an influx of youth, Paul Molitor's club was expected to score runs, and do so in bunches. Pitching should've been an improved aspect, but still could've been an assumed deficiency for this club. Through the first half however, nothing went right, right up until the end.

As the dust settled and the 2016 season enters the All Star Break, the Minnesota Twins find themselves owners of just 32 wins through 88 games. It's the second worst mark in all of baseball, and the worst record in the American League. 20 games back in the AL Central, the club's 2016 efforts are all but null and worthless at this point.

What happened over the final two weeks of the first half though tells a different narrative. Once the calendar turned to July, the assumed Twins showed up.

It took Paul Molitor's club 70 games to score double digit runs for the first time in 2016. From July 1 through the 10th, Minnesota accomplished that feat four times in 10 games. A club that came into July with a run differential of -112, has drastically changed that total with a +41 run differential through their first ten games.

During the span of solid play from the Twins, Minnesota has gotten it done against two different forms of competition as well. Winning a season best three straight series, the Twins have knocked off the Texas Rangers twice (owners of the American League's best record), while also trumping the Oakland Athletics. When looking at the three losses as well, the Twins dropped those contests by a combined four runs.

Entering the year, the narrative for the Twins is that they would hit enough to score plenty, but that they'd likely need to in order to combat some likely pitching woes. Standing 17th in the majors with 395 runs scored is not an ideal place, but its indicative of a club that has gotten too little early on from their relied upon youth. Through the recent surge however, it's been those players that have absolutely carried the load.

At the forefront has been German-born superstar Max Kepler. A grand slam in the final game of the first half put a nice stamp on a breakout campaign thus far. He's experienced some ups and downs, but his production for the Twins has absolutely been a welcomed reality. Despite batting just .216 in the first 10 games of July, Kepler owns a .940 OPS and has launched five homers.

Fellow young outfielder Byron Buxton has slowly but surely adjusted to the big league game. He was shelved over the past couple of contests after a new bruise following a wall collision, but his play at the plate has picked up. Riding a six game hitting streak into the break, Buxton has slashed .348/.400/.609 during that span. It's come with four doubles and a triple while striking out just five times and walking twice. He's dramatically decreased the strikeout totals, sitting down in just 32% of his plate appearances since his recall as opposed to striking out in 49% of his plate appearances to start the season.

Then there's the bopper that is Miguel Sano. Probably assumed to fly by 30 home runs, Sano was dealt a less than ideal situation to start the year by having to move to right field. Now fresh off the disabled list and back in the infield, he's slashed .282/.391/.538 in 10 games since his return. Settling back in to the middle of Paul Molitor's lineup, Sano has crushed three homers while driving in nine runs since the 1st of July.

A somewhat surprising form of production has come from the forgotten Kennys Vargas. Given playing time with the departure of Oswaldo Arcia and demotion of Byung Ho Park, Vargas has done the most with it. Playing in sixe games since his promotion, Vargas has slashed .471/.609/1.294 with five doubles and three homers. Each of his eight hits thus far have been of the extra base hit variety. Obviously an unsustainable level of production, Vargas is extending his opportunity by producing with it.

When Minnesota returns from the All Star break, the reality of 2016 being a lost season will remain. The other reality is that the youth expected to carry this team is beginning to show up. At some point soon, the pitching staff will welcome Jose Berrios and J.T. Chargois. Taylor Rogers has already showed he belongs, and there's hope that a few other young arms may join them yet this season. Despite the end already being seemingly clear, the path to get there the rest of the way is one that absolutely is worth watching.

If the trend of producing youth can continue for the Twins, a 2017 with a handful of young question marks shouldn't be something Minnesota has to assume they'll be looking at.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

All Star Game Sends Mixed Signals

Recently, Jayson Stark wrote a great piece over at ESPN. The crux of it was that the rule mandating every team have an All Star representative should be removed. While that may hit home here in Twins Territory due to the inclusion of Eduardo Nunez in the game, it's part of a bigger problem. Major League Baseball has the best All Star game running, and it's being used to send mixed signals.

Since 2003, the Mid-Summer Classic has meant something. Bud Selig said his game would count, and the All Star Game has determined home field advantage for the American and National League come time for the World Series. The game itself was no longer simply an exhibition, but there were now implications for teams a few months later that hinged on this game.

That's really where the mixed messages begin, but it's far from where they branch out to. In and of itself, baseball is unlike football and basketball. It's not a game you can play halfway. Sure, the managerial aspect in the All Star Game is nothing like that of something you'd see during the season, but you can't fake 90+ mph heat. You can't take a play off with exit velocities rocketing over 100 mph. There's really no such thing as an alley oop dunk fest, or lineman standing up and playing patty cake in baseball, it just doesn't exist. From that reality alone, the product on the field during the Mid-Summer Classic was always going to be better.

When it comes to who plays in the game, the mixed messages are a bit more in depth however. Sure, fan voting has always produced some goofy outcomes (sorry Royals fans), but it provides a level of ownership to those that spend hours casting ballots. You're never going to remove fan balloting, and that may provide a disadvantage for one side or another during a game that counts. Instead though, it's baseball's outdated filling out of the rosters that suggests the game is losing touch with itself.

Has Eduardo Nunez had a great season for the struggling Twins? Absolutely he has, but he's nowhere near the caliber of a player you'd hope to be filling out an All Star team. It's not his fault though, he's a by-product of a rule that says Minnesota must have a player included. Throw Stephen Vogt and the Athletics in that group, as well as a couple of others. It isn't these players faults, but instead a rule that baseball is punishing itself with.

Now we get to the meat of where baseball is missing the point. In an ever competitive landscape of sporting events, baseball has lost traction to football, basketball, and probably a handful of other forms of entertainment. In reeling fans back in, would showcasing the best of your product not be of the utmost importance. Whether including stars of yesteryear, or the up and comers, shouldn't they be what this All Star Game that counts is about?

Given the performance this season, Ichiro Suzuki isn't an All Star. He is however a star that's performing incredibly, and he's nearing an elite baseball milestone. He draws in a contingent of fans that involves an entirely different country, and his appeal goes well beyond America's borders. Carlos Correa is arguably one of the games best young stars. His youth draws in a new generation, and his talent could provide the next wave of fans emulating their hero. How do you not include the likes of Brandon Crawford, Gregory Polanco, Aaron Sanchez, or Aledmys Diaz? It really doesn't matter the rationale, considering the only thing that matters is they won't be there, and this one counts.

The game counts in terms of a win and a loss, but it also counts in the scope of advancing the product that is Major League Baseball. The sport wants to draw a younger generation towards the game. Baseball needs a revitalization of passionate fans, but the messages being sent by an All Star Game selection process suggest a tone deaf practice.

In no realistic scenario does the inclusion of Nunez, Vogt, Odubel Herrera, or Adam Duvall types advance the game of baseball. If fans of those teams were going to watch the game, they would have done so anyways. Having brighter stars selected to not only increase the level of talent on the field, but heighten the draw to the game likely advances every goal set forth for the Mid-Summer Classic.

Baseball wants a larger draw but is turning away its youngest ambassadors. The game counts but talent, or lack thereof, is watering it down. At the end of the day, the sport needs to get on the same page with itself, and make it not only count, but matter too.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Changing The Tools Of The Trade

A few weeks ago, there was some significant buzz around Twins territory regarding catcher Kurt Suzuki. After a dismal start to what would likely be his final year in Minnesota, something had changed. His offensive production had risen, and he looked like a different hitter at the plate. That talk surrounded a change of his bat, and the maker wasn't the only difference.

What if I told you that using technology dating back hundreds of years no longer made sense? What if there was a better way to make a baseball bat? What if combining those two questions resulted in a monumental shift in the way in which baseball is played? Kurt Suzuki is currently in the midst of finding out.

Enter Axe Bat.

I had the privilege of speaking with Hugh Tompkins, Baden's Director of Research and Development. Matt Peterson, PR man for Baden sports helped to make the connection. In speaking with both of them, I was able to catch a glimpse into a technology, and a way of thinking, that has the potential to revolutionize the sport of baseball.

Baden Sports has been around for a significant amount of time, but they have remained a smaller player when it comes to certain niche avenues within sporting goods. Having never been synonymous with bat making, the Axe Bat was going to be a large undertaking for them. Through innovation and design, the axe handle was developed back in 2010, and has is rooted in principles based on Ted Williams' book describing a swing that mimics that of an axe.

Going back to the first question regarding dated technology is close to where Baden started with the Axe Bat. A round handle had become a generally accepted way in which a baseball bat was made. It had always been made that way, and no one had ever though to challenge the idea. Being an innovator however, and looking to carve out a new part of the market, Baden decided to reinvent the wheel. Wood bats no longer needed to be cut solely on lathes and now could utilize the technology of a CNC machine.

As Tompmkins put it, "We built a better mouse trap."

In reality, that's exactly what they did. In utilizing technology that had evolved to allow for a better product, Baden simply took advantage of it. Scientifically proven to be a more effective way to craft a bat, the Axe Bat design was the culmination of Baden Sports challenging what has been accepted as status quo.

What's great about the adoption and adaptation of the Axe Bat among the sport however is the organic growth that Baden Sports has fostered. They didn't reach out to big leaguers buying their hands at the plate. In fact, Dustin Pedroia actually reached out to them.

A season ago, Pedroia placed an order on his own through their website. Victus Sports handles the crafting of the wood bats as they're well ingrained withing Major League Baseball already. When Pedroia's order came in, the team over at Baden wondered if it was in fact the Dustin Pedroia. As his production rose to end the year, the organic growth followed suit.

Having made appearances around spring training this season, the Axe Bat gained traction. Despite not taking it north with him out of the gate, Suzuki hopped on board with the technology full time a month or so into the season. Since June 2nd, Suzuki has slashed .365/.386/.553 for the Twins. While the Axe Bat probably can't be given sole credit, it's foolish to ignore to altogether.

At the highest level, Baden and Victus are able to create a completely custom baseball weapon. At the dish, the axe handle is crafted for each individual player, with the hitting surface being specifically designed to incorporate the wood grain on the sweet spot nearly every single time. Through video study and swing analysis, the CNC machines are able to specifically craft each Axe Bat to their player, and Baden keeps files for all those utilizing their technology.
Baden Sports and the Axe Bat are changing the way in which a batter steps into the box, and if you aren't bringing it to the plate, you're already at a disadvantage.
Given time, the production will continue to be harder to ignore, and the growth of the Axe Bat will surely continue. When asking yourself why you use a round bat handle, you'll be hard pressed to answer with anything but, "because that's the way it's always been." If presented with an opportunity to attack the game with a better bat and better technology however, you'd be hard pressed to find a reason to turn it down.

Baden Sports and the Axe Bat are changing the way in which a batter steps into the box, and if you aren't bringing it to the plate, you're already at a disadvantage.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Salvaging The Worst Of The Twins

Through 82 games, the Twins are on pace to blitz by a franchise worst amount of losses, and finish the season as the worst team in history. Suggesting the first half of the season has been anything but a disaster would be putting it nicely. That all being said, there's plenty left to play for in 2016.

Considering that the bulk of Minnesota's schedule to close out the year comes against AL Central foes, Paul Molitor's club will see a lot of their divisional rivals and can begin to prepare for the year ahead. While it's going to be important to try and slow the pace of the losing, it's equally as important to set up for success in the year ahead.

Looking at how the Twins have positioned themselves, what will be available on the market, and where the roster stands, many of the answers for the future are going to need to come from within. Starting to figure those out sooner rather than later remains in the best interests of the club.

If you're going to place a heightened focus on certain places the rest of the way, here's exactly where I'd point you:

1. Jose Berrios

First and foremost, Jose Berrios needs to get back up to the big leagues and settle in. Across his last four Triple-A starts he's owned a 0.60 ERA and allowed opposing hitters to bat just .104/.171/.156 against him. He's allowed just one home run in his last 30 innings and he's walked batters at just a 2.1 BB/9 rate over that time.

There's no denying he scuffled in his big league debut. As Keith Law of ESPN warned, command and a flat fastball were his biggest deterrents. He'll need to keep the ball in the yard, and he can't issue so many free passes. What remains a constant though is that the Twins need Berrios more than he needs to be here. Minnesota doesn't have an ace, and hasn't for a while. The rotation is full of mediocre options performing below their typical high water marks. Berrios may not be among the best pitchers in the major leagues, but he needs to settle in the rest of the way and be viewed as the Twins go to starter to open 2017.

2. Who is your number two?

If Jose Berrios can finish the year in the big leagues, and do it while pitching well, you have to find out what you have behind him. Right now, the Twins need to be looking everywhere to see if they can move Ricky Nolasco or Ervin Santana. The latter seems like he'll have suitors, while the former's market remains up in the air.

Tommy Milone may not be offered arbitration again, and that leaves just Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes. Gibson was expected to take a step forward this season, but despite not being healthy, has struggled to do so. He turned in a nice effort last time out, but owns a 4.82 ERA through 9 starts and has walked a career worst 3.4 per nine. Hughes is facing an uphill battle in coming back from Thoracic Outlet surgery, and there'll be plenty of question marks there. Someone needs to pitch behind Berrios, and it can't be a group of mediocrity. Minnesota will need a legitimate one-two-punch, but who makes it up is yet to be seen.

3. Is there an actual closer?

As of right now, the Twins should be operating under the belief that the days of Glen Perkins closing baseball games for them is done. His velocity has declined severely, and he'll now be entering 2017 after a shoulder surgery that required his labrum be reattached to his bone. He has a 3.51 ERA over the past two years and has saved 32 games. Without a stellar pre-All Star 2015 bolstering those numbers though, things are much worse.

Brandon Kintzler is currently operating as the Twins closer, but like Kevin Jepsen before him, that's a role he's not really cast for. Paul Molitor needs to see if Trevor May or Ryan Pressly could be a better option for the here and now. Nick Burdi hasn't pitched hardly at all in 2016 due to injury concerns of his own, and the Twins have given a whopping two outs of major league work to J.T. Chargois. Those are the names I'd start with for closers in 2017, you can't go into the year with a question mark at the back end of a mediocre pen.

4. Settle the log jams

Really, the only areas that the Twins need to be concerned in regards to players piling up are at second and third base. Both Brian Dozier and Jorge Polanco should be at the major league level, but there's currently only room for one. Trevor Plouffe and Miguel Sano play the same position, and when both are healthy, that's been an area of concern as well.

It's pretty obvious that the Twins should've traded Plouffe some time ago. His value has probably never been lower than it is now, and a move at this point would be beneficial if only for opening up the roster spot. In regards to Dozier and Polanco, the return for the Twins All Star second basemen should be hefty. Despite entering his 30's, Dozier is a late bloomer and has been one of the most offensively productive two-baggers in the big leagues. I'm really good with trading either, but the return has to be right for both. At the end of 2016 however, only two of these four should realistically be options going forward for Minnesota.

5. Allow Buxton to struggle

I was really happy to see the Twins make the right move in their latest roster shuffles by adding guys back without sending Byron Buxton out. Sure, he's scuffled at the plate, but his defense is already Gold Glove caliber. He's shown the club he can rake at Triple-A, and there's nothing new he's going to learn by heading back there.

Run Buxton out nearly every day and let him struggle through it. He's got a good head on his shoulders, and confidence doesn't appear to be an issue he struggles with. He's hit a better (but still not good) .222/.248/.374 since rejoining the Twins, and his 37% strikeout rate is a far cry from the 53% output he had prior to his demotion. There's going to be a lot more lumps for Buxton to take the rest of the way, but if he can figure things out and take them now, it sets him up to hit the ground running in 2017. Minnesota needs to let that process play out.

When you have played as bad as the Twins have, there's not many positives to draw from the first half of what has been an unfortunate year. That being said, the rest of the way invites an opportunity to position things for a better start in 2017, as opposed to packing it in and slogging through the rest of the schedule. If Minnesota can get a few things to click down the stretch, the team they have a year from now will be significantly better for it.