Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Dozier Poised For 2018 Of Contract Proportions

Entering the 2018 Major League Baseball season, Brian Dozier looks to his future and sees free agency looming. Despite allowing the Minnesota Twins to buy out his arbitration years in a four-year, $20 million deal, the hometown squad couldn't lock him in past free agency. Now, as the two sides ponder an extension, it's worth wondering how the year ahead could go for one of baseball's best players.

Dating back to 2014, only Jose Altuve has been at the position (in terms of fWAR) than the Twins two-bagger. In that time, Dozier has become an All Star, Home Run Derby participant, Gold Glove winner, and MVP vote getter. He began as an aging and failed shortstop, and revolutionized himself into a premium player at a position generally void of them across the sport.

Despite hitting 42 long balls in 2016, Dozier's emergence as an offensive threat has been anything but a slow burn. He's been on a relative tear for the past four seasons. With a slash line of .254/.338/.476 and 127 homers since 2014, there's no denying that the Mississippi native could be inserted into the heart of many lineups across the sport.

Looking at the year ahead and beyond, it's worth wondering what to expect from Brian, and what that tells us about any more potentially on the table. First and foremost, it's worth mentioning that there seems to be a heightened level of performance in the final year of deals. Both Dozier and the Twins could strike a match before spring training ends, and while there's not an exact science to it, nothing on the table could prove as motivation to reach new heights.

In somewhat of an interesting case, Dozier is a late bloomer. He didn't reach the big leagues until 25, and he didn't become a significant cog until his age 27 season in 2014. He's played at least 152 games each of the past four years, and while there's been slumps tied loosely to overuse, his availability to the Twins has been remarkable.

Recent memory serves Dozier even more favorably. Over the past two seasons, Dozier has posted back to back .800+ OPS numbers, and compiled a .269/.349/.522 slash line. His 131 OPS+ jumps off the page, and his 76 homers are an astounding number given the position he plays. While the Gold Glove may be more reflective of his offensive prowess, it's hard to argue Brian Dozier as anything but the best second basemen not named Jose Altuve at the current juncture.

That being said, both Dozier and the Twins aren't too concerned with what has taken place. Although it's previous production that Brian will tie his argument for future dollars to, it's the projections going forward that will open the wallets of any would be suitors. Now on the wrong side of 30 years old, Dozier's case is somewhat of an anomaly. He's been a beacon of health throughout his time in the big leagues, and as a senior sign, compiled only 365 games in the minors. While he's aging, there's an argument to be made that there could be a decent amount of tread left on the tires.

Trying to glean insight from ZiPS as well Marcell projection systems, Dozier has some 2018 numbers to pick at. ZiPS sees a .257/.341/.482 slash with 31 homers, while Marcell comes in with a .259/.337/.494 slash and also 31 homers. Both the OPS numbers fall below the .856 mark posted in 2017, but remain above the .800 level that would put him in star company. After following up the 42 Home run output with a tally of 34 a year ago, the projection systems agreeing on 31 would be almost exactly in line with his four-year average.

What I think we can expect from Brian Dozier in 2018 is something along the lines of what he's established as norms. The power should continue to be there, even despite an expected level of regression a season ago. Reaching the 30 plateau should again be more than doable, and doing so with an .800+ OPS is hardly a longshot. Among the biggest areas of growth in recent seasons for Dozier has been his ability to get on base. Although he strikes out too much for a leadoff hitter, the ability to draw walks has grown, and his .359 OBP of 2017 was a shining bright spot. Dropping down to something like a .345 OBP wouldn't be unexpected, but it would hardly be a significant detractor either.

It's understandably hard to believe in immeasurable principles, but should Dozier enter the season in a "contract year," then I think we'd be in for a slight uptick across the board. Regardless, any level of regression should be muted as it appears the late-bloomer is in the heart of his prime. A long term deal may not benefit the signing team well as an elder free agent can crash fast, but Minnesota has to feel good about getting Dozier's best for as long as they have.

If we've learned anything over the past two or three seasons with Dozier, it's not to bet against him. While he's transformed himself into a pull hitter while generating significant power, he's also adapted to opposing pitchers. Up and in balls still end up over the fence, but he's been able to do far more than the approach had initially suggested may be possible. An overview of the 2018 Twins lineup should again be described as a run producer, but there's little mystery to the fact that Brian Dozier will be in the heart of that reality.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Perseverance Plays Role For Baseball and Puerto Rico

Credit: Jorge Soto SotoCustoms
After narrowly missing the bulk of Hurricane Irma's effects, Puerto Rico will look back on Wednesday September 20, 2017 as a day it won't soon forget. Hurricane Maria makes landfall and demolishes the small island. A place that has become a growing epicenter for baseball talent, and set to host a Major League Baseball series in 2018, was simply devastated. This isn't a tale of the destruction however, but instead a look at the resolve of each part involved.

Early in January 2018, Major League Baseball officially announced that the two game series (April 17th and 18th) between the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins will still take place. Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the site for the contests, was badly damaged during both hurricanes Irma and Maria. While the island itself remains the focus, it is the stadium that was set to house baseball for what was destined to be a great moment for the sport. As the weather interrupted, there was a serious doubt cast upon what was next for baseball's plans.

As did the people of Puerto Rico, the Minnesota Twins persevered and continued from the onset to suggest that the games would go on as scheduled.

For both the Indians and the Twins, Puerto Rico holds a special place among the 25 man roster and the organization as a whole. For the Indians, Francisco Lindor hails from the small island, and is a great friend of Twins star Jose Berrios. Cleveland's backup catcher Roberto Perez calls Puerto Rico home, while Eddie Rosario and Kennys Vargas also represent Puerto Rico in Minnesota. The influx of talent into Major League Baseball hailing from the small island has truly been a joy to watch. Minnesota has been especially keen on developing the island as they've continued to use top draft picks on natives such as Jose Miranda and Ricardo de la Torre.

Looking across the sport, some of the biggest names accelerating the game forward hail from Puerto Rico. Including Lindor and Berrios, it's also hard to overlook World Champions Carlos Correa and Javier Baez. Seattle Mariners closer Edwin Diaz also has burst onto the scene, and has represented his homeland incredibly well. Although their elder, Yadier Molina has also been a leader for quite some time. There's a relative brotherhood tying each of them together, and it's obvious that there's a pride in being able to represent Puerto Rico at the highest level.

In getting to know the Minnesota Twins Jose Berrios from afar over the past few seasons, seeing the passion for the place he calls home is truly special. From highlighting his beach workouts, to giving back through charity events with Baez and Lindor, or playing in events put on by Molina, there's no end to the pride and generosity. For Berrios, playing a series of games back home in the wake of a tragedy that was trying on multiple levels, will certainly be a joy.

Sports have often tried to transcend the United States, and expand their borders. While it's not easy to get behind the NFL playing games in London or the NBA in Mexico City, Major League Baseball in Puerto Rico seems like a match made in heaven. The island has continued to foster the sport, and the excitement for the big leagues that starts at such a young age their may be unrivaled. Allowing two teams with young stars so prolific among the Puerto Rican community to put their island on display was heartwarming even before the tragic events caused by two massive storms.

While the island is still grieving and looking to get back to its former self, baseball may be able to provide a small sense of healing. Jose Berrios' aunt Maria recently noted on Twitter that she just received power. This came 147 days after Hurricane Irma made landfall. She goes on to note that 40% of the island still remains without power, and there's still significant rebuilding to be done. Hiram Bithorn Stadium's improvements and reconstruction done in advance of the Twins and Indians series is such a small blip on the radar, but the healing provided by what takes place there can be an impactful step in the right direction.

Puerto Rico isn't yet distanced from two storms that rocked the island to its core, and it will continue to take time and hard work in order to restore a previous sense of completeness. That being said, the island of Puerto Rico has persevered, Major League Baseball stayed its course, and the healing from a sport could be an integral part in helping the amazing territory to move forward.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Twins Found Something Special In Draft

On June 12, 2017 the Minnesota Twins found themselves making the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Hunter Greene was the trendy cover boy, while Brendan McKay was the two-way star, and Kyle Wright was the dominant pitcher. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine opted to take Royce Lewis, the super athlete and elite high school shortstop. The pick looked solid enough at the time, but since, it's only looked more and more like a slam dunk.

Recently, Baseball America, Keith Law, and MLB Pipeline all unveiled their top 100 prospect lists. The three sources didn't see Minnesota in the same light with the Twins having five, three, and four players make the cut respectively. While there's some differentiation, Twins Daily's Nick Nelson did a great job looking at what the major prospect lists are saying about the Twins. What stands out as the most impressive bit of information, at least to me however, is just how glowingly Minnesota's 18 year-old pick at 1-1 is viewed.

Across the three main lists revealed (with Baseball Prospectus' list still due out), Royce Lewis comes in at an average of the 23rd best prospect in baseball. He's either viewed as the best prospect from the 2018 draft, or second only to the third overall pick, MacKenzie Gore. Not set to turn 19 until June of 2018, Lewis has already debuted at Low-A, and put up an impressive .757 OPS at the level. Playing an elite position on the diamond, everything continues to be trending upwards for the JSerra High School product.

While there's little reason for Minnesota to fast track a high school pick such as Lewis, his ability should continue to force their hand. Getting to Low-A as quickly as he did, Lewis reached the level even faster than the last player taken at 1-1 by Minnesota, Joe Mauer. Mauer made his Single-A debut at 19, and was with Double-A New Britain for 73 games as a 20 year old. His .785 OPS with Quad Cities falls right in line with that of Lewis, and when looking across past Twins success, it's hard to turn anywhere but the current legend.

Still growing into his body, scouts fully expect Lewis to come into more power as he matures. Putting up four home runs in his first pro action, the expectation of future 20 HR potential is far from being out of the realm of possibility. It's been discussed that the Twins have a glut of talent at the shortstop position, pairing Lewis with Nick Gordon, Wander Javier, Jemaine Palacios, and others, but that's hardly a bad thing. Whether Lewis sticks in the infield or not, a worst case scenario pushes him to being the most athletic outfielder in center field.

Through all three prospect lists, it wasn't just the numbers that looked favorably upon Lewis. Keith Law said "Lewis earned raves from scouts before the draft for his makeup, including his aptitude for the game, and the Twins indicated that was part of why they were comfortable taking him with the first pick...If he stays at shortstop, he has superstar upside with his speed and on-base skills; even in center field, he wouldn't lose much value because he's likely to be such a good defender out there." The guys at MLB Pipeline echoed some of those same sentiments in saying, "Lewis has outstanding athleticism on both sides of the ball. When you combine that with his baseball IQ, it's easy to see a future star...watching his full-season encore should be a treat."

Deciphering between the raw number in each list, and combining that feeling with the words attributed to the creators, it's safe to assume the Twins have something special on their hands. In observations of Lewis both first-hand and from afar, it's easily apparent to see this is a kid who gets it. All of the talent in the world is there, and it's paired with a strong support system as well as an advanced level of maturity. Minnesota is still at least a couple of years off from seeing the end result at the highest level, but there's no reason to stop dreaming about how good it will look.

Not all first round picks are the same, and even at the first overall pick a slam dunk is hardly the expectation. Early indications on the field suggest that Royce Lewis is acclimating just fine, and from the outsiders the compile prospect lists, national media is already on notice.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

IBWAA Enshrines Six To Hall

January 24, 2018 will go down as a monumental day for the Internet Baseball Writers of America Association. With the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot going public, the massive six player class is headlined by two of the biggest names to ever step foot on a diamond. As a voting member, I could not be more proud to see the results of this year's cycle.

First and foremost, the 2018 IBWAA HOF Class:

  • Chipper Jones 98%
  • Jim Thome 90%
  • Mike Mussina 85%
  • Roger Clemens 78%
  • Barry Bonds 76%
  • Trevor Hoffman 75%
With Edgar Martinez (2016) and Vladimir Guerrero (2017) already being inducted into the IBWAA HOF, the voting contingent was able to focus efforts elsewhere this season. That boost appears to have given Clemens, Bonds, and Hoffman just enough to get over the hump. Both Jones and Thome end up being enshrined on their first ballot garnering at least 90% of the vote.

Although the BBWAA doesn't recognize the IBWAA, the IBWAA's voting contingent is similar to that of those now being granted access to vote on the Official BBWAA HOF ballot. With that privilege being handed out to younger and newer writers, as well as those on the team beat writing for, a shift towards a more progressive ballot has to become apparent.

We have seen more sound reasoning be applied to players like Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker, while also seeing slightly more support for PED-tied players like Bonds and Clemens. Although the BBWAA still lags behind when it comes to rocking the boat and forward thinking, there's been drastic changes proposed (and some accepted) in recent years. As we continue to move forward, it will be interesting to see how the two outlets compare against one another.

As things stand today, and as a voting member of the IBWAA, I couldn't be more proud to see Jones and Thome get their due. Mike Mussina joining them is a treat, and Trevor Hoffman has a place in Cooperstown. Bonds and Clemens are two of the greatest to ever play the game, and it's on their induction that this vote will be remembered.

Twins Tracking The Tribe

As the 2018 Major League Baseball seasons draws ever more near, the Minnesota Twins are looking to replicate a season that saw its end in the postseason. While they'd prefer to avoid the one-game playoff in the Wild Card game, that would mean overtaking the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. With the division looking like a two horse race, it's worth checking in on the possibility of that outcome.

In observing the Indians from afar, comparing them to the Twins may be best done by positional group. If we break down the active roster into groups consisting of starters, relievers, infielders, outfielders, and bench, we should have a relatively clear five-subject analysis to look at. With those parameters set out in front of us, here's how the cream of the AL Central crop stacks up.

Starters: Indians

Even if the Twins sign Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta, the Minnesota rotation will fall behind that of Cleveland. While a Darvish, Jose Berrios, and Ervin Santana top three would rival Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer, it's the back end that has questions. For Paul Molitor, it's safe to assume a new name is going to enter the bunch, that means there will be just two spots left to fill out the rotation. Right now, it appears that those jobs will be owned by Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes out of the gate.

Terry Francona has the luxury of going to Danny Salazar as his fourth, and Mike Clevinger as his fifth. Salazar has as much upside as anyone, and his stuff gets big league batters out at an alarming rate (when he keeps it in the zone). Minnesota has the opportunity to raise the water level as 2018 draws on, and if someone like Stephen Gonsalves, Zack Littell, Fernando Romero, or a host of other arms forces out Gibson or Hughes, it would likely be for the better long term.

A year or two ago, the divide between the Twins and Indians on the mound was substantial. Given Kluber's Cy Young status, and the depth of the group overall, they still tout an impressive five. All things considered, Minnesota has closed the gap measurably, and that will continue to be an area of focus for the immediate future.

Relievers: Indians

Where the Twins were more top-heavy as opposed to having depth in the rotation, the two squads may be the opposite in the pen. Bryan Shaw is gone in Cleveland, and the innings eater won't be there for Francona to call on in 2018. They still boast an incredible one-two punch in Cody Allen and Andrew Miller however, and both could be named among the best in the bullpen across all of baseball. Behind that duo though, there's a relative falloff, and that's where Minnesota's opportunity comes in.

The trio of signings Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have made in relief this winter can be categorized as nothing short of a grand slam. Fernando Rodney has his warts, but he's still effective in the late-innings, with upper 90's stuff. Zach Duke is a great gamble even further removed from Tommy John surgery, and Addison Reed is among that "best relievers in Baseball" category. Adding that group to holdovers like Trevor Hildenberger and Taylor Rogers is a huge plus for Paul Molitor's club.

If Minnesota wants to nab this category, and they're very close to doing so, Ryan Pressly and Tyler Duffey need to be at their best. Pressly is an impact arm that can shoulder high leverage when he's right, while Duffey has worked late innings prior to his pro career and has a nice two pitch mix that profiles well in relief.

Infielders: Indians

This category is absolutely in Cleveland's favor, but the Twins aren't as distant as it may seem. Francisco Lindor is one of the best young players in the game, and whether or not his game ends up being power or average, he's going to hit. Jose Ramirez is the best star that doesn't get enough attention, and Yonder Alonso is coming off a breakout 2017. Losing Carlos Santana will hurt this group, and Jason Kipnis' best days are maybe behind him. As a whole though, this is a strong outfit.

It's obvious that Brian Dozier is the cornerstone of Minnesota's infield. Behind Jose Altuve, he is probably the second best player at the position. Jorge Polanco showed his bat will play down the stretch a season ago, and Miguel Sano is going to hit a good amount of longballs for plenty of years to come. If Joe Mauer continues to play elite defense, his value will fail to sag any time soon as well.

Behind the dish, I'd prefer Jason Castro and Mitch Garver over Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes, but I could be a bit bullish on what I expect from Garver in 2018.

Regardless of the total collection, these two infields are loaded with talent, and the Indians has a bit more sustainability and depth, the Twins aren't too far behind. Both of these groups can hit, and the fielding acumen is pretty close as well. As you can see becoming a trend, the gap is closing.

Outfielders: Twins

There's little argument to be made against Byron Buxton being the best outfielder in baseball. He's the game's best defender, and plays the premium position of the three spots. His speed and arm are both elite, while he continues to improve on route running. Should his bat again be ready to unleash the fury James Rowson helped to tease us with for the better part of 2017, Minnesota has an MVP candidate on its hands.

Both Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler have holes in their game, and despite his strong 2017, it's Rosario I'm more uncertain about. The strong arm is there, and he may profile better in right, but route efficienty has been somewhat of a question. Tightening up around the plate will benefit him, but he's always going to be a free-swinger. Kepler has the look of a Christian Yelich type, and that ceiling remains. If he's able to harness that ability in 2018, Minnesota will be in a great spot.

For the Indians, Bradley Zimmer has graduated from prospect status and is now expected to be a regular. Defense is an definite tool of his, but the bat lagged behind in his debut. Michael Brantley is an All Star, but his body is fighting against him, and Lonnie Chisenhall is nothing more than a rotational type at this point in his career. The group has plenty to offer, and doesn't have glaring weaknesses, but there's hardly a shining strength either.

Bench: Indians

Including the designated hitter into this equation, Cleveland's upper hand is significantly loaded from the top. Edwin Encarnacion is a destroyer of baseballs, and should be expected to continue with those contributions in the season ahead. Behind him however, there's a significant (and expected) drop off. Tyler Naquin is a nice rotational outfielder, and Giovanny Urshela seems to get plenty of use over the course of a season.

Unlike the Indians, Minnesota doesn't have a true DH (at least until it becomes Miguel Sano's assumed role). Robbie Grossman has been an invaluable add, and is an OBP machine, but he's slumped at times and is limited defensively. Eduardo Escobar is a very good utility man, and Ehire Adrianza gives the Twins a nice glove first player.

Looking at reserves, you're picking at straws to a certain extent. If you have a one-dimensional player though, allowing that to be a guy that trots the bases with a parrot on his arm is hardly a bad position to be in. If everything else gets taken care of for Minnesota this offseason, a bat addition would be nice, but it's not coming in the form of an impact player.

Overall, it's apparent the Twins are still playing second fiddle to the Cleveland Indians. What's also apparent is that the gap between the two clubs is no longer wide. With pitching being one of the greatest differences, Minnesota has drawn closer in relief. Over the course of a season series, or even the full 162 game slate, I'd be far from shocked to see these two clubs flip flop.

In the Twins last two competitive seasons (2015 & 2017), they went 12-7 and 7-12 against Falvey's former organization respectively. The divide probably isn't worthy of being nearly a 2:1 or 1:2 scenario, but that's the volatility that any one season brings. Right now, Cleveland is still the AL Central favorites, but Minnesota is making a run to change that, and the competition in the American League could push them to realizing a division crown as their best path to the postseason.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Hey Joe, What's Next?

In listening to the latest episode of Aaron Gleemen and John Bonnes' Gleeman and the Geek, I found myself pondering a question the pair posed. in wondering what happens next for the Minnesota Twins first basemen Joe Mauer, it seemed they both felt as though a high likelihood that he play for another team in 2019 is present. My feelings have always been to the contrary, and it seems as though yours lie in a similar place.
Using the Twittersphere to conduct a quick impromptu poll, just over 100 responses rolled in to the question, "What do you think Joe Mauer does in 2019?" With the available responses being that he stays with the Twins, heads elsewhere, or retires, there was an overwhelming response regarding to of the three outcomes. Most of the respondents suggested that the hometown boy will stick with the Twins a year after his current contract is up. Roughly one-third of the poll reflected a belief he retires, and the small 9% minority believes that he will go elsewhere.

When judging what's next for Mauer, I think there's a few things in play. Obviously at this point in time, we have no idea how 2018 will play out for the Twins first basemen. He's coming off the first season since 2013 in which he hit above .300, and it's also the first time his OPS has been above .800 since that same season. He very nearly (and should've) won a Gold Glove, and the 2.3 fWAR again made him a very solid asset for Minnesota.

In trying to project what will happen a year from now, I believe we have two relatively straightforward paths. Should Mauer again be a productive player, he's probably looking at a one or two year deal from Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. If he happens to fall off a cliff in his age 35 season, I'd have to imagine he'll consider retirement on his own. What I don't foresee happening is the St. Paul native relocating to a new city in his 16th big league season, to hang on for a short amount of time.

First and foremost, Mauer's family is in Minnesota. As a dad of twin girls, uprooting them as well as his wife at this stage in his career seems like a relatively unnecessary burden. Considering the on field aspects of any change, the reality is that even with a great year, a long term commitment isn't going to be made for a player entering their age 36 season. A one or two year scenario that could see Mauer relegated to relief duty by the end of it, seems to suggest joining a new club would be a pretty difficult ask. At first base, high OPS and power hitting players are the ones generally welcomed as bench bats. On top of that, while Mauer isn't a nuisance, he's more of a lead by example type than he a traditional vocal clubhouse leader.

Acknowledging that the current front office isn't composed the same as it was in 2015, the Minnesota Twins handed Torii Hunter a one-year $10.5 million that season. He was coming off a .765 OPS with the Tigers, and had become a relative liability in the field. For Minnesota in 2015, he posted a .702 OPS (worst since 1999) and played in 139 games. His largest impact on the team was easily in the clubhouse, and he helped to push that team to an unexpected winning season.

Unable to be counted on for 15 plus home runs, or an energizing clubhouse presence like Torii, Mauer will need to prove his value in other ways. I can't see the current Twins front office dangling anything close to a $10 million deal, but something near 50% of that could make some sense. A team friendly deal that allows Mauer to contribute with his glove, while providing some value with his bat, would be something I think Falvey and Levine would sign up for.

At this point, it's far too early to speculate what a deal may look like, or how the playing options going forward could shake out. So much of that narrative will depend on the production put forth in the campaign that lies ahead. What I do believe to be certain however, is that Mauer will either remain a Twin or will walk away. I fail to see a scenario in which he's the best option for an opposing club, and similarly, they're the best option for him. When the dust settles, it will definitely be the end of an era. From there, we'll have five years to discuss what his journey to Cooperstown could be like.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Minnesota Making Room On The Mound

As spring training looms, Paul Molitor and the Minnesota Twins will soon have to make some tough decisions. While the 25 man roster as a whole must be settled upon, the Twins will need to decide how they'll round out the rotation. It's obvious another Jose Berrios or Ervin Santana type impact arm is needed, but on the back end, the group has plenty of suitors. For two players though, the future is all but certain.

First, there's 31 year-old Phil Hughes. Still owed $26.4 million through 2019, the premature extension Terry Ryan handed out continues to be the fit that keeps on giving. Hughes gave Minnesota just 53.2 IP a season ago, and that was in follow up to a 2016 that saw him turn in just 59.0 IP. Despite being a true Cy Young candidate in 2014, his first year with Minnesota, it's been a deep dive off a cliff since.

The past two seasons, Hughes has dealt with a myriad of injuries. From breaking a bone in his leg, to undergoing Thoracic Outlet Surgery, health has not been something he can lay claim to. It's the TOS procedure that remains relatively difficult to come back from, and the list of those who've successfully recovered is not a long one (Matt Harvey of the Mets finds himself on the wrong side of the discussion as well). After turning in a 5.87 ERA and allowing opposing hitters a .907 OPS off of him, Hughes was shut down and again went searching for answers.

On August 10, Hughes underwent Thoracic Outlet Syndrome revision surgery, in hopes it would help set him up for a cleaner bill of health in the year ahead. Now fully healed, the question turns to what he can give Minnesota. The past two seasons, he's allowed hard contact roughly 40% of the time. When he was going well in 2014, that number was 32%, and it's just 38.9% over the course of his career. Maybe most alarming however is the significant dip in velocity. After throwing his fastball at 93 mph from 2009-2014, he's lost at least 3 mph over the past two seasons. Such a significant decrease can obviously cause issues, and could end up contributing to a career ending decline.

If he's healthy, the Twins would be getting a command artist back in the fold. Hughes at his best is a plenty serviceable back end option, and would be more than capable of being entrusted to take the ball every 5th day. Although the upside isn't there, and he's probably past his prime, a staff could do much worse than a solid Phil Hughes. How long of a leash he has to prove that's where he's at, or if there is truly a clean bill of health all remain fair questions. With north of $20 million left on his deal, it's hard to see the Twins cutting bait, but I can't imagine the current structure allowing for ineffectiveness either.

On the opposite end of the return spectrum is one-time top prospect Trevor May. Making his return from Tommy John surgery, May likely won't be ready on Opening Day, but also shouldn't be far off. Prior to the injury, it appeared May was going to be given every opportunity to earn a spot in the starting rotation. Despite being used solely as a reliever in 2016, the desire to get more use out of him seemed apparent.

As a reliever, May posted an elite 12.7 K/9 and a manageable 3.6 BB/9. His 1.5 HR/9 led to an inflated ERA, but the 3.80 FIP suggests there was quality beyond the surface. While May in the bullpen could truly be an asset to Minnesota, there's also the question as to whether or not his back could put up with the workload. Never working solely as a reliever, injuries flared as he was called upon to pitch more often, and ready himself at a significantly quicker pace.

Prior to his injury, May appeared to be more than a soft tossing arm deployed out of the Twins stable. As a starter, he averaged right around 94 mph on his fastball, and bumped that up to 95 mph coming out of the pen. While not triple digits, sustained velocity in the mid 90's is something that Minnesota would no doubt welcome. It's fair to wonder whether or not the surgery will sap some of the electricity, but track records for Tommy John patients have greatly improved over time.

In both cases, Minnesota will have some difficult decisions to make. There's a much better case to be made for May being inserted into the rotation if healthy. His long term value remains of benefit to the club, and at 28, his prime still should be in front of him. Outside of monetary obligations it's hard to say the same for Hughes. Unless he's a lights out 2014 version of himself, there's plenty of reason for skepticism when it comes to future contributions.

At any rate, the Twins have two starters locked in, and a third (Kyle Gibson) pretty close to being written in ink as well. The necessary addition of a top level arm remains a must, but how the 5th and final spot shakes out is anyones guess. Both Hughes and May will be in the conversation, but how will the production from both speak?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Pen Provies Possible Upside In Minnesota

As things stand, the Minnesota Twins have made two moves regarding their bullpen this offseason. In signing both Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke to one-year deals, they bring in proven veterans with skills in all the right places for the Twins. It seems Derek Falvey and Thad Levine sent a message in their relief acquisitions, and looking back to 2017, it is one that should be well received.

While teams have long since began venturing down the path of super bullpens, some of them go about it differently. At their peak, the Kansas City Royals seemed to do it more organically, while the Cleveland Indians moved some pieces around, and the current Colorado Rockies just threw money at everyone with a pulse. The idea that a start can be shortened through a strong bullpen is a good one, but it isn't a band-aid that can be applied to every organization.

For Minnesota, the reality is that both the starting pitching and relief staff needed work. With the cost of acquiring a starter being what it is, spending top dollar on a minimal impact role like a reliever is a tough ask. Instead, the Twins got creative by targeting high strikeout guys with strong track records. On top of that, they did so without much potential for negative repercussions considering the length and terms of each deal.

Where this story starts though, is at the beginning. Looking back to 2017, it's hard not to see Paul Molitor and his staff in a much better place when having to deploy relief help. There's no arguing that the Twins don't have an elite pen (or maybe even an above average one), but much improved is something they should have in spades.

On Opening Day of 2017, the Twins trotted Tyler Duffey, Michael Tonkin, Justin Haley, Ryan Pressly, Matt Belisle, Brandon Kintzler, Craig Breslow, and Taylor Rogers out to the bullpen. Of that group, only three remain, and each of them should find a spot in the 2018 pen from the jump. Assuming Minnesota goes with seven relievers (after beginning with eight a year ago), I'd imagine the group consists of: Duffey, Rogers, Pressly, Trevor Hildenberger, Zach Duke, Alan Busenitz, and Fernando Rodney.

Looking at the holdovers, you have two guys that have the ability to pitch in high leverage. While Pressly is the velocity guy, Duffey worked as a closer in college. Both can put the ball past opposing hitters, and looking for K/9 rates above 8.0 should be a safe assumption. In Rogers, Molitor gets a guy that was tested in his second year, and showed he can get batters out on both sides of the plate. Moving more towards the middle innings, he can act more as the second lefty, and be somewhat of a specialist.

In categorizing the additions, the Twins have a lot of new weapons at their disposal. Despite his age, Rodney is still pumping fastballs in the upper 90's. Yes he walks batters, but over the course of a full season, it's hard not to see him being an asset. Duke returned from Tommy John in record time, and the biggest takeaway from 2017 for him was health. He's a year removed from a 10.0 K/9 with the bulk of the season spent in the AL Central. Hildenberger and Busenitz both stepped in huge down the stretch for Minnesota a season ago. The former looked the part of a potential closer, while the latter is another velocity arm (95.8mph) that should see the strikeouts rise.

Given that this group is relatively established, and there's a bit more depth behind them, the Twins can feel a bit more at ease about their current positioning. We've been waiting on top relief arms to surface for some time, but names like Hildenberger, Busenitz, and John Curtiss simply stepped up first. Should J.T. Chargois, Tyler Jay, and Jake Reed see their time come in 2018, the overall water level for the relief corps will only continue to rise.

At the end of the day, the Twins bullpen isn't going to wow anyone on paper. For fans who've followed the organization however, it looks like one of the better groups in quite some time, and one that speaks to a certain level of sustainability. It took some time to get away from the soft tossing aspect in relief, but that doesn't appear to be the plan of action for anyone (save for Duke) who will enter the field from behind the wall. It may all blow up when the action actually starts, but there's reason for optimism with the current collection to be sure.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Diving Into Twins 2018 ZiPS

Today, Dan Szymborski released the 2018 Minnesota Twins ZiPS projections via Fangraphs. If you aren't familiar with ZiPS, they are simply a projection system (similar to Steamer, KATOH, PECOTA, etc) that attempt to look at potential production for an upcoming season. Projection systems don't account for situations in real time, and are using statistical analysis to draw future conclusions.

After appearing in the Wild Card game seemingly out of nowhere, the 2018 Twins have some heightened expectations. With warts on the starting rotation and in the bullpen, Minnesota has to have each area be better in order to compete with other foes in the American League. With both the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels adding big time this winter, the Wild Card almost certainly isn't going to welcome a sub 90-win squad this Postseason.

Rather than dive deeply into the bulk of the projections themselves, I'd like to point out a few key areas of note, as well as adding some commentary. Again, you can find the full 2018 Twins ZiPS projections here. Anyways, let's get into it:

  • Two Twins hitters are projected for 30 or more homers, both Brian Dozier (31) and Miguel Sano (30). Eddie Rosario is slated to have 21, with Byron Buxton clubbing 18. Kennys Vargas is projected for 25 across 506 plate appearances (which is not a mark I see him getting anywhere near).
  • Sano is pegged for a 35.4% strikeout rate, which would be virtually identical to his last two seasons. His 116 wRC+ would lead the Twins, but come in lower than his 124 wRC+ from 2017.
  • Assuming he gets 400+ plate appearances at the big league level, Brent Rooker is given a projection of 17 HRs with a .226/.288/.396 slash line for the Twins.
  • Average still isn't something I'm certain Byron Buxton will ever call an asset, but a .246/.305/.426 slash line from the Minnesota center fielder would be more than welcomed. Adding in his defense, he'd likely get an MVP vote or two.
  • Returning to the land of the .300+ batting average a season ago, ZiPS pegs Mauer for a .286/.368/.394 slash line in 2018. That .286 mark is expected to be good enough to lead the Twins, and contribute to a 103 wRC+ total.
  • Here's some player comparisons ZiPS sees: Dozier (Ryne Sandberg), Buxton (Adam Jones), Mauer (Keith Hernandez), Grossman (Bobby Kielty).
  • Coming in JUST under 9.0 K/9, Berrios is projected for 174 strikeouts in 176 innings. Unfortunately, that innings total is also expected to be the largest total for Twins pitchers.
  • Regression is expected to bite Ervin Santana, as his ERA swells from 3.28 in 2017, to 4.10. Berrios checks in with a 3.92 ERA. The four best ERA marks are all attributed to relievers: Curtiss (3.46), Hildenberger (3.50), Duke (3.51), and Pressly (3.63).
  • Jose Berrios' number one comparison is Dave Stieb, and he carries a 3.3 zWAR projection. That's over double the 1.6 zWAR projection he was given prior to the 2017 season. Stephen Gonsalves' 1.1 zWAR checks in as the highest mark among rookie pitchers for Minnesota.
  • After having six players projected for 2.0+ zWAR in 2017, only three (Dozier/Buxton/Sano) surpass that total this season. Sano and Mauer are the only regulars with zWAR increases year-over-year.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Will The Real Kyle Gibson Please Stand Up

Entering the 2018 Major League Baseball season the Minnesota Twins greatest need is starting pitching. Obviously, that is a similar narrative for many teams across the sport, but there's little denying that things line up for the hometown team to make a big splash in the starting rotation. While Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana are locks among the five this year, Paul Molitor will have to quickly find out what Kyle Gibson he has in 2018.

The former 1st round (22nd overall) pick by Minnesota in 2009 has been the focus of many stories wondering if it will ever all come together. Making his big league debut at the age of 25 back in 2013, Gibson now embarks on his 6th MLB season, and will be doing so at the age of 30. He's yet to pitch more than 195 innings in a season, and his career 4.70 ERA speaks of mediocrity in the truest sense of the word. A pitch-to-contact type, Gibson's career 6.2 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 doesn't leave much to get hyped about, simply showing a level of predictability.

Rewind back to mid-2017 however, and Gibson appeared to buck his own narrative. Despite looking like a non-tender candidate for the early part of the year, the former Mizzou Tiger landed a 2018 arbitration deal that will come in somewhere around $5 million. Now the question is, how did he get there and will it continue?

A year ago, Gibson's first 17 starts for the Twins added up to a 6.29 ERA and a .920 OPS. He was sent down to Triple-A, and was dealt a hard dose of reality. After posting a 5.07 ERA in 2016, the 3.84 ERA from 2015 looked like a distant memory. Then, in a get-right opportunity, Gibson turned things around against the hapless Detroit Tigers on July 22nd. Twirling 7.1 IP of three-run ball, it was the first time since September 13, 2016 that he pitched at least seven innings. From that point on, a period of 12 starts, Gibson owned a 3.57 ERA and allowed opponents to tally just a .699 OPS. The change was drastic, and the sample size was indicative of it being sustainable. Going forward though, can he replicate what drove that success?

First and foremost, Gibson missed significantly more bats. In his first 17 starts from 2017, Gibson generated strikeouts just 14.1% of the time, while walking 10.4% of batters he faced. Those numbers are a far cry from the 22.1% strikeout rate, and 6.2% walk rate posted in the final 12 times on the mound. By getting more batters out on his own, he also increased his strand rate from 68.1% to 79.2%.

Virtually all of Gibson's balls put in play remained comparable by the percentages. He didn't have a drastic change in line drive, ground ball, or fly ball rates. He was able to shave just about 5% off of his HR/FB rate however. The dip in balls leaving the park could potentially be attributed to a slight swing (roughly 4%) of outcomes taken away from hard contact, and added to soft contact. What that also suggests however, is that we dive into the repertoire.

In looking at Gibson's offerings, I think there's a few takeaways to consider. First and foremost, there was a drastic change in regards to how Kyle attacked the strikezone. After predominantly working in the lower half of the zone through his bad stretch, Gibson attacked higher in the zone and on the corners down the stretch. Not being a high velocity pitcher (averaging 92.7 mph on his fastball) forcing the ball up in the zone can help to get it on hitters quicker. Obviously the swing plane changes based upon pitch location, and the added advantage of going up and in suggests Gibson felt more comfortable challenging opposing hitters.

Secondly, there was one pitch that jumped off the page during his success. After using his slider just 14% of the time through his first 1,495 pitches in 2017, the usage jumped over 20% through his final 1,115 pitches on the season. The numbers didn't equate to the career high 22.1% of sliders he threw a year ago (in fact he was at just 17.8% on the season), but it was clearly an offering he felt comfortable going back to. Notably, the slider also became somewhat of an out pitch. Looking at Gibson's pitch types by count courtesy of Baseball Savant, favorable counts saw a significant amount of the sweeping pitch. Despite being more of an afterthought early in the year, the slider generated 5% swinging strikes in the second half (compared to 3% in the first).
Finally, the slight changes allowed Gibson to see a difference in the results of batted balls against him. Launch angle for opposing hitters decreased, while barreled balls fell off a cliff. Gibson was generating slightly more weak contact, and the quality of balls being put into the field of play as a whole had sunk. Likely an indicator of the process as a whole, as opposed to any one single scenario, Gibson was seeing a payoff for his new tactics.

As a whole, it's hard to suggest that 2018 will see a full season of Gibson at his best. While the positive signs were shown down the stretch, none of the changes were revolutionary, and the differences were rather minor in the grand scheme of things. With a new pitching coach in Garvin Alston, maybe Gibson will find even more success with his slider than before. What we don't know, is whether the slight differences translate to sustainability for a 30 year old over the course of 30-plus starts. I do think that there's enough reason to believe Gibson can be more of his 2015 self than he's been each of the past two seasons however, and that would give Minnesota a quality back end option.

Even before adding another high-level arm into the fold, the Twins will have a stable of options to round out the rotation. With youth as a disadvantage, pitchers like Gibson and Phil Hughes will have to put their best foot forward on a nightly basis to set themselves apart. I'm not going to suggest Gibson will live up to his pre-debut hype, but serviceable seems to be a fair bet in 2018.