Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Twins Pitching Excellence but Needing More

The Minnesota Twins dropped their 8th game in walkoff fashion while playing the Kansas City Royals deep into the May 29th evening. Accomplishing that feat means they've surpassed the mark set in each of the previous 13 seasons, and 43 of their 58 in franchise history. While walkoff scenarios can sometimes be a fluke, there's a systemic trend that has Minnesota in the dire position they now face. The pitching is there, but the offense has been nonexistent.

Going into the year, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine were vocal about retooling a pitching staff that needed a lift. Despite a successful 2017 campaign, it was clear that Paul Molitor's offense couldn't continue to bail out the pitching staff. Using a franchise record number of starters as well as arms in total, the quality level needed to be increased in order to reduce the quantity. Now nearly through May, it's fair to say that much has been accomplished.

Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios lead the club in terms of fWAR with tallies of 1.4. Each pitcher has put up a clunker or two, but the vast majority of their outings have been very strong. Gibson has picked up where he left off down the stretch and expanded upon it. Now a strikeout pitcher, he's missing bats and keeping the ball in the yard. Jose Berrios has shown a better level of control, which has led to a walk rate nearly halved from a season ago.

Even beyond the top two starters on the staff, Garvin Alston's group has been plenty good. Jake Odorizzi has served the part of a capable middle-of-the-rotation arm, while Lance Lynn has turned in two recent starts totaling out to a 1.42 ERA. Fernando Romero has burst onto the scene as a potential ace for the future, and the depth down on the farm looks better than ever. To suggest that this is the best Twins rotation in quite some time would be putting it nicely.

Although the bullpen hasn't been quite as sharp, there's a lot to like out there as well. Ryan Pressly looks like one of the best relievers in baseball, while Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney have performed as expected. Zach Duke has been shaky thanks to an uncharacteristic amount of free passes, but the strikeouts have saved him from more trouble. There's room for growth in relief, but the reality is that it's not the significant problem area that the Twins have experienced in the past.

Pitching as a whole has made significant strides within the organization, and it's evident when comparing the club to the league as a whole. Although team ERA checks in at 16th currently (finished 19th in 2017), starter ERA sits at 12th (19th in 2017). Arguably the most impressive boost comes in the form of missing bats, something previous Twins teams simply did not do. In 2018, Minnesota starters have the 9th best K/9 in MLB, and they finished at 26th a season ago.

All of the above represents some very positive developments. The problem however, is that the lineup is doing very little with what they've been handed.

After finishing 7th in runs scored, 10th in extra base hits, and 16th in home runs a season ago, the expectation was for potency from this group. Unfortunately, Minnesota ranks 29th in runs, 29th in home runs, and 19th in extra base hits as of May 30th. Producing at what amounts to a near league worst value, it really doesn't matter what kind of outings Twins pitchers produce.

Through their eight walkoff losses, five of them have come against teams with records at .500 or worse. On the season, Minnesota has played 20% of their first 50 games by scoring one run or less. Simply put, there's way too many guys failing at their jobs up and down the lineup.

Among starters, the Twins have six players with an OPS below .750. Byron Buxton has given Paul Molitor nothing at the plate, while Brian Dozier has decided to slump for a significant period yet again this season. Miguel Sano has dropped off the table when it comes to forcing a fair amount of walks, and Logan Morrison is still attempting to find his footing after a disastrous transition to his new club.

Right now, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler are the only players providing Minnesota any sort of value in the lineup. Eduardo Escobar's hot streak is long gone, and the bench is made up of a handful of players that really have no business being in the big leagues. What's more dire for the Twins is that answers don't really present themselves outside of the clubhouse. Calling up Nick Gordon could provide a spark, but it would be short lived until Jorge Polanco returns. Chris Carter may provide some thump to the lineup, but he could also be an exact replica of what Sano is currently providing.

At the end of the day, it's on the players currently a part of the 25 man (and more importantly the starting lineup) to get their bats going. While veteran leadership off the field is great, there's no better way to lead than by producing while it matters. Sano, Dozier, Buxton, and a handful of others need to get going. The postseason is likely a distant mirage at this point, but turning things around, salvaging something of purpose, and giving the pitching staff much better than they've been afforded are all musts if this collective wants to be taken seriously in the future.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Backboards, Home Runs, and the Power of Interest

The NBA Finals are now upon us. A culmination of an 82 game season, along with a tightly contested playoff tree, has led us here. Where exactly is here you may wonder? Well, the exact point that could have been expected way back in October. For the fourth straight season, the Golden State Warriors will meet the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Given the predictability of the championship series, expecting the sport to be overlooked would be a good bet; it'd also be a wrong one however. Major League Baseball is an incredibly different sport, but the game could learn a lot from Adam Silver's exploits.

Providing full disclosure from the get go, I am not a fan of the NBA. I do enjoy basketball, but watch intently through the college realm. The NBA has the superstars, but the regular season is a slog of meaningless minutes and uninspired play. With elevator music going on during the action, it seems the league is determined to keep fans involved during weeknight matchups in any way possible. Regardless of my feelings on the league itself, there's zero denying that a large portion of the formula is right.

As the NFL sees ratings take a dip, the NBA has been there to pick up the straggles. Although Roger Goodell is a buffoon, his league remains the most popular in this country. Adam Silver's NBA has quickly risen the ranks however, and now find themselves firmly entrenched as America's number two sport. Marketability in the NBA is off the charts, and a league that's dominated by superstars continues to draw interest levels at an incredible pace. While Rob Manfred struggles through pace of play issues and ways to change the game, drawing from what works elsewhere may be a worthy venture.

Having a marketing background, that tends to be my main area of focus when it comes to how the NBA has ballooned into such a cash cow. Superstars are celebrated and adored, while shoes are most have pieces of memorabilia that fans can connect with on a daily basis. The game itself is one of sexiness, and nothing is done to hinder individuality. Although that may simply scratching the surface, those three avenues are paths that Major League Baseball should emulate in any ways possible.

First and foremost, baseball is a very regional sport. I understand that makes marketing players to the masses somewhat of a challenge. LeBron James is adored by fans not only in Cleveland but across the globe. In baseball, Mike Trout is far and away the best player in the world, but the sport finds reason to argue whether those from other markets (a la Mookie Betts) can contend at the same level. Trout is heralded among baseball fans, but he's hardly emulated in the same form or fashion as LeBron.

Understandably, Mike Trout doesn't have the appeal that LeBron James does to the casual fan. LeBron is a singular name, and while Trout could be argued in that category as well, he doesn't embrace the ability to transcend so many different types of people. James is a walking billboard and pop icon; he embraces those realities. Trout is much more laid back, and ok with taking that route as well.

It's hard to suggest baseball is at fault for making its superstars something they are not as individuals, but it's more than fair to question why the individuals aren't given a bigger stage. Doing more to market the Kris Bryant's and Luis Severino's of the sport would lend a hand towards growing a younger demographic. Youth connect to individuals more than teams, and finding a way to capitalize on the current backbone of the game is a must. There was some outcry in regards to Sony's MLB The Show 17 putting Ken Griffey Jr. on the cover, and it follows this line of thinking as well. With so many must see talents today, skipping out on the marketing opportunity was an odd choice. Aaron Judge rectify's that misstep (even with Babe Ruth included virtually this season), and could be a small step down the right path.

Continuing along the lines of individuality, baseball needs to avoid taking itself too seriously. Without fostering a meaningless regular season like basketball, the sport could benefit from a higher level of encouraged uniqueness. During basketball's regular season, one-on-one opportunities provide highlight reel plays. Individuals showcase themselves by wearing unique shoes that become must have commodities. Abilities during play become the storylines for plenty of pickup games across the nation.

It's hard to fault baseball for failing to drive shoe sales from their superstars. No matter how cool Mike Trout's latest cleat is, the reality is that it will never be applicable for daily wear. That being said, going viral for an attempt to fine a player like Ben Zobrist for wearing PF Flyer's is hardly a good look. On more than just special occasions, MLB should be encouraging players (and footwear companies) to create desirable and individualized looks for wear during the action (the NFL is at fault here as well). Creating more positive buzz about what superstars are wearing allows fans to connect with those they follow in a different way.

That level of individuality and emotion shouldn't stop at the uniform however. It's long been time to abandon some of the stingier unwritten rules of the game. Showing emotion after key strikeouts, bat flips after a big home run, or jubilant displays of excitement following a key play should become mainstays in the sport. Basketball thrives off of the big slam and stare down, or the clutch three and finger wave. Plunking players or starting brawls because of emotion has become a true inhibitor of growth. Both participant and fan can quickly assess whether or not something is being done in an attempt to show up a competitor, and outside of that scenario, there's plenty of room for accomplishments to be celebrated.

Finally, and pace of play be damned, there's nothing better for Major League Baseball than the big play. Where baseball has dunks and football has touchdowns, a home run is a significantly greater athletic feat. Watching a 90+ mph be turned around to travel something like 400 feet is a modern marvel. Rather than allowing questions of why the ball itself has changed to run rampant through the media, embracing the statistical output should be of peak interest. Despite allowing steroids to get out of hand in the sport, Bud Selig saved his game from itself in the post strike years by encouraging home runs to come at a ridiculous pace.

With the amount of slugging power hitters in the game today, seeing lineups like the Yankees launch longballs at record setting paces is something that should be talked about more. Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, and other big blast bombers should be nightly mainstays on the highlight reals, and finding new ways to describe their exploits can be part of the equation. There's a love for the pitcher's duel from baseball purists, but it's always going to be offense that drives the train when it comes to a level of excitement.

At the end of the day, it's unfair to expect baseball to be something it isn't. Both football and basketball have a much larger level of action simply in how the sport is played. Knowing that however, it's increasingly detrimental for MLB to stymie the game in ways that it doesn't need to. While four hour slogs aren't good for anyone, the focus should be on marketability of those competing as the backbone of the league, and why you should tune in. There's opportunity for baseball to grow, but the sport itself needs to do a much better job harnessing it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Shuffling the Twins Roster Decisions

After making the hard, but correct, decision to move on from Phil Hughes, the Twins put some roster shuffling into motion. Trevor May, Ervin Santana, and Miguel Sano are all due back to the big league roster in short order. Paul Molitor's club is putting some heat on the scuffling Indians and the time to strike for Minnesota is right now. How they construct the 25 man going forward remains somewhat up in the air, but here's a few guess on what things may look like.

Phil Hughes replaced by Ryan LaMarre

The outfielder is on his way back to the big leagues. After being a spring training surprise, LaMarre posted a .718 OPS across 38 plate appearances in 20 games for Minnesota. Since heading down to Rochester, he's continued to stay hot. At Triple-A, he has a .371/.436/.543 slash line across nine games and 39 plate appearances.

The Twins don't really need six outfielders on the 25 man roster, and especially not with the talent embedded among their starting trio. That said, there's really no infield options that make sense here. It's too late for Nick Gordon as Sano isn't far off, and there aren't any more veteran placeholder types to call upon. This move could be short lived for LaMarre, but he appears to be destined for the 25th spot as of now.

Jake Cave replaced by Trevor May

While noting that LaMarre's time with the Twins could be short lived, it's also true that Cave could be the guy optioned in about a week. Trevor May is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 28, and every inclination is that he'll be activated that day. Having made starts with both Fort Myers and Rochester, May has been great in his seven innings pitched since returning from Tommy John surgery. The velocity has been there, and he's posted 10 strikes (with 5 walks), giving up just one run on four hits. Yes, he's working as a starter, but I just don't see room right now.

Should the Twins tab May for the spot Hughes was occupying in the pen, he can continue to stay stretched out in working as the long man. With the ability to give Garvin Alston two or three innings of work at a time, May provides some nice bullets in relief and also doubles as a fallback option in a spot start scenario.

Gregorio Petit replaced by Miguel Sano

Just a bit further out than May, Sano's return looms for the Twins. He's yet to play a full nine innings in the field during his three game rehab stint, but that's the next hurdle he'll overcome. There's no doubt he's a big boy, and adding that wrinkle to a hamstring injury doesn't help things. If the malady is behind him though, Minnesota could use that extra thump in their lineup sooner rather than later.

Once he's fully cleared, Sano should slide back in at third base moving Eduardo Escobar back to shortstop. It's unfortunate Escobar can't hack it defensively at short like he can at third, but the bat upgrade over Adrianza should be a noticeable one.

Matt Magill replaced by Joe Mauer

Here's where the dart throws begin in this whole process. First and foremost, we aren't sure when Mauer will be ready to return to the Twins lineup. Going on the DL effective May 19, the Twins first basemen is eligible to return on May 29th. Given his history of concussion related issues, it's far from certain that he'll be cleared in the given 10-day timespan.

Ideally, Mauer returns in short order and provides Minnesota the Gold Glove caliber defense they've come to trust at first. It's hard to imagine he'd replace a position player, as the Twins bench would be significantly dwindled in that scenario. With eight relievers, Magill would seem to be the odd man out. He's posted a 1.54 ERA and 7.7 K/9 while owning a great 0.8 BB/9 across his 11.2 IP. A move like this would be just a tough luck situation for the reclamation relief project.

TBD replaced by Ervin Santana

Call it a cop out, but I'm not ready to put a name on this move. Simply put, the Minnesota Twins have way too many moving parts in the starting rotation to determine who Santana will replace just under a month from now. I'd be shocked to see him before the middle of June, and making his first rehab start this week, he'll need at least three or four good turns to be big league ready.

Sure, it's an easy call if things stay like they are now. Lance Lynn being ineffective would bump him to the DL for a time and Santana could slot right in. Fernando Romero having his innings limited and being sent back to Triple-A could be an option. The real answer may have not yet presented itself and there may be an injury that allows Minnesota to have the decision made for them. The only thing worth banking on is that Santana will have a spot when he's ready. Where he slots in remains of little importance.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Kepler's Breakout Still In Progress

One of the most logical candidates to have a breakout season for the Minnesota Twins in 2018 was right fielder Max Kepler. The talented German had flashed ability to do it all down on the farm, and despite being a solid regular for Minnesota, didn't yet seem to have put it all together at the highest level. Now just under two months into the regular season, we've seen the start of the breakout, but rest assured that there's more to come.

In early April, I wrote about Kepler's approach at the plate. He's been relatively vocal about not intending to increase his launch angle, and instead hit the ball hard on the ground. Thankfully he hasn't followed through with that practice, and he's benefited from elevating the baseball in 2018. Getting more loft on the ball, while continuing to hit it hard, is absolutely a strong blueprint for success. What's even more encouraging for the Minnesota right-fielder is that we haven't seen the results indicative of just how good the approach has been thus far.

On the season, Kepler has posted a career best .803 OPS. He has 19 extra base hits through his first 169 plate appearances, and he's already tallied six longballs. The .250 average is just a slight bump from his .243 resting spot a year ago, but the .337 OBP is indicative of an approach that has yielded an incredible 22/20 K/BB ratio. After struggling to hit lefties last season, even to the point of being platooned against them, he's flipped the script entirely. Kepler owns a 1.120 OPS vs LHP in 2018, while posting a .694 OPS against RHP. The expectation should have always been that he'd hit both types of pitchers given his minor league track record, but this level of production is a very nice surprise.

As good as Kepler has been for Paul Molitor though, the best part is that we're probably just scratching the surface. In 2018 thus far, Max owns just a .256 BABIP to go with his .250 average. That number seems unsustainably low given the numbers surrounding it.

With as well as Kepler is elevating the ball, more impressively yet is how hard he's hitting it. The 44.1% hard hit rate is a career best by over 10%, and he'd putting the ball on the ground a career low 37.8% of the time. Despite those factors working in his favor, his 10.5% HR/FB rate suggests there's plenty of room for growth.

On top of the quality generated behind contact, Kepler isn't getting cheated at the dish either. His 7.7% swinging strike rate is a career best, and he's chasing pitches just 26.5% of the time, a career low. He's also setting another career high with an 83.5% contact rating. If anything, Kepler could be a bit more choosy in an effort to boost his pitchers per plate appearance above 4.0 (currently 3.91) in an effort to see something more juicy.

Trying to tie a bow on what the numbers are telling us, Max Kepler has basically put the big leagues on notice. He's driving the ball with authority, and creating the best contact numbers of his career. On top of that, he's doing it against pitchers who attack him from both sides of the plate, and he's created a blueprint that should only help his counting stats to further balloon from here on out. While Eddie Rosario and Eduardo Escobar have paced the Twins in the early going, a blistering stretch from Max could very well be right around the corner.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Berrios and Rodney Tweaks are the Difference

For the Minnesota Twins in 2018, two of their most important pitchers in the rotation and bullpen are Jose Berrios and Fernando Rodney. With Berrios serving as the rotation's bonafide ace, and Rodney bringing up the rear in games with a lead, Paul Molitor needs both of them to be right far more often than they aren't. Unfortunately, both have gone through a dry spell in 2018, but it appears a couple of tweaks has each right back on track.

Starting in the rotation with Berrios, we've seen both ends of the spectrum through the first two months of the season. Across his first four starts of 2018 for the Twins, Berrios own a 1.63 ERA and was allowing opposing hitters to compile just a .378 OPS against him. He tallied 29 strikeouts to pair with just five walks. For a guy who has had command issues in the past, the results were nothing short of greatness. Then however, we got to April 24th.

In the first game following his dominant outing in Puerto Rico, Berrios came up against the Yankees. He surrendered five runs on six hits in the Bronx and took his second loss of the year. Things didn't get better from there, and the four game stretch would turn ugly by the time the dust settled. From the 24th through May 10th, Berrios posted an 8.84 ERA and allowed a 1.027 opponent OPS. His stuff had seemingly left him, and it was his curveball that appeared most out of whack. Working with pitching coach Garvin Alston during a bullpen session, reports suggested the curveball had been fixed.

On Tuesday night against the St. Louis Cardinals that appeared to ring true. Berrios posted a 2,389 RPM on his curve against St. Louis, despite averaging just a 2,327 RPM mark over his previous four starts. He also got swinging strikes on the pitch 15.7% (16/102) of the time, as opposed to the 10.6% (35/330) he generated in the four starts prior. With more bite on his breaking pitch, it appeared that Berrios was back to his normal self on the bump.

Out of the bullpen, the Twins needed Fernando Rodney to make a tweak as well. Despite still throwing gas at an advanced age, it has always been his changeup that Rodney has relied upon and thrived with. For whatever reason, he decided to abandon the pitch in coming over to the Twins.

During his first 8 outings, Rodney threw 6.2 IP while balooning to a 6.75 ERA with a .991 OPS against. He was tossing his changeup just 18.6% of the time, and finding very little success. Fast forward to today, and he's gone another 7.0 IP with a 0.00 ERA and a .350 OPS against. In that time span, he's been using the offspeed pitch 27.1% of the time.

Without having conversations with the closer, it's hard to determine why he'd abandon a regular usage of arguably his most effective pitch. Given the start to the Twins season weather wise however, it's worth questioning if the snow or cold may have played an effect. Grip can be tough on a major league baseball as is, throwing in suboptimal weather conditions no doubt only increases that reality. Right now though, it appears Rodney has things back in control and is utilizing his changeup more closely to his career norms. With a 35.6% career usage rate on the pitch, it's still a bit below where he's been, but things are trending in the right direction.

The Fernando Rodney Experience is always going to be a rollercoaster, but having him pitch out of the closer role is the most optimal scenario for the Twins. Allowing pitchers like Addison Reed and Ryan Pressly to be deployed in high leverage at any point during the game is of massive value. The same can't be said about Rodney, and keeping him effective in the 9th allows the Twins to best position themselves for wins on a nightly basis.

Minnesota continuing to push the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central will rest heavily on the shoulders of both Berrios and Rodney throughout the year. Making quick tweaks when necessary is extremely valuable, and keeping their respective focuses on point is imperative for sustained success.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Lance Lynn Only Doubting Himself

Seven starts into his 2018 season with the Minnesota Twins, Lance Lynn has been nothing short of an abomination. He owns a 7.34 ERA, 1.981 WHIP, and is surrendering 6.6 free passes per nine innings. All of those numbers are ugly, but what's most interesting, is that Lynn's secondary numbers suggest he could be very good if he stops doubting himself.

Now to be sure, doubt may not be the most appropriate word to describe what is going on with Lynn. At the core of his issues is simply the fact that he has decided not to throw strikes. Over the course of his career, Lynn has been in the zone 41.6% of the time. In his early years with the Cardinals, he attacked the zone at an even higher percentage. While not the same measurement, in 2018 for the Twins, Lynn has thrown strikes on just 58.5% of his offerings. In his first season back from Tommy John surgery last year, that number was 59%. In 2015 it was 61.5%, and in 2014 it was 62.6%.

Across the board, the most glaring issue for the Twins free agent acquisition is his inability to work in or near the zone enough to entire hitters.

In fact, if we look at some of Lynn's secondary numbers, his stuff is actually playing a bit better than career norms. His 2,300+ spin rate on average for pitches thrown this season is up from last year, and his velocity has seen about a one mile per hour spike as well. He's generating swinging strikes 10.8% of the time, which is a career best. His 30.4% chase rate is the 2nd best mark of his career, and he's allowing contact at a career low 75.9% mark.

Doing so many other things rate, it's fair to question where that leaves him.

There's a couple of things at play for the big righty. His repertoire seems to have shifted some this season. The four seam fastball usage is up nearly 8% over last year, and the sinker has dipped 10% to make up for it. In looking at the density of his pitches in the zone, we can see he's attacked completely opposite sides as well. Instead of working the left side and inner part of the zone against righties as he did so often in 2017, his 2018 balls have traveled to the right side of the zone with many of them floating over the heart of the plate.

By taking a look at how he's attacking batters, or in this instance isn't, we can gather a good idea of what his batted ball numbers should look like. Issuing 6.6 walks per nine and over 11 hits in that same span, opposing batters are invited to be patient. As such, Lynn is issuing a career worst 40.8% hard hit rate as well as a 21.4% HR/FB ratio. Despite generating ground balls at a 48.5% mark, which is a strong total, he's allowing opposing hitters to sit back, swing hard, and deposit baseballs into the seats.

Of the 164 plate appearances Lynn has been on the bump for this season, 108 of them have presented scenarios in which either the batter or pitcher is ahead in the count. Across those scenarios, Lynn has been behind an astounding 65% (70/108) of the time. In the 70 plate appearances where Lynn has been pitching from behind, he's ceded 25 walks and allowed opposing hitters to compile a 1.251 OPS off of him. Conversely, when working ahead in the count, Lynn has given up zero walks while striking out 16 despite still allowing a .947 OPS.

Over the course of his seven year big league career, no one would suggest that Lynn is a command artist. A career 3.5 BB/9 for a starter is a bit above what you'd like to see. However, he's routinely made the process work because he's been able to throw plenty of strikes, get ahead of hitters, and put them away. Right now, Lynn has decided to nibble around the zone, strike out batters in part due to confusion, and be burned by his own inefficiency.

The good news is that Lynn had next to no spring training and has plenty of time to turn things around for the Twins. The bad news is that his room for error is becoming incredibly small, and we've reached the point in which he either needs to throw the ball over the plate or changes need to be made. The stuff is there for a very good pitcher to emerge. Lynn's overall ability, repertoire, and stuff is in a better place than it was a year ago. If he isn't in a place where he believes that it plays within the parameters of the strike zone however, it doesn't much matter.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Getting Late Early in Relief for Twins

The Minnesota Twins just finished up a four game set with the Los Angeles Angels. By the time Fernando Romero was done with his five innings against Shohei Ohtani, Paul Molitor was tasked with utilizing a bullpen coming off an extra inning affair and quite a bit of recent work. What the Minnesota skipper was also having to deal with, was being a man short from beyond the outfield fence. Phil Hughes was available, but he isn't an option either.

Hughes was jettisoned to the Twins bullpen after flopping in his first two starts of the year. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine likely saw this outcome coming given their decision to start Hughes on the DL out of spring training due to an "injury." Out of the pen, Hughes has been used in only the lowest of leverage situations, and has essentially taken on the role vacated by Tyler Kinley. Unlike the Rule 5 draft pick however, Hughes hums a fastball in at just 91 mph and doesn't really make anyone miss.

The obvious elephant in the room here, is the $26.4 million owed to the former New York Yankees pitcher through 2019. Terry Ryan made an unwise decision in extending Hughes less than a third of the way into his first deal with the Twins. Rather than seeing more of a sample size, the veteran pitcher was given a guarantee after posting an MLB record breaking season in 2014. On the flip side, it'll be on both Falvey and Levine to come to grips with that number being a sunk cost.

Right now, Paul Molitor and Garvin Alston are playing with a deck a few cards shy of a full set. The Twins have employed eight relievers often in the past few years, and that only highlights the importance placed on having quality options available out of the pen. As of May 14th, there's really only seven usable arms at Molitor's disposal.

When going the extra reliever route, a team is suggesting that they're comfortable with a three-man bench. Minnesota has a trio that includes Bobby Wilson, Gregorio Petit, and Robbie Grossman. Outside of Grossman's bat, that group is a combination of journeyman that have more of a scrapiness to them than any distinct characteristics. In short, the lack of another option is a trickle down effect from what is currently taking place in relief.

As things stand now, the Twins are leaving themselves short in the bullpen as well as off the bench, solely because a logical decision on Phil Hughes is being delayed.

At Triple-A, Alan Busenitz is making the choices at the big league level look even more interesting. The owned of a 95 mph fastball and strikeout stuff, currently owns a 1.13 ERA and a 13/2 K/BB ratio across 8.0 IP. A year ago in 35.1 IP, Busenitz posted a 1.78 ERA and 9.9 K/9 for the Rochester Red Wings.

Having made four appearances thus far with the big club in 2018, Busenitz has numbers that need improvement. Allowing three runs in just 4.0 IP, his 6.75 ERA isn't pretty. That small sample size doesn't overshadow the 1.99 ERA he posted in 31.2 IP a season ago however. In fact, I think the realistic performance lies somewhere in between. Busenitz is a better strikeout pitcher than the 6.5 K/9 he tallied in 2017, but he's probably not quite the guy who totaled just a 1.99 ERA either.

At any rate, having Busenitz at his disposal would give Paul Molitor another necessary option out of the pen. Rather than subjecting Zach Duke to overuse against righties, or taxing arms like Taylor Rogers and Trevor Hildenberger, Busenitz could be worked into the mix and provide yet another quality option in a relief corps that's been significantly revamped from a year ago.

Really what it comes down to is that Phil Hughes is the linchpin holding up multiple more adequate roster scenarios for the Twins. It's a tough pill to swallow when you're talking about that kind of money. Deciding to DFA Hughes isn't admitting defeat however. The reality is that he was trending downwards prior to his TOS surgery, and the list of successful recoveries is not a long one. It's time to thank him for what he's done, and push the water level of the club a bit higher.

Friday, May 11, 2018

May Twins Mailbag: You've Got Questions

With the Minnesota Twins having just rolled off a handful of wins in a row, and in turn helping to reshape their season, I thought it a good time to field some questions on the action that has taken place. For those following along on Twitter (@tlschwerz), I asked for submissions of questions pertaining to the Twins, where they are now, and where I see them going in the weeks ahead. There were plenty of great submissions and here's a handful of my favorites.
Right now, Eduardo Escobar is arguably the best thing going for the Twins. I recently wrote about his approach and the season he's put together in the early going. Based on his versatility and production, he's one of the best utility players in the big leagues. I'm less certain that the numbers hold up as a starter, but the floor should be a pretty respectable one as well. In regards to playing second base, the best answer I've got is that he should be able to.

No one has played much second for the Twins since Brian Dozier took over the position, and so any sample size is going to be small at best. While Escobar is awful at shortstop, he's plenty capable at third base. My feeling is that it would translate to the right side of the diamond just fine as well.
This is a loaded question because there's so many what ifs and other factors at play. What I do think awaits the Twins is more winning, internally grown talent, and a lot of roster turnover. While I loved this offseason for Minnesota, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine did a great job of not handing out any long term commitments. Sure, the window opening for a deep playoff run hinges on a group that includes the likes of Buxton, Kepler, Rosario, Berrios, and Sano, but the rest of the pieces are capable or being interchanged.

We're probably two years off from guys like Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff. We don't know what Gonsalves or Gordon will be at the big league level, and it's yet to be seen if someone like a LaMonte Wade or Brent Rooker will pan out. The core has been developed though, and it's a good one. Continuing to develop and supplement the group that remains should be the plan of action for at least the next 4-6 years.
When you have a guy that's as good of a fielder as Buxton is, even when he's not hitting there's a difference being made. As with Andrelton Simmons, his glove was incredibly valuable even in all the years that he didn't do much at the plate. I wasn't a huge fan of Buxton needing a rehab assignment in the first place. Sure he hadn't played in over a week, but he was dealing with migraines, not some body altering malady needing to be re-trained.

In more than a handful of the Twins losses, having Robbie Grossman in the outfield was a significant problem for Minnesota pitchers. Removing that part of the equation, the Twins immediately take a step forward. I hope there's a time Buxton finds the consistency at the plate that he's shown in flashes. I don't believe playing a few games at levels he's crushed is going to do much for sparking that.
The answer to this likely depends on your interpretation of what the losing that took place was. For me, that was the mirage. Now winning five in a row, or nearly 99% of your games like the Yankees, isn't a norm any team should get used to. The reality is that the Twins played some really bad baseball in the first month, and they're a much better team than the record indicates.

Lance Lynn missed virtually all of spring training, the bats have been much colder than you'd expect, and the weather was anything but normal. I had this team pegged for 91 wins coming into the year. At this point, I still think they're more than capable of winning 85.
There's no doubt Santana has a spot when he comes back, but who he takes over for remains in flux until the point in which he's ready to go. I still think it'll be June before we see him, and there's plenty of time for this to work itself out by then. Guys could get injured, Romero may need more seasoning, Lance Lynn may not settle in, there's plenty of options. The two arms I don't see going anywhere are Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Steady Eddie is Launching and Laughing

The Minnesota Twins were going to be without Miguel Sano at some point during the 2018 Major League Baseball season. Whether from a possible suspension, complications due to a rod being inserted into his leg, or the normal wear and tear a body of that size can endure, the reality is he would miss time. When that point came, Eduardo Escobar was going to be the man that filled in. What wasn't expected is that the utility man would raise the bar. Then again, maybe we should have seen this coming all along.

Back in 2015, I wrote a piece entitled Twins Cash Check Formerly Known as Francisco Liriano. The point of that article was that Liriano had run his course within the organization and was flipped to the Chicago White Sox in a move that was largely forgettable. Escobar was a part of the return however, and he posted a 2.6 fWAR in 2014. As a part time player, he'd carved out a nice role for himself and the 2015 spring training continued to carry that momentum forward. Since that point, he's posted yearly fWAR totals of 1.9, -0.2, and 1.7. Outside of 2016 in which Minnesota went in the can as a whole, he's been incredible valuable.

Now having played in 29 of the teams first 32 games, Escobar finds himself with a 1.4 fWAR (best on the team) that projects to a 7.1 mark over the course of a full season. There's next to no chance that pace continues, but for the sake of context, Joe Mauer won the MVP in 2009 with a 7.6 fWAR season. Right now, Escobar is playing like nothing short of the Twins team MVP.

The great thing about what is currently taking place for the Fogo de Chao loving infielder, is that he's not doing anything too out of the ordinary. His .341 BABIP is far from inflated, he's swinging through roughly the same amount of pitches, and neither his contact or chase rates are out of whack. His 35 home run pace is probably unsustainable, but far from crazy after launching 20 a season ago. The jump from a 12.8% HR/FB rate to a 15.9% HR/FB is noticeable but doesn't scream crazy either. If we're looking for a change, things could potentially be explained by a more gradual one.

At the time of first tracking in 2015, Escobar posted a 13.4 degree average launch angle on his base hits. Year over year, he's improved that number to 14.1, 17.1, and now 18.5 this season. Getting lift is something we've seen the game embrace as it positively correlates with the quality of hits generated. Simply put, hitting the ball harder, further, and higher is only going to positively impact an individual's overall results. Eduardo's double, triple, and home run totals seem to agree with that notion as well.

I'm not going to boil this outburst from the Twins utility man down solely to a launch angle adaptation. I think there's plenty of factors at play, but it seems apparent that his growth as a hitter has definitely contributed to the current surge. What's arguably more important in this whole scenario, is just how valuable Escobar is to the Twins roster makeup as a whole.

The talk of the offseason was in regards to how the Twins will retain Brian Dozier going into the 2019 season. My inclination all along has been that they'd either flip him for something, or allow him to walk with a qualifying offer tied to his name. Given what the market showed this last offseason, there's a decent possibility that Brian could accept that offer and return to the Twins on a one-year deal. Regardless, the totality of his age, production, and value going forward seems somewhat replaceable for Minnesota. Trying to find another Eduardo Escobar could be a more daunting task.

Over the course of a full season, fWAR totals around 1.5-2.0 are relatively easy to come by. Escobar plays many positions, but is probably below average defensively at all of them. That being said, he's a very good teammate and provides a strong clubhouse presence. He'll be just 30 years old next season, and the familiarity of backing up all over for the Twins is something he's done since he was a 23 year old. Staring at an average annual value south of $8 million or so per year, that's a commodity that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine may not be so keen on losing.

At the end of the day, Escobar is front and center regarding this Twins current turnaround. That's not to say someone else won't pick up the slack shortly, and it's a fool's errand to realistically expect 162 game averages off of this current level of production. Even at a mid-range value for Paul Molitor though, Eduardo Escobar is a player that winning teams need to have around and he's a great asset for Minnesota.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Another Big Move Coming for Minnesota?

Update: The Twins put Miguel Sano on the DL today (5/1). Gregorio Petit was selected to join the 40 man roster and replace him on the 25 man roster. Dietrich Enns was DFA'd to make room for Petit. Given that the Twins are going with a fill in type player in Petit, I would assume that signifies a belief in Sano not being on the shelf for too long. Gordon would still make sense at some point in the not too distant future.

After yet another ineffective start for the Minnesota Twins, Phil Hughes was guaranteed nothing by the front office and Paul Molitor. His scheduled start was listed as TBD on the press releases, and eventually the news came out that he'd been demoted to the bullpen. Top pitching prospect Fernando Romero is on his way to the big leagues and will have a chance to stick in the major league rotation. With Miguel Sano being hampered by a hamstring injury, that may not be the only top prospect making a debut for Minnesota.

On Monday night when the Twins played the Toronto Blue Jays, Paul Molitor's bench included just two available options: Ryan LaMarre and Jason Castro. Given that neither of them are reliable bats at the current juncture, that's a pretty underwhelming set of reserves for a Twins club that badly needs to turn things around. With the promotion of Romero, I opined on Twitter that it signified the front office was echoing the statements of many fans. This level of performance is unexpected, and unacceptable. Instead of looking for band aids to try and get by, they were going to throw out their biggest pieces. That suggests to me that Stephen Gonsalves could soon be a rotation option, and Tyler Jay may not be far behind in relief. For the lineup though, there's one name that now jumps off the page.

Minnesota's 40 man roster has been exhausted when it comes to hitters. The only player currently available and not with the big league club is Jake Cave. The outfielder, acquired from the New York Yankees this spring, is slashing .188/.322/.261 at Triple-A Rochester through his first 19 games. With Zack Granite on the disabled list, Derek Falvey may be forced into another aggressive move.

It's probably time to wonder if top prospect Nick Gordon isn't ready for the big leagues.

Here's the thing, it makes no sense for Gordon to come up and sit. There's also little reason to put him on the 40 man roster and start his clock if the stint at the highest level is going to be a matter of days. In regards to both of those concerns however, there's a clear path as to how things could work out.

First and foremost, the playing time should be there. Eduardo Escobar is locked in as an everyday player right now. The utility man has filled in for Sano admirably, and is arguably the Twins best offensive threat going. Gordon, while not an ideal fit at shortstop, could immediately take over for Ehire Adrianza. The slick fielding Venezuelan would be a loss with his glove, but he's posted a .590 OPS and has never been a bat to rely on. Gordon would be making a big jump from Double-A Chattanooga, but his current .898 OPS in 23 games suggests he may be better than the level anyways.

Secondly, there's no guarantee that Miguel Sano is going to simply need 10 days to get his leg back to full health. Hamstring pulls are tricky, and rushing them back only leads to further aggravation. The reality is that even with the ability to backdate his DL stint to April 27, the Twins could be without their starting third basemen for a matter of weeks. When he returns, slotting him into a DH role while Escobar is going hot would continue to make room for Gordon to receive regular playing time.

There's a lot to digest here, and in Gordon, we're talking about a 22 year old kid with some question marks remaining in regards to his prospect status. That being said, his fielding deficiencies probably aren't going away, and that bat has continued to profile well. After a strong start to the 2017 season, he ended up with a .749 OPS. The .898 mark this year is solid, and that's bolstered by a .934 OPS over his last 16 games. Assumed the potential replacement for Brian Dozier, it's hardly a bad idea to get a look and see if he can't provide a jolt right now.

We could have our answer sooner rather than later, but if the Twins want a spark and another aggressive move, the kid with the bloodlines should be the place to turn.