Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dozier And The Regression That May Be Minor

Last season, Brian Dozier swatted 42 homers for the Minnesota Twins and entered the franchise record books with the most for any player not named Harmon Killebrew. To say the second basemen from Mississippi had a good year would be the undersell of the decade. It immediately made Dozier the Twins hottest commodity, and nearly found him playing in a new uniform. Now back for 2017, what does the upcoming year look like?

Honestly, I'm not sure you could've found a writer more all over the board on Dozier than I was a season ago. From wondering if he was cooked, to enjoying the heights of his success, I simply jump at every inclination and tried to run with it. In reality, I think Brian Dozier solidified who he has matured into, and that gives us some really strong insight as to what lies ahead.

Looking at the past three seasons, Dozier has compiled a .249/.330/.469 slash line. He's averaged 31 homers a season, and has totaled three straight 100 run years. While the .268/.340/.546 slash line with 42 bombs in 2016 was something of a marvel, it wasn't all that far off from what he's made a living out of.

When it comes to regression, there's some really positive signs for Dozier. While his .280 BABIP was a career high, and 19 points higher than the 2015 season, it was backed by a career best 34.7 hard hit rate. In 2016, Dozier generated substantially less line drives (15.9% down from 22.6% and 19.9% in 2015 and 2014 respectively), but posted a career best 47.7 fly ball rate. Given 18.4% of his fly balls left the yard, he's benefited from the reality that getting the ball in the air plays in the big league. Also, bucking the notion that he's a dead pull guy, Dozier decreased his pull percentage to 56.4% after posting a 60.2% mark in 2015.

Despite elevating the ball more, and smashing it over the fence, Dozier has also remained generally within himself when it comes to his approach. He posted a 79% contact rating last season, which was a career low, but not far off from his 82.1% career average. He also swung and missed 9.1% of the time, which was a career high, but is somewhat expected given the power surge. Playing in just two less games than the 2015 season, he struck out ten less times while walking exactly the same amount.

Outside of the plate production, Dozier actually picked it up in the field as well. 2015 marked just the first time in his career that the Twins second basemen posted a negative DRS number. After being at -5 two seasons ago, Dozier pulled off an 8 run swing generating a 3 DRS mark in 2016. At second, Dozier came through on the highest percentage of routine plays during his career, while making 45% of the 20 plays deemed "unlikely" to generate outs.

Since 2013, after moving to second base full time, Dozier has been a positive fWAR player. The 2.5 fWAR he posted in his first season at second was respectable enough, but it's only taken off from there. Although he's not going to be nearly a 6.0 fWAR player yearly, expecting him to post a couple more seasons north of 4.0 fWAR is a good bet.

I think what we're looking at is a player that entered into a late prime given a positional switch and debut timeline. Brian Dozier isn't going to generate MVP votes on a yearly basis, but expecting him to fall off some proverbial cliff from his 2016 doesn't seem like a good bet. He's still a player that needs to avoid the deep slumps, but he's one completely capable of carry this Twins team.

Despite losing 103 games a season ago, Paul Molitor's roster is far from talentless, and they probably aren't as far away as some would assume. If Dozier can continue to be virtually what he has been for the past three or four years, the Twins should have no problem tabbing him as a yearly team MVP contender. Sure, his value and production may never be higher than the height it saw post 2016, but I'm not sure it's going to be significantly lower either.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Minnesota Punting On Half The Diamond?

In the 2000 film, Remember the Titans, two teammates are depicted proclaiming "Left side!, Strong Side!" In doing so, they're referring to the strength of their team (or more accurately, the offensive side of the ball). On defense in 2017, the Minnesota Twins may not find themselves proclaiming that the left side of the diamond is anything close to strong. The question is, how much of a problem is it.

Thinking about the way in which the Twins will likely set up their Opening Day lineup (I took a stab here), the left side of the field could be a massive black hole. At third base, Miguel Sano is all but certain to get the majority of the time. Shortstop is going to be manned by Jorge Polanco after the Twins held onto Brian Dozier, and left field is likely to be played by a combination of Robbie Grossman and Eddie Rosario.

Looking at that group as a whole, they combined to be worth -31 defensive runs saved (of which Grossman accounted for -21). At third, Sano has found a tough time staying within himself. His range is acceptable enough to play the role, but he often finds his feet unsettled, throws rushed, and has displayed errant accuracy far too often when throwing across the diamond. Polanco has never been expected to have the arm strength to stick at short, and the last time he regularly played the role prior to last season was at Double-A in 2015.

In the outfield, Eddie Rosario went from an assist machine to replacement level. Assists being a fickle measure, teams simply stopped running on him a year ago. He backed up his 12 assists in 2015 with just four in 2016, all while going from 10 DRS to zero. The speed is there, but whether or not he's all in and committed on a nightly basis remains to be seen, and has been a knock throughout his career. Grossman totaled a defensive season in left that would make Delmon Young and Josh Willingham blush. He's been right around league average previously, but he'll have to prove the massive cliff he fell off in 2016 was simply a misstep.

Although the Twins didn't do much this offseason to elevate themselves through the free agent market, part of the draw behind Jason Castro was his pitch framing skills. The idea is the with him behind the plate, Minnesota's pitching woes would be somewhat addressed. The reality is that if the entire left side of the field struggles to help out, it's going to end up as a net loss anyways.

The Twins 5.39 ERA among starters a season ago was worst in the big leagues. What's worth noting though is the 4.82 FIP they posted (although still not good coming in at 28th) is virtually a half a run shy of what the actual results were. On the relief side of the equation, things weren't too different. Minnesota relievers owned a 4.63 ERA but posted a 4.18 FIP. Boiling it down to the Twins playing bad defense last year is a pretty easy suggestion, but also one that's widely known.

What 2017 presents as a question is whether or not things will get better. Byron Buxton sticking in the MLB outfield for the whole season should help guys on both sides of him. If the Twins don't develop the left side of the diamond though, they'll have a glaring deficiency for opposing teams to exploit. It's going to be something worth watching, and a development that I'd guess Twins pitchers have a close eye on as well.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Twins Mailbag: January 2017

I have often strayed away from doing mailbag types of posts. In general, Off The Baggy has operated as a place in which I am able to share my opinions on baseball and the Minnesota Twins. However, Twitter remains a focal part of my blogging experience, and the interaction from readers is something I genuinely enjoy.

At this point, I'm not certain how regular of a thing this will be, but I got a decent response for a January mailbag of Twins questions. With a few to kick things off, the hope would be that this sparks continued discussion in the future. Feel free to leave questions in the comments section below for use in future mailbag offerings.

For now, let's get into it. Here's a four-bagger of Twins questions to end the month of January:

In 2017, I think I've been pretty bullish on Byungho Park. I'm not sold that his 2016 was entirely an acclimation problem, and believe that his wrist issue was more than he let on. I'd really love to tab Zach Granite as the breakout or surprise star, and think he has the ability to help this club immediately. In reality, if Minnesota can get just a little more from guys like Sano and Buxton, this team will be in a lot better shape.
I really see Perkins and Hughes as two entirely different scenarios. Glen had surgery on his shoulder, and he literally needed his labrum to be reattached to the bone. Given his age and severity of the injury, I'd be far from shocked if he never pitched again, or at least failed to be even a glimmer of his former self. I think Hughes should return with a clean bill of health, and while Thoracic Outlet surgery isn't foolproof, I'd guess we can count on him out of the gate.
For me, there's no more important player for the Twins than Byron Buxton. He's the Golden Boy prospect that needs to round out into that. If his September 2016 was real, this team will be significantly improved because of it. I do like Phil Hughes to right the ship on the mound, and I think there's some real appeal to having Tyler Duffey pitch out of the bullpen. Heck, if Molitor wants to commit to a full on platoon for Joe Mauer, I'd be far from surprised if he batted over .300 against righties only.
Heading into Spring Training, the Twins have a few options to make room on the 40 man. I know Buddy Boshers had a strong 2016, but I don't think he's much of anything more than a guy that can be replaced by a handful of arms capable of at least the same level of effectiveness. If you want to go with a position player though, I'd have very little hesitancy about keeping Danny Santana. He can't play anywhere on the field well defensively, and he's proven nothing at the plate.

It's Time To Catch Up, The Twins Rebuild Is Over

This offseason, and many of recent memory for that matter, Twins fans have talked of the word rebuild. In describing the organization, rebuilding was a way to define the idea that the Twins needed and influx of new talent that would get them back into relevancy. While that has been a fair assessment of where the club has found itself, a new reality has set in. That time period is over, the rebuilding is done.

On Twitter recently, I stumbled across a conversation Twins beat writer Brandon Warne was having. He summarized the Twins current situation by saying, "The Twins rebuild is in a lot of ways over. There isn't much else to strip down. It's time to build." I'm not sure there's a more eloquent way to put it.

When it comes to big league baseball, there's only a few realities that face a team. Either your a serious World Series contender, you're treading water somewhere in the middle with a vertical trajectory of one direction, or you've committed to an influx of minor league talent with the idea that it pans out at the highest level.

To be completely fair, suggesting a team is a World Series contender is somewhat of a fickle practice. Sure, the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers are juggernauts, but making it into the playoffs makes you a contender of sorts. Although the exits were always quick, that's a stage that the Twins found themselves in during the run of AL Central titles under Ron Gardenhire. They quickly moved through the water treading phase (on a downward trajectory), and went into the doldrums of needing to stockpile talent. At this point though, the cycle has already begun to rotate.

While Paul Molitor's club isn't going to be kicking in the Postseason door when the 2017 season draws to a close, they've absolutely entered back into the pool of mediocrity, but with an upward trajectory this time. By suffering through the poor stretch, they've stockpiled talent, and at one point had one of the best farm systems in baseball.

The rebuild in which the Twins needed to undertake was highlighted by prospects such as Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, and Max Kepler. Those names are no longer found on prospect lists, they aren't rookie eligible, and they are all basically entrenched at the big league level. At this point, it's on the Twins to support them developmentally as best they can, and get them to contribute over the course of a 162 game season.

Although the Twins failed to generate much of anything in the pitching category, the rebuild portion of the big league turnaround is complete. You could say that names like Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero equate to some sort of replenishment when they arrive, and the hope would be that Minnesota would turn out a few more hidden gems. Right now though, the focus needs to be on sustenance.

Given what is left on the free agent market, I don't believe that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are best positioned to spend. They'd likely be giving too much money to players not necessarily deserving of it. Save for Mike Napoli as a rotational partner with Joe Mauer and Byungho Park, I'm good with the Twins standing pat. Entering 2018 is another story however.

A year from now, Minnesota will be more able to accurately gauge where there young stars are, what the roster deficiencies seem to be, and how to attack them. A frontline starter should be on the shopping list, and pulling out some significant stops to enter back into contender mode for a stretch makes a lot of sense.

When a big league team is losing, it's fair to consider what their plan truly is. However, calling a struggling team rebuilding is a lazy excuse to categorize something that may very well not be the case. Minnesota has moved out of that phase and onto the next one, this team is rebuilding no more.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Breaking Down Where The Twins And Dodgers Broke Down

It wasn't the 11th hour, but times were getting desperate in Los Angeles. The Dodgers had spent the entire winter talking with the Minnesota Twins about the possibility of acquiring All Star second basemen Brian Dozier. Needing a second basemen to fix a glaring hole occupied by the aging Chase Utley a season ago, the Dodgers needed to act. In the end, they did, but it wasn't with the Twins.

Trading pitching prospect Jose De Leon to the Tampa Bay Rays for Logan Forysthe, the Dodgers found their man. Forsythe is 30 years old, and under team control for the next two years (with an $8.5m team option for 2018). He was worth 2.8 fWAR in 2016, 4.0 in 2014, and -0.5 three years ago in 2014.

How does that stack up against the Twins Dozier? Brian is just a bit younger still at 29, but is also under team control for each of the next two seasons. He was worth 5.9 fWAR as an All Star in 2016, and has been worth 2.5, 4.7, and 3.3 fWAR from 2013-2015 respectively. While very similar, the Twins two bagger is the slightly superior big leaguer.

In dealing De Leon straight up for Forsythe, the Twins position that there man was worth more than a 1-for-1 deal becomes immediately justified. Where the Twins maybe outkicked their coverage, was in who they were asking for along with the top pitching prospect. Names like Yadier Alvarez, Walker Buehler, and Cody Bellinger were all thrown around. Los Angeles had no compelling reason to move any of those three, and it's understandable why they'd draw a line there. Had Minnesota stepped back to Brock Stewart or Willie Calhoun, they may have found a more willing dance partner.

At the end of the day, it comes down to opportunity cost for Los Angeles. In nabbing Forsythe, they get a lesser second basemen than the one the originally were targeting, but they also hold onto more of their assets. De Leon has some shoulder concerns, and the Dodgers have been said to be lower on him than other organizations may be. While Stewart and Calhoun aren't top tier guys, they provide strong depth that now stays on the farm. Los Angeles decided the added boost from Dozier wasn't worth the premium price tag.

With it being all but certain now that Dozier stays in Minnesota for the forseeable future, the Twins have left themselves with a couple different realities at play. First and foremost, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine stepped in and had an immediate strong showing. As noted at the end of Nick Nelson's piece, the way in which the front office stood their ground was impressive, and is something Terry Ryan probably wasn't known for. It will absolutely influence how other teams go about business with the Twins new brass in the future.

Secondly though, the Twins have kept one of the best second basemen in all of baseball on their roster. The harm in that in and of itself is nil, the downside comes in how he is supported. At this point, the free agent market is left with virtual holdovers saved for a few names. There's not a significant impact player or two that is going to turn the Twins reality around. Dozier deserves to have talent brought in to supplement his play, but spending to do so is something the former regime wound up doing far too often.

Instead, the Twins should sit and wait. Last season was a mirage of sorts in that the club wasn't the blueprint of a 103 loss team. Pitching was awful, and the offense was nonexistent at times, but the youth expected to carry the group mostly was trying to find its way. You can make the argument that even an upward trend towards mediocrity should give the Twins a realistic shot at something like 80 wins in 2017, and that'd be a heck of a turnaround in and of itself.

That being said, Dozier can dictate how Falvey and Levine support him. Should he back up his incredible 2016, or really just stay somewhere in the middle of his past two seasons, he could become a trade candidate to a contender in July. More likely though, he gives Minnesota some strong play, and factors into their 2018 plans as well. With money owed to Glen Perkins and Joe Mauer quickly nearing a close, Minnesota will have plenty of funds at its disposal to bring in impact players both on the mound and in the field for the 2018 season.

Right now, the Cleveland Indians remain well positioned in the AL Central. Outside of that though, the Royals are treading water, the Tigers are aging, and the White Sox are reliant on a full scale rebuild. If the Twins want to spend and supplement a year from now, it's hard to scoff at the idea they'd have a shot at being at least a divisional contender.

Stocking the farm is something that Levine and Falvey need to make a priority. The reason it's bare though, is because of the talent having graduated to the big league level. It'll be on the backs of the former top prospects that a turnaround needs to happen for the Twins. Asking Brian Dozier to be a part of that is far from a bad idea, and spending on the group as a whole a year from now would make everyone happy.

As Spring Training approached, the Dodgers balked on the game of chicken first. They looked at an opportunity cost being too steep and went a different direction. The haul Minnesota likely deserved was never there, and the organization was right by holding serve. Now it'll be on them to follow up the second half of the process and make Dozier feel supported throughout the lineup.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Twins Still Looking For Next Radke

As the 2017 Major League Baseball season quickly approaches, the Minnesota Twins are nearly set to embark on sunny Fort Myers, Florida for Spring Training. There's not a lot of unknowns for the upcoming season, and much of Paul Molitor's club having success rests on known commodities stepping up. As pitching continues to remain a focal point, the Twins are still looking for their version of an ace, or an embodiment of Brad Radke.

On April 3, 2017, the Minnesota Twins will host the Kansas City Royals. It's nearly a guarantee that Ervin Santana will take the mound for Molitor's club, and in doing so, will be somewhat out of the norm. In making a second straight Opening Day start for the home nine, the Twins will give the ball to the same pitcher to open consecutive seasons for the first time since Carl Pavano in 2012 and 2011. While back-to-back years with some top of the rotation certainty is nice, it's hardly a calming realization.

In looking at the way in which the Twins have toed the rubber on Opening Day, they've yet to have a pitcher get the ball on three consecutive Opening Day starts since Brad Radke's run of seven straight years ended in 2005. Since then, Minnesota has asked nine different pitchers to make Opening Day starts. Although an Opening Day nod does not an ace make, it's a level of consistency that Minnesota has long lost.

Brad Radke pitched 12 big league seasons and was a one-time All Star. He generated Cy Young votes once, in his age 24 season, and had a relatively mediocre big league career. What he was though, was a staple in the Twins rotation, and a guy that could be relied upon on a yearly basis. His career K/9 checked in at just 5.4, but he tallied just 1.6 BB/9 over his 2,451 major league IP. His career 4.22 ERA wasn't anything to blow you away, and while his career earnings topped $61 million, he never got any sort of an ace level payday.

The reality is that the Twins of today need their version of Radke. Looking up and down the system, there's next to no true top of the rotation potential. Fernando Romero has been dubbed a potential ace for the Twins, but he's a ways away from being able to prove that at the big league level. Ervin Santana has been a steadying force among the Twins rotation, but given the current landscape, would be an ideal trade candidate.

At some point, the Twins need to develop some pitching.

We're not too far removed from the Twins throwing money at free agent arms. Terry Ryan overspent on a guy like Ricky Nolasco, before appropriately allocating on Phil Hughes (only to extend him and make it a less than ideal scenario). Every team needs top tier pitching, and the reality is that Minnesota is going to be beat out dollars wise on the market more often than not. It only highlights how much more important that internal mastery be achieved.

With high draft picks in recent years, the Twins have taken arms such as Kohl Stewart and Tyler Jay. The former looks like a failing high school pick that can't miss bats, while the latter profiles better as the reliever he was in college. Knowing where the franchise is, missing on must-hit arms can't continue to be a trend.

If you've made it this far, I'm sorry that I can't offer you much in the form of hope. Maybe we just highlighted already accepted information, but maybe it again calls into focus how difficult landing top arms truly is. Ervin Santana will throw a second straight Opening Day for the Twins. Sure, that's a feat for this organization, but the reality is that he's not an ace, and right now, he's not even Minnesota's ghost of Brad Radke.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Twins To Get More From Two Pitching Unknowns

There's no nice way to put it, the pitching for the Minnesota Twins was absolutely abysmal in 2016. While the club set a franchise record losing 103 games, they very easily could've avoided that fate by getting just a bit more out of the production turned in from the rubber. This season, Paul Molitor doesn't have a significantly revamped staff, but there's a few key cogs that could turn heads.

While I'm not naive enough to believe that the Twins are all of a sudden going to be one of the best pitching teams in the American League, there is a path for a turnaround. Trevor May can stay healthy in the rotation, Phil Hughes could bounce back, and Jose Berrios has yet to truly emerge. Stepping aside from the big names though, I'd like to focus on a returning commodity, and one that is new to the organization.

First, Tyler Duffey presents the Twins with an interesting opportunity. At 26 years old, Duffey has turned in 36 starts across two big league seasons thus far. His rookie year saw a pitcher that limited damage by keeping the ball in the yard and striking out opposing batters. As the book got out on him, and his impressive curveball, he served up 25 dingers in 2016 while being demoted back to Triple-A. I'm not sure I want to dub Duffey as a "failed starter," but I'm pretty confident he can be of more use in the pen.

A former closer at Rice University, Duffey has the chops, and the pure stuff, to get hitters out in a more limited role. Over the course of his career, he's allowed a .963 OPS to batters from the 4th inning on. When facing batters in the first three innings, he's limited them to just a .743 OPS. As with most pitchers, his OPS rises the more often he faces an opposing hitter in a game. Unfortunately for Duffey, it drastically jumps from .639 the first time around to .976 in their second appearance.

On top of being a pitcher that hitters adjust to, Duffey's best stuff really includes only two pitches. He's got a fastball that sits in the low-90s and a curveball that is easily his best pitch. In his big league time, he's thrown a changeup just 5.5% of the time. Duffey also isn't a guy that generates a ton of swing and misses in his current role. His big league number comes in at just 8.9% while allowing opposing hitters to make contact over 81% of the time. In a relief role, I think the tides turn in his favor some.

Asking Duffey to start out in middle relief, with the potential to use him in a bit more high leverage, could be a really good thing. Out of the pen, his fastball should trend more towards the mid-90s with his curveball being a big yakker as an out pitch. Minnesota has a deficiency in the bullpen as well, and casting Tyler in the right role could be a great move for both parties. I'm sure he'll get a chance to start this spring, but with so many options, moving him to a full time relief role makes a lot of sense.

The other guy is someone that I see having the potential to help Minnesota either in starting or in relief. Justin Haley was selected with the first overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft for a reason, Minnesota thinks he can help them right now. While the Twins have had success in the Rule 5 Draft in the form of players such as Johan Santana and Ryan Pressly, I'm not ready to call Haley a guarantee. What I do think is that he has a strong enough floor that no matter how he's used, he can be effective.

At 25 years old and yet to debut, Haley is no spring chicken or top prospect. However, the former Red Sox 6th round pick has seen success at each level of the farm system, and should have a pretty smooth projectability. Striking out right around eight batters per nine and walking right about three per nine over the past two seasons at Double and Triple-A, he could be a serviceable arm at the back end of the rotation. If Molitor wants to hide him a bit more, he looks like the makings of a swing man in the pen, that can eat innings and get big league hitters out,

Haley has never been significantly bittern by the longball, and has posted some pretty respectable FIP numbers. I wouldn't expect him to come in and contend for the Rookie of the Year, but if he ends up being a consistent back-end starter or reliable reliever, I'd be far from shocked.

It's going to take scenarios like this playing out for the Twins to turn the tide on their pitching woes. The reality is that the system may not have a true ace in it, and the big league level doesn't have much to hang its hat on either. I really like the pieces and depth that Minnesota has at its disposal, but an immediate turnaround will require guys rising to the occasion. If given the opportunity, I'd be on both Duffey and Haley answering that call.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Does A Flier Grab A Spot With Minnesota?

With Spring Training now kicking off for the Minnesota Twins in less than 30 days, the roster is going to begin to shape itself for the upcoming season. Paul Molitor's club will be looking to rebound from the worst record in franchise history. What is worth wondering is whether or not any veteran non-roster guys will make the trip north.

In their first season with the organization, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have made some solid acquisitions when it comes to guys considered fliers. They have inked a handful of veteran pitchers, they've brought in guys they have worked with previously, and they've handed out lottery tickets to guys that might have some upside. On a Twins team that needs to be fueled by youth though, will any of them claim a 25 man spot?

Here's a few names to keep an eye on down in Fort Myers this spring, and the likelihood that the break the exhibition season with the big league club.

Nick Tepesch 15%

In 2016, Tepesch pitched just 4.0 innings in the majors. He missed all of 2015 after having undergone Thoracic Outlet surgery (the same procedure Phil Hughes is battling back from). Across 116.0 IP at the Triple-A level last season, Tepesch owned a 3.96 ERA along with a 4.8 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9. Tepesch isn't a strikeout guy, and he's worked mainly as a starter. For the Twins, he'll need to compete for a final rotation spot and I just don't see it. There's more upside by going with someone such as Justin Haley, Adalberto Mejia, or Jose Berrios.

Ryan Vogelsong 30%

Now 39 years old, Vogelsong is absolutely at the tail end of his big league career. He's posted rising ERAs since his 2.71 ERA as an All Star with the Giants in 2011. A year ago in Pittsburgh, Vogelsong worked as a reliever for the longest duration since his return to the big leagues, and he ended up with a 4.81 ERA. His FIP rested at 5.00 and he issued free passes at a 4.4 BB/9 rate. I don't think any of his peripherals are good, but could see Minnesota giving him a shot as the long man out of the pen. I'd prefer they went with internal options in relief, but I wouldn't rule it out completely.

Chris Gimenez 49%

While Tepesch has ties to Levine through the Rangers, I think Gimenez and his ties to Falvey through the Indians are stronger. Gimenez is essentially a defense only catcher. His career OPS across 289 big league games is a paltry .632. He's consistently thrown out base runners at leave average rates though, and he's serviceable behind the plate. Long term, he doesn't provide much for the Twins, but if they're unsure of either John Ryan Murphy or Mitch Garver, he gets the nod.

Matt Hague 1%

Hague played in Japan last season. Manning the hot corner for Hanshin, he slashed .231/.339/.346 across 31 games. While he flashed power at the minor league level (79 HRs in 8 seasons), he's never homered in a big league game and smashed just two in Japan. He's a warm body and provides organizational depth, but he's not a 25 man roster option.

Ben Paulsen 5%

There's no immediate path to playing time for Paulsen, but he's an intriguing case. He'll likely compete as a bench bat and DH option with both Byungho Park and Kennys Vargas. As a distant third in that scenario, he'll need a really nice spring for the Twins. He got into 39 games for the Rockies last season but posted just a .562 OPS. He is a year removed from 116 games worth of a .787 OPS though, and was highly regarded as a third round pick back in 2009. The deck is stacked against him for sure, but there's a glimmer there.

J.B. Shuck 15%

When the Twins brought in Shuck, I thought it signified the writing being on the wall for Danny Santana. It may not directly correlate, but I think Minnesota wants better defense in the outfield off of the bench. Unfortunately for Shuck, he doesn't represent that either. His career .627 OPS is far from ideal, and while he can play all three outfield spots, it's at an average at best capacity. If the Twins are going with an extra outfielder, I'd hope the give Zach Granite a nod instead. Regardless, Shuck figures to be among the competition for one of the final bench spots with Minnesota.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Twins Next Breakout Prospect

Over the past few seasons, I've found myself having a player or two that emerges out of nowhere to be a key cog for the Minnesota Twins during the regular season. In 2015, it was Eddie Rosario, and last year, I was in on the Max Kepler bandwagon prior to Spring Training starting. This season, I can't seem to pinpoint someone I feel as confident about, but there's a guy that I think has a shot to help the Twins in a big way.

Before we get to that though, this season should provide some competition when it comes to an emerging offensive prospect. Down the stretch a season ago, I found myself frustrated that Mitch Garver wasn't given some time behind the plate. It was clear that Juan Centeno wasn't a big leaguer, and he was taking away at bats that could've been more productively utilized. On top of that, Garver absolutely earned his way to the big leagues.

In 117 games across Double and Triple-A last season, Garver posted a .764 OPS. While it wasn't the .880 OPS he tallied at Cedar Rapids in 2014, it was a great deal better than his .688 OPS at Fort Myers in 2015. On top of his offensive season (which was capped with an .815 OPS across 22 Triple-A contests), he was stellar behind the dish. Catching 60 games, he made just three errors, allowed only seven passed balls, and threw out 48% (26 of 54) of would be base stealers.

Working against Garver this season though is the Twins acquisition of Jason Castro. Castro was brought in to start now, and for the forseeable future. I have Garver tabbed as the backup catcher on Opening Day, but his path to playing time could be limited for the bulk of the season.

The next in this conversation is a guy I like a lot, but has a significant caveat to him. Should Brian Dozier be dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers or elsewhere, Engelb Vielma immediately becomes the starting shortstop for the Twins in my eyes. As things stand currently, Minnesota has Jorge Polanco slated to play out of position up the middle with Dozier. There's also reason to believe that Eduardo Escobar is more than capable to handle shortstop should the Twins call upon him. Vielma would bring another level defensively however.

Owning just a career .636 OPS across five minor league seasons, Vielma probably isn't ever going to hit. He has a decent speed tool although he doesn't swipe a lot of bases. Primarily a contact hitter that relies on singles, Vielma's glove is his ticket to a starting role. He'd be the least sexy of the breakout candidates being a leather first option, but if the door opens, he should have the chops to walk through it.

Given the circumstances and the entire landscape though, I think it's Twins Minor League Hitter of the Year Zach Granite that emerges through opportunity. He was a 14th round pick out of Seton Hall in 2013, and has been relatively consistent throughout his minor league career. While he's not a power guy or even a gap hitter, his speed will cause problems on the basepaths.

In 127 games at Double-A last season, Granite stretch 18 doubles to go with eight triples, but most impressively, swiped 52 bases. He's a legit threat every time he gets on, and that speed plays in the outfield as well. He would immediately pair with the likes of Byron Buxton and Max Kepler to make a ridiculously good trio defensively, and that alone should get him an extended look for Opening Day.

It's a decent amount to ask a 23 year old to jump from Double-A to the big leagues, and Granite has progressed one level at a time in his tenure with the Twins, but if there's a skillset that makes sense, it's his. He gives Paul Molitor a speed threat off the bench, and is reliable with the bat to battle in the box. Over his career, he's struck out just 149 times in 337 games while drawing 130 walks. He battles at the dish and causes havoc for opposing pitchers.

Unlike Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler before him, Granite doesn't have the high ceiling or prospect status. He does possess some pretty strong projectable tools though, and is someone that should have a really safe floor. On a Twins team looking for consistency, and always in need of defensive help, Granite seems to fit the bill.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The 25 Headed To Target Field

The Minnesota Twins are quickly closing in on an end to the offseason. With pitchers and catchers reporting to sunny Fort Myers in short order, Paul Molitor and the Twins brass will need to evaluate who they take north to start the 2017 season. Projecting the 25 man roster in January once again leaves plenty of room for shifting, but I'll try to sort through what I see happening.

This offseason, Brian Dozier had been the talk of the town in regards to a potential trade with the Dodgers. He's not going anywhere now, and it would seem, for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, here's the 25 guys I believe Paul Molitor is best positioned to win with in 2017 assuming Derek Falvey and Thad Levine hold onto their second basemen.

Rotation (5)

  • Ervin Santana
  • Phil Hughes
  • Kyle Gibson
  • Hector Santiago
  • Trevor May
The biggest question mark here is Phil Hughes. Coming off Thoracic Outlet surgery, his health remains a major question. Players heal differently, and the surgery isn't one that has been perfected on baseball players by any means. I think he goes out of the gate, and the hope would be that his troubles are behind him health wise.

If Hughes is unable to stake claim to a rotation spot, I'd look next at Nick Tepesch, Adalberto Mejia and Jose Berrios with the latter holding a slight advantage. In reality, I think both start at Triple-A. Gibson, Santana, and Santiago are locks, unless Minnesota decides to make a late play on trading Ervin (which I'd support). Trevor May has worked as a reliever for much of the last two seasons now, but his back simply can't hack it. He may not be as dominant strikeout wise as a starter, but I think it's the best role for him to consistently contribute.

A year ago, the Twins had the worst starting rotation in baseball and it wasn't particularly close. It shouldn't be that bad again, but this group being around league average is quite a stretch too.

Starting Lineup (9)
  • Jason Castro C
  • Joe Mauer 1B
  • Brian Dozier 2B
  • Jorge Polanco SS
  • Miguel Sano 3B
  • Eddie Rosario LF
  • Byron Buxton CF
  • Max Kepler RF
  • Byungho Park DH  Kennys Vargas DH
Most of this should be pretty expected. Castro was brought in to start, and Dozier keeps the duo with Polanco up the middle if he stays. I'd like to see Mauer play less, but he remains the club's best defensive first basemen. Sano should settle into third a bit more, and the outfield should be pretty much set. I could see Molitor going Grossman in left over Rosario, but I think you start with the upside play of Rosario.

The one player that I continue to be higher on than everyone else is Byungho Park. I think there was a lot more to the wrist injury last year than we were told, and I'd be far from surprised to see him have a bounce back season. KBO players have fared well in the big leagues, and being the best over there, should give him a fighting chance.

Update: Vargas was DFA'd by the Twins when they signed Matt Belisle. I still think he's a superior option to Kennys Vargas, but he's got a massive hill to climb at this point. It appears that the new regime will give Vargas every opportunity to run away with the role.

Ideally, I'd rather not have Polanco playing shortstop, but Dozier would need to be moved for that to happen. Sano also has to get significantly better defensively this season if he's going to help Twins pitchers out.

Bench (4)
  • Eduardo Escobar
  • Robbie Grossman
  • Mitch Garver
  • Zach Granite Ehire Adrianza
This is probably the toughest area thus far to nail down just because of what options the Twins have at their disposal. I'd consider both Escobar and Grossman to be locks, but from there things get dicey. For the backup catcher role, John Ryan Murphy, Mitch Garver, and Chris Gimenez will need to battle it out. Gimenez has a leg up with Falvey, while Murphy was brought in by the former regime. I'm going with the offensive play here though, and believed that Garver deserved a shot last season. It's time he gets it.

I really wrestled with the last spot, and Granite ends up getting the nod for me. J.B. Shuck was worth -13 DRS over 60 games in CF for the White Sox last season. I like Daniel Palka a lot, but he can't play centerfield, and Danny Santana offers little in the way of offense or defense at this point. Granite would be making a big jump from Double-A, and he really only started to hit last season. That said, he'll steal bases, can be a pinch runner, and give Minnesota elite defense at all three outfield spots off of the bench.

Update: When the Twins signed Ehire Adrianza, I think it all but put the nail in Danny Santana's coffin. The interesting thing here is the new proposed bench would only consist of one extra outfielder, and it's a guy that is average at best defensively while not being capable of playing all three positions. Eduardo Escobar may actually have to hold off Adrianza on his own as well.

Bullpen (7)
  • Brandon Kintzler Closer
  • Ryan Pressly Setup
  • J.T. Chargois Setup
  • Taylor Rogers
  • Michael Tonkin
  • Tyler Duffey Matt Belisle
  • Justin Haley
There's a pretty glaring omission here, and that's by design. I'm not counting on Glen Perkins to be back for the Twins on Opening Day, and I'm far from certain as to what he'll give them throughout the season. Perkins underwent serious shoulder surgery in which he required his labrum being reattached to his shoulder. I'd love to see him return, look like an All Star, and be a potential trade chip to a contender in July. I just don't see it happening.

That being said, the closer incumbent is Brandon Kintzler. He's not an ideal fit in that he doesn't get the ball by anyone. He struck out just 5.8 per nine last season, but he also walked just 1.3 per nine. I'd rather get Kintzler to a lower leverage role, and I think the emergence of J.T. Chargois can accomplish that. I like Pressly a lot and think he also could factor into save situations for the Twins.

Taylor Rogers and Michael Tonkin return with both being reliable if not incredibly high ceiling options. By moving Duffey back to the pen, he settles into a scenario that he's familiar with having been a college reliever. His limited pitch repertoire should play up more in relief, and he could be a dominant arm. Rounding out the group, and operating as the long man, is Justin Haley. Selected with the first pick in the Rule 5 Draft, Haley doesn't have an incredible ceiling, but should have a pretty safe floor.

Update: Belisle becomes a lock after being signed to a big league deal by Minnesota. I think Duffey makes a lot of sense in relief, but suppose this gives the Twins a chance to allow him to keep starting at Triple-A. Ryan Vogelsong, Nick Tepesch, Craig Breslow, and a host of vets are going to compete for the final spots. Haley may not stick despite being the first Rule 5 pick, and I'd guess Tonkin has to be feeling on the hot seat. Ideally, Rogers and Chargois need to go north in my opinion.

Friday, January 13, 2017

New Front Office Has Two Futures In The Air

The Minnesota Twins removed Terry Ryan as general manager last season, and in doing so, brought in a completely new way of thinking in the form of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. While there's plenty of reason to believe the new structure will work better, there's question as to how what's in place will be handled. For the most part, a roster overhaul isn't a one offseason thing, but there's two players that could see their fate hang in the balance.

First comes in the form of Byungho Park. He was a surprise signing by the Twins last offseason, and was expected to come in and take over the designated hitter duties. There was some concern that Park simply added more of a logjam to the list of DH/1B types for the Twins, but the narrative didn't play out in his favor. A prolific home run hitter in Korea, he struggled mightily in the big leagues, and the strikeouts outweighed the power production.

What's worth bringing up with Park though, is that he dealt with a wrist injury for much of his rookie season stateside. I am in the camp that believes he pressed, and tried to play through the pain a bit more than he let on. Given the overall success of Korean players in the big leagues, Park being arguably the best hitter to ever come over, appears as a massive outlier when looking at his major league production.

Neither Derek Falvey nor Thad Levine had input on the $24.8 million that was invested in the Korean slugger. While it's a substantial amount, teams have cut bait with much worse. Despite their lack of involvement in the deal, I find it hard to believe that Park won't again be in the Twins plans this season. Joe Mauer doesn't profile as a regular anymore, and I'd prefer Park over Kennys Vargas defensively. Given the belief I have in the upside, as well as the reality that Vargas has another option year to his name, I think the new front office allows Park another chance to flash his stuff in the majors.

On the flip side of the coin, I'm not so sure that catcher John Ryan Murphy will be given the same benefit of the doubt. Acquired by Ryan when he dealt former top prospect Aaron Hicks to the Yankees, Murphy was supposed to come in and take away the starting catcher role from Kurt Suzuki. Unfortunately, Murphy managed just 26 games at the MLB level, and his .413 OPS was an incredibly disappointing showing.

Neither Falvey nor Levine have any skin in the game when it comes to either Hicks or Murphy. Given that reality, it's not necessarily on their record to care whether or not the Twins look like the exchange had any benefit for the organization. On top of that, Murphy did little to earn his way back up while at Triple-A. He owned just a .609 OPS in over 80 games, and he struggle to throw out base stealers nabbing just 21% of them.

This offseason, the Twins have signed Jason Castro to be their starting catcher. On top of that, they brought in former Indians catcher Chris Gimenez, and have minors depth with Mitch Garver, Dan Rohlfing, and Eddy Rodriguez. There was real weight to the argument that Garver outplayed Murphy a season ago, and he should be given some extra belief because of that as we head into 2017. The Triple-A team isn't going to carry four catchers, and while I'd doubt Minnesota cuts ties with Murphy, I would be far from shocked if he's relegated to a backup minor league role.

When a new front office comes in, it's obvious they are dealt a hand left over from whatever was in place prior to their arrival. It's been a relatively difficult challenge to handle the Brian Dozier scenario right out of the gate I'd imagine, but when it comes to more roster filling players, the new men in charge will have their opportunity to put faith behind who they best see fit. Park and Murphy are hardly the only players in this camp. Honestly, Vargas, Danny Santana, and even someone like Buddy Boshers could all join them. Watching how the duo navigates the spring will definitely be worthwhile.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Two Twins On The Outside Looking In

This offseason, the Minnesota Twins haven't done much to add to a club that lost a franchise worst 103 games a season ago. While a rebuild seems logical, and a new front office has been installed, it's hard to fault the organization for taking a wait and see approach. Offensively this club isn't in a bad place, and while pitching is an issue, it shouldn't be historically bad again. However, looking at the potential 25 man roster, there's two former prospects that could be on the outside looking in.

First as primarily an outfielder, and maybe more egregiously a super utility player, Danny Santana comes to mind. At 26 years old, he's hardly a kid anymore, and the BABIP inflated rookie debut seems like a distant memory. After slashing .319/.353/.472 in 2014, he's combined to slash a paltry .227/.259/.308 over 166 games the past two seasons. What started out as a nice outfield emergence has turned into a player with a ton of question marks.

Arguably the largest feather in Santana's cap is that he's out of options. Minnesota can no longer hope he works on things in Rochester, and any trip to Triple-A would require him to pass through waivers unclaimed (unlikely). At the big league level though, it's hard to find value outside of a guy that can simply occupy space. Defensively, Santana has been nothing short of underwhelming. He was worth -15 DRS at SS in 2015 prior to losing the job, and he cost the Twins -9 DRS in the outfield over 63 games a season ago. With an already suspect pitching staff, poor defense isn't an ideal pairing.

At the plate, Santana's swinging strike rate has increased yearly, and it's been in tandem with a declining contact number. He's a guy that relies on his speed to stretch bases, although he's not much of a base stealer either. Walking less than 4% of the time over the course of his career, his plate approach leaves plenty to be desired and doesn't give him an ideal lineup spot.

In short, Santana is a guy that the Twins could absolutely carry as a 25th man out of fear that he's plucked on waivers. Most organizations have someone similar to Santana, but as a reclamation project in a more defined role on a decent club, he could have value. In keeping Santana however, the Twins would be failing to capitalize on an opportunity to stretch the upside at the back end of their 25 man roster. A player like Santana isn't the difference in contending, but he represents an area where a known commodity can be replaced with higher-ceiling talent.

That brings us to another Twin that had a bit more prospect steam going for him, Kennys Vargas. A year ago, Vargas posted an .833 OPS, but it was almost solely carried by 18 games in the middle of the summer. Joining Minnesota on July 4, Vargas slashed .333/.446/.683 through July 31. In that span he mashed four homers while drawing 13 walks to go with his 18 strikeouts. If Paul Molitor could get anything close to that consistently he'd have to be elated. Vargas then played just 29 more games for Minnesota slashing .163/.252/.380 with six homers and a 39/11 strikeout to walk ratio.

A power guy that has failed to command the zone, Minnesota has demoted Vargas previously for his lack of home run production. He was granted another option year this season, and that stands to weigh heavily in the Twins decision making during roster crunch time.

Things were a bit more encouraging for Vargas a season ago. he hits the ball hard, and his 40% hard hit rate was the best of his career. He also decreased his swinging strike number to just under 12% and posted a rising contact rate. The unfortunate reality though is that Vargas owns a career contact number of just 71.8%. For a guy his size, and making contact less frequently, you'd absolutely expect to see more balls leave the yard.

Defensively, Vargas is far from a black hole. In 32 games he posted just -1 DRS and was serviceable more often than not. He's far from the Gold Glove caliber defense that Joe Mauer has developed at first base, but as a secondary option, he's better than passable. Given that the Twins have a glut of designated hitter types, Vargas will always have to bring his mitt to the yard if he wants to carve out regular playing time.

Quite possibly the biggest deterrent for Vargas' chances to make the Opening Day roster rest on the shoulders of Byungho Park. After being acquired by the previous regime, there's reason to wonder how both Derek Falvey and Thad Levine view the former Korean Baseball Organization slugger. Coming back healthy after a wrist injury, I expect a nice turnaround year for Park, and his second season in the big leagues should overshadow his first. With Vargas able to start at Triple-A, it would make sense to reason that first base alongside Mauer, is Park's job to lose.

I'm not sold on either Danny Santana or Kennys Vargas being everyday big leaguers for the Minnesota Twins or otherwise. Of the two though, it's Santana that strikes me as less of a loss should he be jettisoned from the organization. There's always going to be appeal for power guys in today's game, and while Vargas profiles as such, I'm not sure there's been enough convincing done to suggest he can deliver just yet.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Twins Blueprint Hinges On Dozier Deal

We've now turned the calendar to 2017, and the offseason is quickly coming to a close. The Minnesota Twins will report to sunny Fort Myers in a matter of weeks, and shortly thereafter Opening Day will be upon us. Dominating headlines this winter has been what the Twins will do with Brian Dozier, and it is in that decision that we can raise questions about what the plan for the future is.

Conventional wisdom says that the Twins should trade Brian Dozier for the best possible return. He's the club's best player, coming off of a career year, and there's just two years left on his team friendly contract. While Paul Molitor's club should be a far cry from the 103 losses they suffered in 2016, expecting a deep playoff run isn't realistic either. With Minnesota arguably more than just two years away, Dozier's greatest value is in what he brings back that can supplement the next Postseason team.

Unfortunately, the market for Dozier hasn't materialized as Minnesota has needed it to. The Los Angeles Dodgers have seemed like the best fit from the get go, but they have also become virtually the only landing spot. While top prospect Jose De Leon is a nice get for the Twins, he alone doesn't represent fair value for the All Star second basemen. With no other bidders however, the Twins are watching as fair value is turned into what someone will pay.

Whether or not a trade is consummated by the two sides, I find it hard to suggest that Minnesota should take less than Dozier is worth (De Leon by himself), but the flip side is also worth questioning. If De Leon on his own is short-ending the Twins now, is holding Dozier for a potential non-existent return in the future even worse?

You could make the case that Brian Dozier may hold value to a contender somewhere around the 2017 trade deadline, and if you want to go further, that he may present value for Minnesota as a guy that could be tagged with a qualifying offer two years from now. Both of those hopes require that he continue to produce at a very high level however. For a guy that has reinvented himself into a power pull hitter, Dozier will need to stay ahead of opposing pitchers as he looks to keep playing at a high level.

So what happens when you don't trade Dozier? Well, both Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will have some explaining to do when it comes to future plans. Even though Minnesota isn't likely to lose 100+ games again in 2017, returning Dozier doesn't make them relevant. Worse is that in returning Dozier, and with the free agent market where it is, the roster will be constructed in virtually an identical way it was a season ago. That development would signify a hesitancy to rebuild, while not committing to an ability to compete.

The reason Brian Dozier has been tabbed as such a fit for the Dodgers is because they are a couple pieces short of a World Series, and second base appears the most vacant hole. A team like the Dodgers is in a position to give up top prospects to win now. They have up and coming talent, while also being in a position where one or two pieces put them in a contender position. Unfortunately for the Twins, the farm system is non-existent with virtually all prospects of value being at the big league level, and the major league club isn't yet ready to turn the corner.

On his own, Dozier is a luxury for Minnesota at this point. He represents a player that is out of position given the organizational structure. With the new brain trust deciding not to bring in any real firepower, top notch pitching or positional talent, Dozier stands to be a wasted commodity should he remain in the organization.

There's still reason to believe Dozier is moved; obviously the offseason isn't over. That said, if Minnesota decides to hold on him while not bringing in other top tier talent, the reality of some weird purgatory will set in. This team isn't going anywhere this year, and asking Brian Dozier to stick around to witness it while deciding against future plans seems like an odd decision.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Are The Twins Waiting For On Santana?

The Major League Baseball offseason is now well into the heart of winter. Multiple big name free agents have been signed, and a handful of large trade chips have been moved. For the Minnesota Twins, the talk has been all about Brian Dozier and a potential fit with the Los Angeles Dodgers. What's worth wondering though is why the club hasn't shopped Ervin Santana more.

Entering 2017, Santana will be 34 years old, and still have two years left on his contract (as well as a 2019 team option). He's coming off a season in which he posted his best ERA since 2013, and was nothing short of dominant for stretches during the year. Over his final 18 starts, he tallied a 2.41 ERA and allowed opposing hitters just a .589 OPS against him. For the Twins, Santana represented an ace.

The unfortunate reality however is that Minnesota still lost a franchise worst 103 games. Santana was only given enough run support to record a 7-11 win/loss record over his 30 starts, and in the grand scheme of the season, his strong year did little to elevate the club to any new heights. To summarize, Paul Molitor's club lost consistently despite Santana's efforts.

On the mound, his numbers were backed by physical prowess as well. His 92.7 mph average fastball velocity was the hardest he has thrown since 2008 with the Angels. The Dominican native was generating over a 10% swinging strike rate for just the fourth time in his career, and he was allowing one of the lowest contact rates of his big league tenure at 78.8%. Again, despite the Twins not seeing any success, the opposite was true with Ervin Santana.

Now the idea on dealing Brian Dozier is that he's a luxury for the Twins. They aren't in a position to make a playoff run any time in the immediate future, and Dozier is coming off a great season in which he should command a nice return. If the Twins are looking to accumulate talent, trading a player like Dozier at this point in time is exactly how you do it. What's interesting is that many of the same principles apply to Ervin Santana.

Sure, Santana is just under five years older than Minnesota's second basemen. He also is owed at least $28 million over the next three years as opposed to Dozier's $15 million. What Santana does have going for him though is a market void of pitching options, and teams starving for them. This offseason, Rich Hill was given just shy of $50 million after spending part of 2015 pitching in Indy Ball. One rule is always true, teams will pay for pitching and even moreso when there is little to be had.

It's possible, though rather unlikely, that the Twins make the playoffs in the next two seasons. They don't have the pieces to make a deep run, and Ervin Santana doesn't push the envelope significantly farther than the position the club would be in without him. That brings us to what should be a realization that he's an expendable asset. While Minnesota doesn't have pitching on its own, flipping Santana for a prospect or two that pairs with the timeline of the club's ability to compete makes a lot of sense.

You can make the argument that Santana may have value around the July trade deadline with the Twins having paid more of his contract. However, he's coming off his best performance in years, and any steps backwards could negate the monetary gain. If I'm the Twins, I'd be equally as aggressive in shopping Santana as they have been on Dozier, obviously knowing the return will be different.

When you don't have pitching it's tough to compete, but hanging onto depreciating assets to create the illusion you have pieces doesn't make a ton of sense either. Minnesota would be best served to get something back for Santana before it's too late.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Twins Enter 2017 Ignoring Conventional Wisdom

This offseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed closer Kenley Jansen to an $80 million contract. The New York Yankees inked closer Aroldis Chapman to an $86 million deal. Late inning super-reliever Andrew Miller was the Cleveland Indians star of the Postseason, and Wade David held that title as the Royals closer a year prior. Back end relief pitching has become the new phenomenon, but the Minnesota Twins will ignore the trend in 2017.

Glen Perkins was a 1st round pick by the Twins in 2004 out of the University of Minnesota. He was a local kid out of Stillwater, and has the "one of us" narrative going as he still currently resides in Lakevill. After flaming out as a starter, Perkins picked up his first save for the Twins during the 2011 season. Since then, he's gone on to save 120 games, good enough for third all time in franchise history.

From 2013-2015, Perkins was among the best and most underrated closers in the game of baseball. He made three straight All Star games, saved 30+ games per year, and owned a combined ERA of 3.08. Since moving to the closer role full time, Perkins owns a 9.9 K/9 with a very solid 1.9 BB/9. No matter which numbers you look at, Perkins has had everything going in his favor. In the middle of the 2014 season, Perkins may have been Minnesota's best trade chip in quite some time. Unfortunately, all of this now looks like a distant memory.

Following the All Star Break in 2015, Perkins went on to save just four games, blow three, and post a 7.32 ERA while allowing a 1.068 OPS. After being shut down to end the year, he came back in 2016 to pitch just two innings posting a 9.00 ERA all before undergoing surgery to reattach his labrum to the bone. The injury helps to explain the deterioration of his ability, but it also highlights the volatility of expecting him to return to anything close to what he once was.

Prior to the 2017 season, Perkins will be 34 years old. It sure doesn't look like he'll be ready for Opening Day, and what he can provide the Twins beyond that remains a major question mark. Sitting at 95 mph in 2013, Perkins' fastball velocity has dipped every year until bottoming out at 91 mph a season ago. His out pitch has been a very strong sweeping slider, and that too had seen a decrease of two miles per hour over the past three seasons.

Digging deeper, the numbers continue to mount against the Minnesota native. Perkins has slipped over two percent since 2013 when it comes to generating swinging strikes, and he's giving up contact to hitters nearly 80% of the time (a 5% jump from 2013). Even without an injury to throw a wrench into things, Perkins would have been far from a given in late game situations going into the upcoming season.

Last year, Paul Molitor was forced to call upon veteran journeyman Brandon Kintzler to save games for the big league club. He recorded his first save (and then 16 more) of his big league career, and first since 2012 at Double-A for the Brewers. Filling in admirably, Kintzler helped the Twins limp to the finish line during a franchise worst 103 loss campaign. He posted a 3.40 ERA as the club's closer and allowed a .684 OPS to opposing hitters. To say Kintzler got the job done is fair, to count on him going forward is shaky at best.

Kintzler was a non-roster invitee by former Twins General Manager Terry Ryan. He looked like a decent enough pick up to bolster a bad Minnesota bullpen. Forcing a guy generating 5.8 K/9 into a late inning closer role though isn't a good bet. Working in his favor is that Kintzler walks no one, just 1.3 per nine in 2016 to be exact. Regardless, if you're filling out a bullpen, neither your club nor Kintzler himself should see an ideal fit in the closer role.

That brings the Twins to a crossroads. There's really no in house option short of running bullpen coach Eddie Guardado back out to the mound. J.T. Chargois may eventually assume that role, and prospect Nick Burdi was trending that way before losing his 2016 completely to different injuries. Ryan Pressly may have some late inning appeal, and Tyler Duffey operated as a closer in college for Rice University. No matter who's name you suggest however, the reality is that they're nothing better than a dart throw.

What could be best for the Twins is to go with an all out belief that you should always be using your best relievers when the game is on the line. We saw this past Postseason how Joe Maddon and Terry Francona would go to Chapman and Miller when they needed outs most. While Miller wasn't the Indians closer, both have plenty of saves under their belts. Paul Molitor could decide to use the hot hand, and call upon the guy he believes best gives him the opportunity to generate outs when he needs them. Naming a closer among a group void of a real fit could place unnecessary pressure on someone.

I'd wager that Kintzler will be given the first crack at the 9th inning to open 2017. It'd be great if he stuck, but far from unexpected if it doesn't happen. Minnesota shouldn't be knocking down the door to the playoffs this season, so opportunity should be present for anyone who wants to grab the reins and run with them. Maybe Perkins will defy the odds and give Minnesota another year; maybe he positions himself to be a trade asset at the break. Right now though, it doesn't appear counting on Glen is a good bet, and there's not anyone else that looks like an immediate answer either.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Will The Real Sano Please Stand Up

2017 is here, Miguel Sano is 23 years old, and the Minnesota Twins can finally call him a focal point on their 25 man roster. The long time heralded prospect out of the Dominican has long since made his big league debut, but many around Twins Territory are still awaiting his breakout campaign. In 2017, as a 24 year old, Sano coming into his own may be the best thing possible for the local nine.

I've been pretty critical of Paul Molitor's handling of young players. To put it mildly, I don't believe he's done an exceptional, or even an average job, of relating to his youth. While they represent the lifeblood of this organization's future, the skipper has seemed unsure at how to best utilize them more often than not. For players like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, they'll need to come into their own despite that belief.

For Sano, he's got 196 big league games under his belt, and has launched his first 43 major league home runs. Last winter I wrote about what a long term extension may look like for the Twins and Sano, and while that was coming off a ridiculous rookie year, he's still going to be worthy of a big pay day at some point. His 2016 didn't follow the same narrative however, and a step backwards equated to over a .100 point drop in the Twins hulking slugger's OPS. So, what lies ahead for Sano, and how does he achieve what that is?

Through his first 196 games at the big league level, Sano has played over half of his games as a designated hitter. While destined for third base ideally, he was jettisoned to right field for 2016 as the Twins overcrowded their corners. Now with Trevor Plouffe out of the picture, the hot corner should be Sano's to lose, but that could certainly happen.

A small sample size to be sure, 51 games specifically, Sano has turned in a -3 DRS at third base. His range has been average, and his arm strength isn't an issue even after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The real problem in the field for Sano seems to be accuracy, and potentially effort. Too often, he seems lackadaisical in his pursuit of balls in play, and then sails them past his teammate over at first. Lumbering around at something north of 270 pounds, Sano will need to be doing everything right to stick on the left side of the infield.

There's some merit in the thought that Sano would find success playing first base. The unfortunate downside there is that Joe Mauer is a Gold Glove caliber defender, even if he's not equipped to be an every day regular anymore, and I still believe in Byungho Park. On top of that, Minnesota would be asking Sano to switch to his third position in the majors over the course of three seasons. Sure, it's a possibility down the road, but I think Sano getting the most of himself coincides with making it work at third base.

At the plate, there's no shortage of belief in the potential that Sano has shown. Yes he has swing and miss tendencies, but in today's game, he should punish baseball's enough to make that alright to deal with. After hitting 18 homers in 80 games during his rookie campaign, Sano his 25 in 116 last year (a 39 per 162 pace). Whether Brian Dozier is with the 2017 Twins or not, I'd be far from shocked to see Sano launch 40 homers and lead the club.

In 2017, Sano has plenty of room for growth. After an OPS drop a year ago, he also saw his BABIP dip by nearly 70 points. For a guy that hits the ball "hard" over 40% of the time, that number should always push closer to .400 than .300 (.329 in 2016). He did fall roughly 3% in his hard contact rate a season ago, which suggests that he may have been seeing the ball a bit worse as his chase rate, swinging strike percentage, and contact rate all improved. When putting the ball in play, Sano generated line drives less often, and 6% less of his fly balls left thet park, neither or which helped his cause.

Obviously after a great rookie campaign in 2015, the league would make adjustments against him as well. He still sees a good deal of fastballs (over one-third of the pitches he faced), but there was also a 4% spike in the amount of curveballs and sliders thrown his way the past year. Striking out at roughly the same rate in 2016 (36%) as 2015 (35.5%), Sano's point of contact was probably to blame for some of his struggles.

When at his best, Miguel Sano is dictating plate appearances. He needs to continue to draw walks at a high rate (which he did better in 2015), and get ahead in counts. A year ago, he spent a good deal of time dealing with injuries, and worrying about other mental roadblocks such as playing out of position. Those remain obstacles that ideally would not be in his way during the season ahead.

There's merit to the argument that Minnesota's former top prospect may not be cut out to play the field. With a DH body, and maybe lacking the motivation to be great in the field, that transition may come sooner rather than later. Right now though, it doesn't seem to be something the Twins want to pigeon hole their youngster into, and it happens for players at all different ages. It's my guess that Minnesota would prefer Sano be more Edwin Encarnacion (who still significantly plays the field) as opposed to a David Ortiz type (who really never did) given the landscape of the current roster.

In his first 80 big league games, Sano was trending towards a 4.0+ fWAR player over the course of a season. Unfortunately in 2016, he accounted for just 1.3 fWAR and was only on a 1.8 fWAR per 162 pace. Now with an offseason to get right, and coming into spring training with a defensive home, I think 2017 represents the best yet of Sano. I'm not sold on his mental makeup yet, and he needs to buy into wanting the most of of himself if he's going to be elite, but greatness is already in his sights.