Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Beat Without A Sound For Twins

On May 29, the Minnesota Twins suffered one of the most embarrassing losses in club history. Leading 8-2 in the top of the 8th inning, the bullpen went on to allow 14 runs en route to a 16-8 defeat. At the center of the debacle was manager Paul Molitor's decision making, but there was no one around to hold him accountable.

The day following the meltdown, Star Tribune columnist Chip Scoggins was there. He called the game as it was, and lit Molitor up. Despite Minnesota bringing in Jason Wheeler, who was scheduled to pitch that day for Triple-A Rochester, Molitor went to a taxed bullpen and was given results that you may expect. Scoggins isn't a beat reporter, and he didn't need access to call the situation like it was. There's no way around it, Paul Molitor came up short.

It's been rehashed plenty, but for descriptive purposes, Molitor chose to go to Ryan Pressly with his six run lead. Pressly had thrown 51 pitches encompassing three of the clubs last four games. He was a part of a 15 inning marathon the day prior as well. He blew up for five runs. Craig Breslow and Matt Belisle then each allowed another three runs of their own despite also both participating in the marathon game a day prior. Wheeler, the healthy and scheduled arm, was never turned to, and heads were scratched.

In the days since, narratives from those on the Twins beat have been nothing short of excuses. There's been talk that Wheeler was nothing more than blowout insurance. Plenty have suggested that big league relievers should be able to get six outs, regardless of being tired. The general gist has been in defense of Molitor, a man that's made bullpen mismanagement the expectation rather than the exception. It has has added up to pose the question: Where does the beat actually fall short?

Newspaper outlets and online media alike have their guys that go into the clubhous and bring an extended version of access to the fans. While that's a great thing on the surface, there's a pretty clear conflict of interest at play as well. Despite Molitor being worthy of criticism and questioning, there was none to be found. We were given excuses and boiler plate remarks, and virtually the same information was conveyed no matter where you turn to for your daily reading. Accountability falls by the wayside, because the limits of the job come into play.

How can a beat writer go into the clubhouse and ask Paul Molitor why he stumbled on his bullpen usage, didn't turn to the right guy, and left his team out to dry? That same writer is going to have 50 something more games in which they are required to get quotes and interact for the purpose of their job. In ticking off a player or coach, that job becomes inherently more difficult to complete I'd imagine. Instead of being able to ask questions that produce real answers, the beat filters out the same boiler plate quotes across any number of writer to any number of outlets. We aren't given much in the way of insight, and there isn't any real thought provoked when prodding for answers.

Interestingly enough, the Star Tribune was at it again in another form just a day later. Patrick Reusse, another columnist and a guy not on the beat, called out Derek Falvey for simply shuffling deck chairs in the bullpen. Despite having arms with some sort of upside, the Twins have turned to the likes of Drew Rucinski, Buddy Boshers, and even Nick Tepesch. Reusse notes names such as Hildenberger, Curtiss, Busenitz, and Melotakis as options. These are players that could have a future in the Minnesota pen, but they've been spurned in favor of putting band-aids on bullet wounds.

In this scenario, Reusse takes aim at a bullpen that needed help going into the season, and one that has done less with more thus far. There hasn't been a slew of questions from those on the beat regarding why the Twins are playing with half the deck, or what those arms need to do to be in consideration. It's relatively clear to those watching the game closely that there's multiple options available, but right now, the Twins haven't called upon them. To question the strategy however, once again would open a beat reporter to scrutiny that could in turn hurt their job positioning.

At the end of the day, I think there's a need and a place for beat reporters in sports. They disperse information that is integral for the club to get out, and they are they immediately to garner reaction following competition. The unfortunate side of it is that there's a handful of journalists spouting the same quotes that have answers telling us little, and there's no one there to ask the questions needing to be addressed. Outside of an abrasive relationship with those you cover, there's probably not much to be done in order to get around this reality. There's no doubt though that a fresh perspective or a well appointed prodding question, no matter how it's received, is a breath of fresh air at times.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What If The Twins Buy?

Earlier this month, I wrote about why I believe the Minnesota Twins must trade Ervin Santana. Sure, regardless of his 2017 output, he's not some reinvented pitcher that's going to command a teams top prospects. However, he's more valuable long term to the Twins if the organization can flip him for some solid pieces. What's worth wondering though, is if Minnesota's winning ways have the organization positioned to be buyer's this summer.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Twins current level of play isn't going to be sustainable, or at least result in a playoff berth. If the club is still in the thick of things this summer though, an argument could be made to buy with an eye on the future. Rather than mortgaging your upcoming window for instant gratification, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine could add some pieces to help in 2017 and beyond.

Looking at the current construction of both the 25 and 40 man roster, the biggest deficiency remains on the mound. Minnesota is starved for starting pitching depth, and the bullpen is a pieced together hodgepodge. The Twins could take on some arms, with the intention of retaining them for 2018 and beyond, and feel much better about whatever they must give up.

So, who are some candidates in this scenario? Let's take a look:

Sonny Gray- Oakland Athletics

Gray is a name that I believe the former regime had some interest in. He was pretty awful a season ago, and then he got hurt. Through five turns in the rotation this season however, Gray has been an asset for the Athletics, and has posted the best K/9 (8.5) and BB/9 (2.4) numbers of his career. When right, he can be counted on for 200 innings, and his strikeout numbers would be a lift to a Minnesota rotation void of them. At 27, he's not a free agent until 2020, meaning Minnesota would have to part with some decent pieces. I'm not certain he's a one, or even a two starter, but he'd help in Minnesota to be sure.

Matt Shoemaker- Los Angeles Angels

There's little denying that Los Angeles may have the worst farm system in all of baseball, and they don't have much at the big league level either. The Angels should be trying to pair Mike Trout with talent in his prime, and dealing a 30 year old like Shoemaker could help. He's not a top tier starter by any means, but a career 3.82 ERA would fit for the Twins. He's a middle-of-the-road strikeout guy (Much like Gray), and he doesn't issue many free passes (2.1 career BB/9). He's 30 now, and isn't a free agent until 2021. Again, Minnesota would need to return assets, but that's a controllable pitcher you'd be happy with.

Ivan Nova- Pittsburgh Pirates

This is a tricky situation, as I'm not really sure what to believe Nova is. He's been nothing short of spectacular since arriving in Pittsburgh, but this season, he hasn't struck anyone (4.8 K/9) out and has limited damage by not walking anyone (0.6 BB/9). He's on an incredibly affordable deal making just $26m through 2019. The Pirates may be inclined to deal Gerrit Cole, who has significantly more upside, but he's going to command quite a haul. If Nova could be had for a modest price, he's a middle-of-the-rotation option that the Twins could key in on.

Yu Darvish- Texas Rangers

The lone rental of this foursome, Darvish is a name I think makes a lot of sense for Minnesota, the question is when. If the Twins deal during the season, they'd need the Rangers to fall back out of contention. There's obviously history there with Thad Levine, and Darvish being a free agent in 2018, he's a name I hope Minnesota seriously pursues. Darvish is a true ace, and the Twins have money to spend this offseason. He's a strikeout machine, and he's responded well (3.23 ERA 10.8 K/9 3.2 BB/9) since undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing 2015. Darvish would be a great feature atop the Twins rotation, and at just 30 years old, he's a guy they could ink to one more, big, long-term deal.

I'm still not convinced, even with a winning record, that the Twins should be looking at adding significant pieces in season. Nova is really the only name mentioned above that shouldn't command at least one strong prospect. However, if Minnesota is going to make the move with a long term focus, there's reasons to argue for it. Over the winter, there's plenty of different names that could be on the Twins radar. The club could also consider someone like the Giants Johnny Cueto, depending upon how he chooses to navigate his contract and opt out scenario.

At the end of the day, no winning in 2017 should deter the focus from 2018 being a true window. This club has money to spend, and bringing in a couple of top tier arms is something that could set them over the top. Dealing for them hurts the farm, but if you bring in somewhat of a sure thing that will help you down the road and make the end of the season interesting, so be it.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Byron Buxton, Already A Star?

There's no getting around how bad Byron Buxton was to start off the 2017 Major League Baseball season. Through his first 15 games, he was batting under .100 and owns a 24/2 strikeout to walk ratio. If there was a doomsday scenario, this was it. Given the setback that cause, it's overshadowed just how good he's been of late though, and it's probably better than you'd think.

Since April 21, Buxton has played in 25 games for the Twins. He has had 86 plate appearances and compiled 73 at bats. They've come together to produce a .260/.365/.384 slash line, complete with four extra base hits, and a 23/12 K/BB ratio. For a prospect with otherworldly expectations, that may not seem glamorous, but it is, and he's not done yet.

Despite having the speed of a prototypical leadoff hitter, I'm not sure Buxton's on base skills will ever translate to hitting out of that lineup position. He's going to hit for more power than his wiry frame may suggest, and batting out of the three hole, as Paul Molitor started him at in 2017, may be a more realistic long-term prognosis. That gives us reason to believe the slugging numbers should go up, further bolstering his OPS production.

While scuffling early on, Buxton had a chase rate of 38.3% and swung through 201.% of pitches. Guessing and rolling over plenty, Buxton made hard contact just 24% of the time through his first 15 games. Since making adjustments over the last 25 games, the Twins centerfielder has dropped the chase rate to 27.8% while swinging through just 13.5% of pitches. The hard contact rate has actually slipped some (21.6%), but Buxton's BABIP is likely always going to be more reflective of his speed than his exit velocity.

You've been handed a few numbers to suggest why Buxton isn't done climbing the ladder yet, but now, it's important to contextualize where he is currently. The question as to what Minnesota needs from him offensively to continue to rely solely on defense, has come up more than a few times. If this latest sample size is any indication, the answer is really nothing. As the numbers indicate right now, this current level of production, has Buxton not only playing at a Gold Glove defensive caliber, but among the best outfielders in the big leagues from an all around standpoint.

Looking at his last 25 games, Buxton has compiled a .748 OPS. On the year, he has also contributed six DRS (defensive runs saved), which by the way, is second among MLB center fielders (thanks to the Rays having a good one in Kevin Kiermaier). Looking at those numbers, we are able to come up with a pretty focused group of big leaguers.

Among qualified hitters, there's just 41 outfielders in baseball with an OPS north of .750. There's also just eight outfielders with a DRS of six or more to this point. Combining those two pools, we see a crossover of just three players (outside of Buxton) that have both a .750+ OPS and have been worth at least six DRS in 2017. There names: Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner, and Mookie Betts. That's a trio of players that includes a Rookie of the Year front runner, a solid 10 year vet and one time All Star, and a one time All Star that happened to be last year's runner up in the MVP voting. Any way you cut it, that's a pretty strong group for Buxton to be included in.

Now, as with the 15 games before, a 25 game sample size is hardly anything to begin writing checks off of. What's noteworthy however, is it doesn't just appear to be a hot streak for Buxton, he's made fundamental changes. Having worked with James Rowson and heard from a few others, Buxton's swing is a tighter, more well oiled machine right now. He's got the confidence in the box to let the bat play, and that the ball will carry thanks to the process he's taken prior to contact.

At just 23 years old, Buxton also remains the youngest of that group of aforementioned dual threat talents. His defense is going to remain at an elite level for years to come, and the expectation that the offensive water level raises is a pretty solid one. Each jump the bat makes, will only elevate Buxton as a whole, and even at this early stage, it's easy to see why his ceiling is so high, and excitement level so real.

It's still early for him, but even while still coming into his own, Byron Buxton is among the best dual threat outfielders in all of major league baseball. Imagine what happens as his game continues to evolve.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Miguel Sano Could Really Make This Work

Through their first 41 games, Miguel Sano has been nothing short of a monster for the Minnesota Twins. He's been every bit the offensive stalwart he was expected to be, and he's taken it to a whole new level. Right now, he's been the most impressive player on the club, and in terms of WAR, Fangraphs quantifies him as the best player in baseball not named Mike Trout. The question is, how much of it is a mirage?

There's a couple of different scenarios at play with it comes to Sano. He's easily defined as a three true outcomes player (Strikeout, Walk, or Home Run). Sano also is flirting with sustainability when it comes to BABIP (Batting average on balls in play...note: HRs are excluded). So, when looking at those two scenarios, the question becomes how much should we believe in his current .319/.439/.638 slash line?

In answering that question, we can present the notion that it's both a mirage and sustainable at the same time. When the dust settles in 2017, I think it'd be foolish to expect Miguel Sano to hit above .300, he simply strikes out far too often for that to happen. However, he's not a tradition three true outcomes batter in that he absolutely crushes the baseball.

Let's look at what the numbers tell us. 34.5% of the time in 2017, Miguel Sano is striking out. That is the 5th worst percentage in the big leagues, and behind a group that includes Keon Broxton, Joey Gallo, Chris Davis, and Byron Buxton. On the flip side, Sano walks a ridiculous 17.5% of the time, good enough for third best in the big leagues. In generating free passes, he is able to even out, and sustain his on base percentage, even before looking at what happens when he makes contact.

It's in that contact that things get interesting as well. As of May 23, Sano has generated 82 batted ball events, or balls in play. 43 of those have been hit at 98 mph or more. His 98.2 mph average exit velocity leads the big leagues, and is nearly 4 mph above the Yankees Aaron Judge. Breaking down the 43 balls put in play above 98 mph, Sano has generated 32 hits and barreled 20 balls (5th most in MLB). To summarize, and as I wrote on May 1, Miguel Sano is crushing the ball.

So, is it a problem that Sano strikes out in nearly one third of his plate appearances? Sure, it's not ideal. Is it likely that the Twins 3rd basemen is going to sustain a .439 BABIP and continue to bat above .300? No, probably not. What is with noting however, is that the results are a by-product of an approach that has Sano swinging with all he has in virtually every plate appearance.

Production for Sano is a result of consistent hard contact. He has generated hard contact 52.4% of the time (1st in MLB) while making soft contact just 3.7% of the time (lowest in MLB by nearly 5%). Those numbers suggest that while his BABIP will flatten out (and his average will follow suit) the decline will not nearly be as stark as it would be in a different scenario. Realistically, the decline for Sano will come more from a lack of swing power on his own accord, as opposed to the numbers normalizing from an inflated level.

Just two months into the season, it's hard to suggest that Miguel Sano is going to be consistently able to swing as hard in September as he is right now. His legs, torso, and upper body will undoubtedly go through wear and tear as the season goes on and it'll be worth monitoring to see if his swing loses oomph because of it. Should things stay consistent though, Miguel Sano is going to consistently experience inflated BABIP numbers, and will remain a non-traditional three true outcomes player because of the quality of the balls being put in play.

Until Sano is consistently fooled on pitches, or can no longer catch up to heat, he's going to get the upper hand on opposing pitchers every time the ball hits his bat. The results are there to prove that, and while they'll level off some, we aren't watching Adam Dunn even in his prime here.

Twins Starting Depth To Be Tested

After being recalled following a two-start stint at Triple-A, Kyle Gibson was back in the Twins rotation. Against the Orioles on May 22, Gibson surrendered six earned runs on seven hits while walking four and striking out five. He got the win (pitcher wins are stupid), but there was a clear picture of a pitcher in over his head. For now, he'll remain in the rotation, but during the game, it was worth wondering what would happen next for Minnesota?

In an ideal world, Stephen Gonsalves, Fernando Romero, and Felix Jorge are all ready to compete at a significant level. That reality isn't one we're living in though. All three are at Double-A, and none are ready to make the jump to Triple-A or the big leagues any time soon. There's still a long term gameplan there, but expecting them to help Minnesota before late summer at the earliest is a fool's errand.

That leads us to upstate New York, and deciding what is available in Rochester. We have seen Nick Tepesch once this season. He lasted just 1.2 IP and while six of the seven runs he surrendered were unearned, it was an uninspiring performance unlikely to challenge big league hitters. If Kyle Gibson isn't the guy, and it's beginning to look like he may need more time figuring it out on the farm, then who is?

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine would likely be tasked with deciding between Aaron Slegers, David Hurlbut, and Jason Wheeler at Rochester. None of them are 40 man players, and of the trio, Slegers is arguably pitching the best this season. While Wheeler has been in big spots previously, and pitched well in 2016, he hasn't gotten off to a great start this season.

Slegers was a 5th round pick back in 2013 out of the University of Indiana. He's now 24 years old, and a relative non-prospect. What he's done however, is put forth a consistent track record at every stop through the Minnesota farm system. His professional ERA stands at 3.57 across 494.2 IP. In 2017, he's totaled a 4.25 ERA over 42.1 IP and rarely issues walks (1.9 BB/9). He's never going to be a high velocity guy, and his career 6.5 K/9 is probably lofty at the next level. While the peripherals aren't flashy, there's reason to believe he's capable.

Thus far, the Twins have used seven starters, and there's a strong likelihood that number trends towards 10 by the time the dust settles. There's nothing more coveted in the game of baseball than starting pitcher, and even moreso, that of the quality variety. It's not fair to assume that every arm called up to the big league rotation is going to be an impact prospect, but if there's a place the Twins organization is starved, it's there.

At multiple points this season, the question as to whether or not Minnesota should deal Ervin Santana has come up. If there's something that highlights the necessity, it could be this. Should the Twins be presented with an offer that returns a solid pitching prospect or two, close to big league ready, there's a lot of appeal there. Right now, this team is much more exciting than many would have imagined, but there's no staying power in the starting pitching.

Over the winter, it makes a lot of sense for the Twins to supplement their offensive youth with an impact starter. There's a few names out there that make sense, and the club has money to spend. If the organization can roll out a rotation that includes a big name or two, along with Jose Berrios and Adalberto Mejia being internal options, they'll be well positioned a year from now.

It may have to be Aaron Slegers in the short term, and if Kyle Gibson continues to struggle, there's no reason not to give him a shot. Pinning your hopes to that level of prospect for the future though, doesn't make a lot of sense. The Twins have some top prospect arms in the system, but they'll need a safety net regardless, and having more impact arms is never going to be a bad thing.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Sam Carlson Ready For The National Stage

Right now, Sam Carlson is a senior at Burnsville High School. In a matter of a couple weeks, he'll very likely be able to call himself a professional baseball player. On top of being tabbed as a first round pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft, Carlson is expected to be the first prep pitcher ever taken that high from the state of Minnesota. That level of hype comes with big shoes to fill, but Carlson appears ready.

I had the privilege of speaking with Carlson as his final high school season winds down. He's done pitching in the regular season for Burnsville, but obviously has postseason aspirations. With a busy next few weeks ahead, he'll have plenty on his plate, but if there's someone that can take it all in stride, it appears to be him. Covering a handful of different baseball related topics, here's how our discussion went.

Off The Baggy: Starting off with your senior season at Burnsville, how much has felt like a whirlwind? You've had a great season, managed school, and have had a large audience each time you've taken the mound.

Sam Carlson: My senior season has been one to remember. Our playoffs begin soon and we are looking to make a run. It is my last time playing with some of my friends who I have played with since I was 10 years old. Between balancing school, baseball and my personal life, it hasn't been too bad. I have really enjoyed it and wouldn't change it for anything.

OTB: Looking ahead to college, I know you've committed to Florida. What drew you to the SEC and ultimately landed you with the Gators?

SC: I wanted to play for the Florida Gators since I was a kid. For one reason or another, it was my dream school. After seeing Logan Shore go there, who played for the same club team I did growing up, gave me hope that I could do the same one day. After going through the recruiting process and taking my visits I felt like it was the best fit for me, with an outstanding baseball program, great academics and intriguing weather for a Minnesotan. Everything seemed to fall in place for me and I knew I made the right decision committing to Florida.

OTB: Obviously the MLB Draft has to come up. Have you thought at all about being the first ever 1st round prep pitcher from Minnesota? What would that mean to you?

SC: It has been pretty cool to see stuff like that. Whatever happens I want to represent Minnesota the best I can and prove to people around the country that we have talent up here, it is just sometimes overlooked. I want to make people from our state proud with whatever the next step I take is.

OTB: When looking at the next level, college or pro, what separates you? What do you think puts you in the best position to compete and excel?

SC: What I think separates me at the next level is my ability to pitch. I am able to use my change-up in a way that a lot of players don't figure out for a long time. I also think that my maturity and self control on the mound gives me an advantage at the next level.

OTB: A lot is always going to be made about velocity on the mound, but tell me about your pitch offerings and your style in attacking opposing hitters?

SC: I have a three pitch mix with my fastball, slider and change-up. I am able to throw all three pitches for strikes especially when I am down in the count. My style is not to blow it by hitters, but rather to learn from them throughout the game and pitch to them in an effective way. I think my secondary offerings are pitches that are above average which leads to my unique style of pitching.

OTB: How has the draft process been for you? Have you enjoyed the extra attention, or has it been something you've used to motivate yourself and just continue to go about your game?

SC: The draft process has been fun for me. When I am between the lines I don't worry about anything going on in the stands. It is very motivating seeing all of my hard work pay off, but in the end it just motivates me even more. Hopefully this is just the beginning. 

It indeed feels like this is just the beginning for Sam. Whatever path he chooses, there's sure to be plenty of success ahead. Likely with the Twins out of the picture, Carlson will create fans for a new organization from all over the state. He has the chops to pitch in the big leagues one day, and he's well on his way there.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Berrios Flashes Something Special

In his second start of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, Jose Berrios looked like some sort of well tested veteran for the Minnesota Twins. Not only was he taking on one of baseball's best teams in the Colorado Rockies, but he thoroughly and completely dominated them.

Sure, there was the 11 strikeouts. Yeah, he lasted into the 8th inning, working 7.2 IP. And economical, definitely, as he needed just 106 pitches to get that work in. More than the surface numbers though, Berrios' results were punctuated by some truly exceptional moments.

Over the course of his outing, he got 20 swinging strikes. To put that into context, he threw 72 strikes in total. That means 28% of the pitches he threw for strikes had Rockies batters swinging right through. Truly an incredible amount, it's not all that surprising given the movement on his pitches. There was the frisbee of a curveball that he tossed to Ian Desmond. The Rockies first basemen was quoted postgame suggesting that Berrios reminded him of the late Jose Fernandez on the mound.
It wasn't just the curveball that Berrios had working though, his fastball has some seriously incredible move. In this pitch to Raimel Tapia, that turned into a strike em' out, throw em' out double play, Berrios' fastball gets more movement than anything I've seen since Ubaldo Jimenez's magical season with Colorado. The ball starts on the edge of the plate, and Tapia literally has no chance as the ball casually darts away from his bat.

When looking at what it was that cause Rockies hitters to swing and miss, Berrios didn't discriminate. He was generating whiffs on three of his four pitches (excluding his changeup) and the curveball consistently was getting batters to chase way out of the zone.

That bender is something Berrios is obviously confident in as well. He threw it in a handful of different counts, and the 36 curveballs he tossed accounted for 34% of his total on the night. In fact, Berrios virtually operated with a two pitch mix. His fastball (which he does throw both a four and two seam) was used right around 50% of the time. That curve was really his only other offering, as he used his changeup on just six different occasions.

It's been a pretty incredible two start sample size, especially considering how his first 14 career starts went. While it's unfair to assume this level of dominance as the norm going forward, we've now seen why Berrios has had such a long hype train following him through the minor leagues. He should safely settle in as a third starter for the Twins, and he has the ability and drive to push the envelope.

As he continues to take the ball every 5th day, the keys to focus in on will remain pitch economy as well as just how impressive the movement he gets on his pitches is. Short in stature, it is in that movement that hitters are deceived, and that will help to allow Berrios opportunity to stay ahead of opposing batters. The pitch plane isn't ever going to work in his favor, but when his ball darts the distance of the zone, even the best big leaguers are going to struggle.

May 18, 2017 was among the best starting pitching efforts ever recorded in a Twins uniform. For an organization void of strikeouts for so long, it appears Berrios will pile them up in bunches. If he's going to continue bringing a frisbee to the ballpark, this should be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Gordon Commanding The Spotlight Among Twins Prospects

Selected 5th overall by the Minnesota Twins in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft, Nick Gordon was immediately among the organizations best prospects. With a strong family pedigree, and plenty of talent on his own, the expectations were sky high for the high school shortstop. Now, fast forward four seasons, and he's proving himself at Double-A with the Chattanooga Lookouts.

In 2016, Gordon got his first taste of High-A ball. Spending the whole season in Fort Myers, after making a compelling case to end 2015 there, Gordon slashed a solid .291/.335/.386. Power wasn't ever really expected to be a big part of his game, but his average hovered around .300 for the bulk of the summer, and his on base skills were solid. If there was a knock on him a year ago, it was the poor defensive showing, and a less than ideal baserunning ability.

While Gordon doesn't possess the straight-line speed of his brother Dee, he's a burner in his own right. However, he was caught stealing 13 times for the Miracle, swiping just 19 successful bases. Reading pitchers, getting jumps, and picking his spots was something he'd definitely need to hone in on.

Then, touted as a glove first prospect when drafted, Gordon took a pretty big step back in the field. Errors are far from the be-all-end-all when evaluating defensive prowess, but Gordon racked them up in bunches. After 18 in Cedar Rapids the year prior (all at SS), he tallied 26 in 2016 (24 at SS). They were split between throwing and fielding, but for a guy that was seen as so fluid at the position, it wasn't a welcomed addition to his game.

Coming into the 2017 season, Gordon had fans across the national landscape. He was ranked among the top 50 prospects in the country by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball Prospectus. A handful of publications tabbed him as the Twins top prospect, and now at 21, it was somewhat expected that the youngster was beginning to grow into his body.

Through the first 36 games at the Double-A level, Gordon has done nothing but impress. He's slashing a robust .322/.383/.507. While power likely won't ever show up in a considerable amount, the's tallied 16 extra base hits, three of which have left the yard. Gordon hasn't used much of his speed in the running game, as he's stolen just one base while being caught twice, but it's played to his favor in the form of doubles (8) and triples (5).

As a non-roster invitee to spring training, Gordon saw time with the Twins in a handful of big league games. Paul Molitor played him in both spots up the middle, giving him more time at second base than I would have preferred to see. Thus far in 2017, Gordon has started 20 games at short, and 14 at second for the lookouts. Right now, it seems the organization isn't sure where he'll stick, and they also have some decisions to make at the upper levels. He's fared ok defensively, chalking up eight errors across those 34 games (3 at 2B, 5 at SS).

Looking at a realistic timeline on Gordon, who again is just 21 years old, 2018 seems to be the year to circle. He's over three years younger than the competition at the current level, and while he could push for a late season promotion to Triple-A, the Twins could decide to keep the same path and have him spend the year in Tennessee. If that's the way they go, a mid-summer or early-fall callup could be in the cards a year from now.

Knowing where the Twins stand roster wise, that leaves some questions to be answered on the 25 man roster. Brian Dozier is signed through the 2018 season, at which point he will hit free agency (Minnesota only bought out his arbitration years). If he isn't traded, and that probably hinges on the direction of the team, the middle of the infield would appear occupied. Gordon isn't the sure-thing shortstop he was once touted as, but he's probably a better bet there than Jorge Polanco.

No matter how you cut it, Nick Gordon could force the Twins into a situation where they have three mouths to feed, and only two positions to hand out. As a rotational guy ending the 2018 season on the big league roster, Gordon could help to ease the transition for Minnesota if Brian Dozier is cast off prior to 2019. Figuring out how the pieces fit is getting ahead of ourselves for the most part at this point anyways however.

What's worth taking note of in the here and now, is that Nick Gordon is absolutely emerging as a strong two way talent for the Twins. His bat has become a weapon, and he's displaying offensive prowess beyond his years. As he continues to compete through the Double-A season this year, and sets his sights on whatever is next, the Twins seem to have a very solid player on the way.

Having gone from big name, to uncertain top 100 guy, to a prospect that could find himself in the top 25 a year from now, Gordon continues to battle. For all the picks that haven't worked out in recent years, it appears the son of Flash is absolutely cut from a different cloth.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Twins Pen Ready For A Jolt

Coming into the 2017 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins biggest question mark was exactly how their pitching staff would respond. After being at the bottom of the big leagues a year prior, Minnesota needed a turnaround to return to competitiveness. They've seen a good enough start through the first 30 games or so, but staving of regression will be best accomplished by continuing to raise the water level.

As things stand on May 16, the Twins own the 9th best starting ERA in MLB. Ervin Santana has been great, Hector Santiago has been surprising, and Phil Hughes has been serviceable. Jose Berrios is here now, and the 5th starter will remain in flux until someone separates themselves from the pack. The bullpen has been a bit of a different story however.

Through their first 120 innings pitches, Minnesota checks in with the 23rd best relief ERA in MLB (4.73). The 7.43 K/9 ranks 28th out of 30 big league teams and the 3.75 BB/9 checks out in the middle of the pack. Largely unaddressed this offseason (Matt Belisle being the only signing of note), the pen remained a major question mark. While it hasn't yet gone off the rails, the goal would be to address things before it gets to that point.

Looking at what's out there, you can see some definite pieces. Brandon Kintzler is a solid reliever, even if he toes the questionable line when it comes to working as a closer. Taylor Rogers fits, and Tyler Duffey looks like a real weapon. I still believe Ryan Pressly is more than his funk suggests, and Justin Haley being carried makes sense. While that leaves both Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow, you have to wonder if Minnesota isn't in a position to push for more on their own.

Triple-A Rochester has some intriguing arms worthy of a shot. Adding Drew Rucinski to the 40 man roster for a brief call up comes as confusing, if only because there's other options. Trevor Hildenberger, D.J. Baxendale, Aaron Slegers, and even Jason Wheeler could all use a look. If we're really trying to push the envelop though, it's at Double-A where the Twins greatest assets lie.

Both Mason Melotakis and Nick Burdi have been lights out to start 2017. Melotakis owns a 1.17 ERA across 15.1 IP. He has compiled a 7.0 K/9 while offering free passes at a rate of 2.3 BB/9. The former 2nd round pick has been at Double-A since 2014, albeit missing the 2015 season. He's compiled just under 50.0 IP across the last two years and he's shown an ability to strike batters out, while reducing the walks in 2017.

Another 2nd round pick, Burdi has come out guns blazing this season as well. He can push his fastball into triple digits, and seeing him healthy after throwing just three innings last year is a major plus. Across 13.2 IP this season, he's struck out 11.9 per nine innings, and he's walking batters at a very strong 2.6 BB/9. While command has always been Burdi's shortcoming, it's something he seems to have honed in this campaign.

I have no idea whether or not the Twins would promote either arm from Double-A, but I would lean towards them not doing so. Both have velocity, and wanting to see them pitch, more than just throw, at the next level might be worthwhile for a stop in Triple-A. Neither guy is going to be able to rely solely on speed at the big league level, and making sure they can get big league hitters out is a must.

Regardless of how they get to the Target Field bullpen, both Melotakis and Burdi have an argument to be there by early summer at the latest. I'd expect at least a brief stop for both in Triple-A, but guys like Breslow or even Adam Wilk, shouldn't stand in their way for a big league opportunity. Unlike a starting prospect, I'd argue that relievers don't necessarily need the long stay at the highest level of the farm. Give them a taste and move them on. J.T. Chargois put forth just 12.1 IP in AAA after 11.2 IP at AA prior to his promotion last year. A similar path could be had for both of these guys.

When they arrive, there's little reason to suggest it wouldn't be an immediate boost to the bullpen. Throw in a healthy J.T. Chargois or Jake Reed, and maybe a flier on one of those other names, and Minnesota will have reworked their relief corps from within.

Right now, there's some question marks as to how it will come together, and what guys can get healthy, but what Minnesota doesn't have in starting options, they have in relief. Both Burdi and Melotakis can lead the charge, and the dice will fall from there as they may.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Twins Can Make Wright Choice In Draft

The Minnesota Twins hold the number one overall pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball amateur draft. That much has been true since the conclusion of the 2016 season. What remains up in the air, is exactly who will hear their name called first on June 12. While we've heard about high school phenom Hunter Greene, and Louisville star Brendan McKay, it could be Vandy pitcher Kyle Wright that was the correct choice all along.

Much has been made about both Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay in the months leading up to the draft. Greene has a fastball that has topped out at triple digits, and he can play a solid shortstop as well. McKay may be the best college pitcher, as well as hitter, and a team has to decide what way to develop him. Both have some serious concerns though.

The flame out rate for high school arms is incredible, and while Greene has the velocity, the development arc for his body, let alone his repertoire, is an immense uphill battle. For McKay, the dominance on the mound comes more in the form of pitchability, as he doesn't have lightning stuff. He's also great at the plate, but suggesting either player with the notion that they have two-way abilities is a fool's errand. Reality says that both will be selected as pitchers, and banking on what they can do at that plate is a fall back option you shouldn't even be considering with a pick that high.

If Greene has a ceiling that's at the top of this class, he has a floor that is somewhere below the basement. McKay is a nice choice and could be a very solid pro, but he's probably never going to justify being tabbed at one overall. If you want to grab someone that splits things down the middle, Vanderbilt's Kyle Wright may absolutely be the Twins best bet.

Wright, a Junior at Vanderbilt from Huntsville, Alabama, had a tough start to his 2017 season. He's since been on a tear, giving up just 12 hits, five earned runs, and a 51/7 K/BB ratio over his last five starts (39.2 IP). On the season, Wright owns a 3.06 ERA across 13 starts (82.1 IP) and owns a 93/26 K/BB ratio. Opposing hitters are batting just .206 off of him, and he's been the premier arm for one of the best baseball programs in the country.

Where McKay throws low 90s on the mound, Wright can sit 95-97 mph with good secondary pitches as well. He has a strong breaking ball and does compliment his fastball with a serviceable changeup. At this point, scouts seem to agree that Wright would have no less than three capable pitches at the next level, a must if he's going to continue as a starter.

Regardless of what decision any team makes during the MLB draft, a lot of expectations are based upon projections becoming reality. If you have to live with that notion, finding a good mix of ceiling, floor, and belief is a must. Whereas Hunter Greene has a very high probability of flaming out, and Brendan McKay has a low probability of being something extraordinary, Wright could give the Twins the option they would most covet.

Never in baseball do teams draft for need. The developmental arc for amateur players is too significant to make decisions looking for immediate impact. There's never going to be a time that pitching isn't at a premium though, and Minnesota adding a potential top tier arm to the organization is hardly a bad step. The decision will remain fluid right up until the day of the draft (which is now less than a month away), but if I'm the Twins, Kyle Wright is who I want.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Phil Hughes Embracing New Style

Last season was anything but glorious for the Minnesota Twins' Phil Hughes. He broken a bone on a comebacker, and ultimately watched his season end after just 59.0 IP. While shelved, he had a rib removed (undergoing Thoracic Outlet surgery), and the 2016 campaign turned into a giant recovery stint. Fast forward a year and the Twins hurler is learning to embrace his new reality.

It's fair to suggest that Hughes has never been much of a burner. Even at his best with the Twins in 2014, he threw just an average of 92 mph on his fastball. What he always has been in Minnesota however, is a guy that issues very few free passes, and watches his strikeouts play off of that notion. After setting an all-time major league record in K/BB rate during the 2014 season, Hughes has watched his effectiveness slip. Regardless of whether or not the injuries mounted last year, it's fair to wonder if he wouldn't need to adapt.

This season though, it's been all about adaptation for Hughes. Working as the Twins number three starter out of the gate, he had some pressure lifted off of him with how good both Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago have been. Despite an ugly start against the Indians, it's hard to argue that Hughes has been anything but acceptable.

Through his first six turns in the rotation, Hughes owns a 4.32 ERA that's backed by a 4.35 FIP (his best mark since 2014). His 5.7 K/9 is also the best total since 2014, and he's issuing less free passes at just 1.6 BB/9. Home runs continue to be a bugaboo for him, but that's virtually always been the case, and something you almost have to live with at this point.

What is most interesting about Hughes this season, is how he is going about getting results. Both his changeup and knuckle curve have seen a slight dip in velocity, but he's actually utilizing them quite often. Thus far, Hughes has thrown fastballs only 22.5% of the time (per Fangraphs) while pushing knuckle curves across one-fifth of the time (20.6%) and using changeups 18.8% of the time.

In breaking down his offerings, it's the changeup number that jumps off the page. At 18.8% of the time, Hughes is relying on his changeup nearly 14% more often than his career average of 4.9%. Given the roughly 10 mph dip from his fastball, it keeps hitters out front and off of his pitches. It also shouldn't go unsaid that pitching coach Neil Allen, is a noted chanegup guru, and that has likely played a significant role here.

Hughes is allowing a higher hard hit rate (43.6% in 2017 up from 37.7% and 31.2% the past two years), but he's giving up less line drives and his 9.3% HR/FB ratio is actually the lowest it's been since bottoming out at 6.2% in 2014. He's forcing hitters to stay off of his fastball, and deal with the offspeed stuff, which in turn, has shifted thinking about what type of pitcher he is.

The level of confidence and trust in both the knuckle curve and changeup also flesh out very high in situations where he's ahead. When batters are facing 0-1,0-2, or 1-2 counts, they are seeing nearly a 50% mix of chanegups and knuckle curves. Conversely, when Hughes finds himself down in the count, he's going with that same mix, throwing changeups and knuckle curves 47.2% of the time.

Whether a by-product of the surgery, or a simple adjustment to style, Hughes has transformed himself from a two-seam/cutter guy, into a changeup/knuckle curve thrower. He's finessing players out, and feels ok about balls being hit in the air, as the Twins now employ one of the best outfield defenses in all of baseball.

It should be noted that Father Time is undefeated, and that regardless of the amount of procedures a body undergoes, a level of adaptation is required. When a veteran continues to roll towards the latter half of their career, there will be a point that a renaissance is needed. In changing your philosophy, or finding something else that works, a new level of effectiveness can be achieved. It appears Phil Hughes has embraced this head on, and right now, the results are rewarding him for it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Buxton Tweaks Making The Difference

The date is April 20, 2017, and Byron Buxton has just played in his 15th game for the Minnesota Twins this season. To show for his efforts, he's compiled a .082/.135/.122 slash line across 49 at bats, and nothing looks to be going right for the one-time uber-prospect. If there was a rock bottom for the Georgia native in the early going this season, that was most definitely it. Since however, the Twins centerfielder has turned a corner, and the results are worth taking note of.

Over the course of the 2017 slate to date, it's been noted that Buxton would remain an asset given his exceptional centerfield defense. He covers ground at an elite level, and is among the best in the game at taking away would be run producing plays. What was always the question, is how long the Twins would have to punt on him in the lineup, solely to keep his glove in the outfield. Although just a small sample size, the time he's spent on the field from April 21 onwards suggests we may be seeing him turn a corner.

As of May 10, Buxton has played 12 games for the Twins since April 21. He owns a .333/.442/.500 slash line, while contributing a double, triple, and home run. After fanning 24 times and drawing just two walks in his first 15 games, he's compiled a very solid 9/7 K/BB ratio since. Buxton has halved his K% (46.2% down to 20.9% split between both samples), and he's multiplied a 4.3 LD% ten-fold (41.7 LD% since 4/21). There's virtually no numerical value that doesn't suggest a massive turnaround for the Twins young outfielder. Maybe most promising of all, the process at the plate appears to be driving the results.

Early on, Buxton was swinging through pitches all over the zone, but he was chasing outside of it an incredible amount as well. Per Baseball Savant, Buxton swung through 22 (of 204 pitches seen) balls outside of the zone prior to April 21. Fast forwarding through his most recent 12 games, he's swung and missed at just eight (of 179 pitches seen) balls out of the zone. He's holding back on inside pitches, and darting out at breaking balls away much less.

Also, when making contact, we can visibly see just how much better the bat is meeting the ball. Buxton is swinging through the centerpoint of the ball more often, allowing a higher percentage of strong contact.

It's also important to note that most of what Buxton has changed has been a result of his own doing. Opposing pitchers haven't attacked him too incredibly different of late either. The book on him has been to bust him in, as well as getting him to flail away. Having seen a high portion of balls down and away, Buxton is seeing less pitches over the middle of the plate. Generally a pull hitter, pitchers have tried to neutralize his tendency by forcing him to deal with the outside pitch.

Looking at swings roughly a month a part, there's some slight tweaks happening there as well. Facing the White Sox on April 7. Stepping into the box, it appears that Buxton has more of a straight forward plan lef. There's a slight openness to it, but his stance is squared off by definition. The bat is cocked back with his hands flexed. Looking at his process on May 9, the stance has an open plant leg, with hands resting a bit more upright and the bat head remaining high.

Buxton's first movement is to drop his hands and create somewhat of an upward lean with his torso. In the image from May 9, his hands stay cocked, while the upper body hovers still in an upright position.

While pitch locations differ, the follow through follows a drastically different path as well. In the first image, Buxton's ankle rollover is drastic, his head has pulled off the pitch, and his high finish has him looking anywhere but at the ball. When making contact on May 9, Buxton stares down at his swing path, has his head at the point of contact, and keeps a strong plant leg without any real significant rollover.

Sure, it's fair to suggest that putting any instances in a vacuum will result in a desirable outcome. What seems to be at play here, as a whole, is a guy that's made some minor tweaks and is seeing some major results. I still don't think that Byron Buxton is a .300 hitter at the big league level, but expecting him to push for .280 with power is a pretty safe bet in my eyes. This is a young hitter still trying to find his way, but if these changes continue to hold up, it won't take until September 2017 for them to be on full display.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Reset Button May Be Pressly's Best Friend

Through the first month of the big league season, Ryan Pressly has had a rough time out of the Minnesota Twins bullpen. A reliever that profiled well for a high leverage role in the late innings, he's staring at an ERA just south of 9.00 and at times, has been searching for answers. A bit deeper dive suggests all is not lost however.

Currently, the Twins former Rule 5 selection owns a 8.74 ERA across 11.1 IP. He's surrendered three homers, and owns a 5.56 FIP. There's no way to look at those numbers and suggest that there's a whole heap of positive to be had. Looking beyond the surface a little bit though, we can see this start has the ability to be a small blip on the radar in what can turn out to be a nice season.

Maybe most easily visible, Pressly is actually striking out 8.7 per nine, up from his career high a year ago. He's also walking slightly more than in 2016 (3.2 BB/9 as opposed to 2.7 BB/9), but it's not incredibly far off from his career norms. His offerings have stayed the same, and he's actually seen velocity increases on all three of his pitches (including a 2 mph jump with his slider).

So what gives then right?

Well, the reality is that Pressly has seen his confidence shaken in roughly three pitches, by three relative no name hitters. He's given up homers this season to Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson, and John Hicks. None of those three are big league stalwarts, and they came off of a good fastball, and two hanging sliders.

From a results standpoint, Pressly has generated virtually the same amount of groundballs, line drives, and fly balls. He also has a similar (albeit slightly down) chase rate, with a similar swinging strike percentage. There's not a massive spike in contact, or contact being made within the zone either. If there's a spike, it's in how hard balls are being put into play, and what is happening in those instances.

During 2017, Pressly is allowing hard hit contact 40.5% of the time, up from 31.8% a year ago. Also, his home run to fly ball rate has skyrocketed from 9.5% in 2016 to 21.4% this season. The hard hit rate has also produced a .353 BABIP, up from his career .300 mark, and .311 last season. Of the 185 pitches Pressly has thrown, 14 have been put in play with an exit velocity north of 95 mph. Of those 14 balls in play, 10 of them have resulted in base hits.

Hard contact resulting in runners on base isn't groundbreaking by any means. It would make sense that a ball being put in play with solid contact would result in a good outcome more often than not. What's unfortunate, is that the hard contact is coming just under half of the time for the Twins reliever. It's likely in part a by product of throwing with increased velocity, but also likely in part, due to batters being more able to hit the Twins reliever.

At this point, I'm not sure if Pressly has tipped pitches, or shown any hints to opposing hitters that would give his stuff away. As things stand, he's doing everything he always has done, but three balls in the seats have inflated his overall numbers. Opposing hitters making hard contact are forcing him to really work through his outings, but for a guy with his stuff, it shouldn't be an obstacle he's incapable of overcoming.

When at his best, Pressly is among the best arms in the Twins pen. Clearly that time is not now, but there's not much to suggest he can't get back to it either.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Twins Must Re-Stack, Not Just Re-Shuffle

In the past few days, the Minnesota Twins have made more than a few roster shakeups. With Nick Tepesch hanging out on the 25 man roster waiting for his first big league start since 2016, the club also sent Danny Santana and Michael Tonkin packing. While those moves each have implications of their own, it's the corresponding moves that are telling for this club. To separate from what was, the organization must begin to do things differently.

Starting Tepesch against the Boston Red Sox during a weekend series, the Twins decided that Jose Berrios wasn't quite ready for the big leagues in 2017. Despite owning a 1.09 ERA .157 BAA and 9.5 K/9 with a 2.2 BB/9 in 33 innings prior to the tilt with Boston, Minnesota apparently needed more. Instead, Tepesch was sent out, having not worked since April 20, and having not been a real big league starter since 2014. The results don't justify the question, although Tepesch lasted just 1.2 IP, but it was a curious move at the time.

With Berrios, the idea has always been that he needed to work on more than just surface level production. Given that he's all but dominated the Triple-A level, pitch economy as well as command was always going to be the areas he needed to hone in on. However, it would appear that it's something he's done well to grasp this season, and could be a real asset to the Twins starting rotation.

Sticking with pitching, Minnesota DFA'd Michael Tonkin. In doing so, they opened up a 40 man roster spot, and chose to go with veteran reliever Drew Rucinski. At 28, Rucinski hadn't pitched in the big leagues since 2015, and had totaled just 14.1 IP at the highest level in his career. Across 277.2 IP at Triple-A, Rucinski had compiled a lackluster 5.74 ERA, hardly worth getting excited about. Despite Minnesota not having top arms like Mason Melotakis or Nick Burdi at Triple-A, they passed over names such as Trevor Hildenberger, D.J. Baxendale, or Aaron Slegers, who are in Rochester.

Not unexpectedly, Rucinski didn't fool many big league hitters, and gave up two runs on five hits over 3.1 IP in his Twins debut. It wasn't disastrous, but there's little reason to believe that the water level is much higher there. Given the fact he was added to the 40 man roster for that level of production, you'd hope the club could do more.

Rounding out the trio of moves was the expected DFA of Danny Santana. Much to the chagrin of Paul Molitor, Santana always seemed destined to be moved as soon as offseason acquisition Ehire Adrianza was healthy. As that came to fruition, the move was made, and Santana can now be had by any team in the big leagues.

Adrianza presents a clear upgrade with the glove, although he doesn't hit. That's probably a net positive over Santana, who couldn't field or hit, but Ehire is a weird peg for this club. Given Eduardo Escobar's role as the utility man for this team, watching the two coexist is somewhat of a puzzling ask. While Escobar doesn't possess a glove to the same capability, he's arguably the superior player, and Minnesota could definitely be better off with a more focused hitter off the bench (namely a right-handed bat).

What we can summarize though from the moves the Twins initially made, is a very real hope that this club isn't done. Drew Rucinski doesn't do much for a big league club, and Nick Tepesch seems all but washed out as well. Adrianza has value, but less so to this club, and the organization needs to work through a more ideal fit. These moves really signify the shuffling of deck chairs, and there's not much advancement made in any of the callups.

If the Twins are going to differentiate themselves from the previous regime, it's going to take place in raising the water level. Gone must be the days of replacing mediocrity with more mediocrity. Players like Jose Berrios don't grow on tress, but there's higher level talent on the farm than the likes of a Rucinski or Tepesch type, and giving those guys run is what needs to be seen.

As things stand now, I'd view (and hope) some of these moves as very short term or temporary. Given that notion, it's hard to be too up in arms about them currently. However, the shift towards more talent absolutely must take place. Minnesota can't continue to cycle in the same types of players and think change is going to come. Restack the deck and give yourself more opportunity, rather than simply reshuffling it and hoping that the cards fall differently.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Minnesota Mailbox: Twins Three Bagger

With the Minnesota Twins continuing to play good baseball into the month of May, the 2017 Major League Baseball season has gotten off to an exciting start. The club looks like some young stars are beginning to blossom, and Ervin Santana has been nothing short of incredible. With the bulk of the season left ahead of us, I asked for some Twins questions recently on Twitter (follow here).

Getting away from the typical analysis a bit, here's a three bagger of Minnesota Twins questions that readers had.
This is an interesting one, and a case where sample sizes come into play. Palka was on a tear through his first 16 games, slashing .311/.373/.590 with five homers. Since, he's got just a .302 OPS over the course of his past seven games, and his line now rests at .253/.309/.460. He's probably never going to hit much more than .260, but if he can boost the walks some, he'll even out the strikeouts he's going to rack up. Palka has legitimate power, and is probably a more refined version of Adam Brett Walker.

He'll get a shot with the Twins sometime in 2017, but it's farther down the road than what may have been initially imagined.

Right now, Miguel Sano is on pace to club right around 50 homers. I wouldn't think that's out of the question at some point in his career, but I don't foresee it happening in 2017. I tabbed him for right around 35 homers and continue to think that's realistic.

He's not the .300 hitter he's started out as, but it sure appears he's got a stronger grasp on the strike zone. While the strikeouts are still there, he's drawing walks in bunches, and more importantly, he's working counts to his favor. Sano is blossoming, and it's going to be fun to watch.

As far as who commands the clubhouse, I think Dozier has long since taken the torch from Mauer. Sano is relating well to his teammates however, and will continue to develop as a leader.

I really like this question, but am not certain it provides a real exciting answer. There's no doubt Ervin Santana will still be around, and Hector Santiago stands to be as well. By June, I'd be shocked if Jose Berrios isn't in the fold, and that leaves Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes to round things out.

There should be real concern in regards to Hughes and his health. The velocity has been up and down, and while the Twins have won for him, he's been far from great. I'd like to see him trend upwards a bit more, but that's somewhat of a wait and see. Gibson just can't seem to right the ship, but I'm not sure what you do with him. I don't believe his stuff plays up in the pen, so I guess he could go back to Triple-A, but what a disaster that would be.

Should the Twins need another arm outside of Berrios, they could go back to Adalberto Mejia, turn to Nick Tepesch, or even (and I hope not) bring Tyler Duffey back into the rotation.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Twins Blockbuster Yet To Come

Over the offseason, there was no such thing as Twins talk that didn't include the discussion surrounding Brian Dozier. After launching 42 (43) homers, Minnesota was out for a king's ransom in return for their prized second basemen. When the Dodgers eventually bowed out in favor of Logan Forsythe, Minnesota took their toys and went home. It's worth wondering though, is Dozier even the most valuable trade chip that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine possess?

He's not a true number one starter by any means, but the Twins ace Ervin Santana has gotten off to a blistering pace in 2017. He currently owns a big league leading 0.66 ERA. He's 5-0 through six starts, and has already tallied a complete game shutout. His 0.707 WHIP is nearly half of his career 1.268 mark and both his K/9 and BB/9 fall right in line with his career averages.

Now, you'd be silly to extrapolate a six start sample size to the duration of the season. However, for a starting pitcher, six games equates to roughly 20% of the expected workload. While it's still just the beginning, it's a more significant piece of the puzzle than anything a hitter has compiled through one month of meaningful action.

I wrote about Santana a bit ago, and that this season isn't all that out of nowhere for him. Of course predicting him to be this good is a stretch, but the reality is that he's been good for a while, and a few small tweaks, along with good defense has helped him immensely. Santana owns a 2.98 FIP to date, nearly a full run better than at any other point in his career. He's also generated more weak contact than any starting pitcher not named Andrew Triggs.

This sample size can be extended back even a bit further as well. Dating back to July 2016, Santana has posted a 1.93 ERA along with a 3.22 FIP. Opposing hitters have batted just .184 off of him in those 22 starts, and his WHIP rests at 0.95. Behind him, he's had an outfield composed mainly of Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler. If and when he's allowing contact to the grass, it's generally falling into leather.

Attempting to put some sort of a bow on it, Santana has elevated himself slightly, and has also enjoyed some very strong defense behind him. He's been the Twins ace, and among the best pitcher's in the game. It's really not a small sample size at this point, and you can bet other teams are taking notice.

So with those other teams, the Twins could find themselves in the driver's seat. Last offseason, Minnesota was tasked with attempting to get fair value for a second basemen that hit 14 more homers than his previous career best, and posted an OPS over .100 points north of the season before. Brian Dozier was, and remains, a regression candidate in every sense of the word. That's not to sell Dozier short, even at a .760 OPS and 25 home run total, he's a very nice big leaguer, the problem is the market has a good deal of those.

Arguably moreso now than at any point in recent memory, the second base position in the big leagues is stacked. From Altuve to Cano, and Kinsler to Murphy, there's at least 10 (or one-third) legitimate star two baggers. With that being the reality, the position remains both a luxury, and one that many top teams have accounted for.

When talking to the Dodgers, Minnesota targeted Jose De Leon in exchange for Dozier. They also asked for names like Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler, neither of whom could've ever been had even straight up. De Leon entered 2017 averaging somewhere around the 30th best prospect, and he's yet to pitch this season after dealing with injury troubles. Minnesota was wise to want more for a player that means so much to their franchise, but getting a fair return for Dozier is likely always going to be an uphill battle.

That leads us to this; what if Ervin Santana is actually the more valuable piece? Pitching is always going to be at a premium, and Santana comes controllable at $27.m over the next two seasons. For a guy that's been anywhere close to what he's produced, that's larceny. On the flip side, Dozier's team control ends after next season, and he's due for a raise well above the $9m he's slated to make.

If the Twins can continue to hover around .500, it probably makes more sense for them to hold onto everything, make a splash in the offseason, and go for it in 2018 and beyond. If they don't see that window ready to break open however, it very well could be Santana that restocks the farm, and that wasn't likely the case even a few months ago.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Twins Chart Topping Early

Through the first month of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins have been as some would've expected. Sure, coming off a franchise worst 103 losses, .500 may have seemed incredible to most, but they remained largely the same team that was competitive during 2015. After a winning April, Minnesota has more than a handful of players doing some good things.

While it's worth breaking down individual performances, gleaning too much from under 100 at bats is a pretty tough ask. For the purpose of this post, examining where some of the Twins are leading the way is the goal. There's ample examples, and the names come from all over the lineup. Let's get into it.

Ervin Santana

With a 0.77 ERA, Santana is pacing MLB in the category. He also holds the best WHIP (0.66) and batting average against (.116) in the game. With four wins under his belt, he's well on his way to eclisping the 2016 total of seven. Santana is generating soft contact 23% of the time (21st in MLB) and is really enjoying a strong defense behind him.

Miguel Sano

No one in all of baseball has a higher average exit velocity than Miguel Sano's 99+ mph total. He is absolutely destroying baseballs this season, and it's led to a .450 BABIP. Haven taken 18 walks (2nd in AL), Sano has really honed in his discipline at the plate, and he's punishing pitchers for allowing him to make contact. His 2.1% soft contact rating is the lowest in MLB. Although it doesn't mean much of anything, Sano is also leading the American League with 25 RBIs.

Joe Mauer

If there's a guy that is destined to turn things around to a certain extent for the Twins, it's Mauer. He's batting just .225, but owns the lowest swinging strike rate in MLB (2.1%). Mauer is hitting the ball harder this season than in any since 2013, and his fly ball rate has doubled (41.9%) from a year ago. At some point, he's going to see more balls drop for base hits.

Jorge Polanco

While you may expect Mauer not to fan on too many pitches, Jorge Polanco is right there with him. With just a 3.9% swinging strike rate, Polanco owns the third best tally in the big leagues (behind only Mauer and Rockies D.J. LeMahieu). Also somewhat surprisingly, it's Polanco with 4 DRS at short that is pacing the Twins defensively. As recently as April 30, that was among the top numbers in the big leagues.

Brandon Kintzler

Maybe flying somewhat under the radar, the Minnesota closer owns the second highest save total (7) in the American League. Kintzler is a perfect 7-7 in save opportunities, and owns just a 0.79 ERA across 11.1 IP. Sustainability is worrisome as he's walking more and striking out fewer, but for now, he's making it work.

Right now, the season is still in it's infancy. Given what the Twins are coming off of though, it's nice to see the club playing .500 baseball, and with a realistic path to see that same level of competency continue throughout the summer.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Twins Sano Punishing Baseballs

Through the first month of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, it's hard to argue against Miguel Sano being the Minnesota Twins most valuable player. Ervin Santana has been incredible on the mound (and he's benefited from improved defense) but Sano has really come into his own, and it's been fun to watch. Why trying to find answers as to why, Sano is quite simply destroying baseballs.

With the first month behind him, Miguel Sano has been worth 1.5 fWAR and owns a .316/.443/.684 slash line. It's a far cry better than his .235/.356/.388 mark a year ago through April, and his seven homers put him on pace for right around 40 at season's end. The Twins third basemen is drawing walks (an MLB best 18), while striking out just a bit less often as well.

Digging beyond the surface numbers, the biggest thing bolstering Sano's production is just how hard he is hitting the baseball. Generating hard contact 55.3% of the time, he's over 13% higher than his career average. Fly ball, line drive, and ground ball rates all remain relatively in tact, but Sano is depositing balls in the air over the fence 33.3% of the time (with a career mark of 23.9%). Hard hit contact generally produces around a .700 batting average, and that helps to explain why Sano is currently enjoying a .450 BABIP.

Noted earlier, Sano is drawing a few more walks and commanding the zone a bit better. His swinging strike rate is at 14.0% (replicating 2016), but he's chased pitches out of the zone 2% less of the time, and he has raised his contact rate by just over 1%. It's not a significant or massive boost, but it helps to paint the bigger picture.

Everything continues to point back to how hard Sano is putting the ball in play however. When looking at Fangraphs calculations for hard hit rate, only Nick Castallanos (56.7%) has a higher hard hit rate than Sano's 55.3%. When diving into Statcast at Baseball Savant, Sano's 99.3 average exit velocity is nearly 4 mph harder than the number two, Khris Davis (95.8). When generating hard contact, it obviously comes from solid bat to ball connection points, and Sano has barreled 12 baseballs this year, good enough for 5th in MLB.

There's virtually no reason to believe that Sano is going to keep up the pace he's currently on. Expecting the Twins hulking third basemen to finish with an average north of .300 is a fool's errand. Digging down to OBP or OPS can tell us a bit more, but this seems a good time to referring wOBA (weighted on base average). 

Where OBP and OPS try to tell us more about how a batter is getting on base, and the weight of those bases, neither completely encompasses how valuable one hit is over another. With wOBA, we have a more accurate way to evaluate hits in relation to their expected run value. You can read more on the concept here, but a general rule of thumb is .320 hovers around league average, while great is anything north of .400.

After the first month of the season, the Nationals have the top two spots accounted for when sorting MLB hitters by wOBA (Zimmerman .553 Harper .521). You only have to go down to the 7th spot to find the Twins Miguel Sano however, as his .466 puts him well into the excellent category. Sano's career wOBA is .369, and his 2015 season produce a .392 mark. While he continues to get on base, he's routinely doing so for multiple bags at a time, and it's a by product of how hard he is hitting the ball.

It's always been an expected reality that Miguel Sano was going to strike out. When at his best, Sano is fending off those strikeouts by generating extra base hits (namely homers), as well as drawing walks. He's made strides in plate discipline this season, and in turn, that's allowed him to square up the pitches he chooses to go after.

Fast forwarding a few months down the road, we'll likely see Sano's average (and numbers as a whole) dip. What should sustain however, is the overall results. As long as Miguel continues to be patient and square up the pitches he puts swings on, he'll find sustained success. Soft contact isn't something he's going to produce, and fielding the balls he's roping into play over half the time will continue to be a difficult task for defenders.

The Twins knew Sano would hit for years, but I can't imagine they expected him to destroy baseballs at the pace he's currently on.