Monday, November 26, 2018

Robbie Nearing His End in Minnesota?

By Friday the Minnesota Twins will need to decide if they are going to tender contracts to all their arbitration eligible players. The names include guys like Kyle Gibson, Eddie Rosario, and Miguel Sano. Among the ten possibilities, nine of them are near-certainties. If there’s a guy with an uncertain future however, it’s none other than Robbie Grossman.

Grossman came to the Twins in 2016, under the Terry Ryan regime, after opting out of a minor league deal with the Cleveland Indians. His career had sputtered with the Houston Astros and never really got off the ground. That 2016 Twins team was a bad one (103 losses), and Grossman was brought in for depth purposes. The day after his acquisition, Eddie Rosario was demoted to Triple-A and Grossman made his Minnesota debut on May 20.

Robbie’s first season with the Twins was a coming out party. Despite being on a team playing terrible baseball his offensive production was a bright spot. At 26 years-old he’d eclipsed prospect status, but posting an .828 OPS doesn’t get glanced over, and he was every bit the on-base machine expected of him. Now looking back on his production, the narrative hasn’t changed much. In 347 games with the Twins Grossman owns a .711 OPS buoyed by a .371 OBP. Offensively, he’s a guy that has a little pop, takes strong at bats, and gives opportunity to the hitters surrounding him in the lineup.

Unfortunately, the offensive prowess is where things end for Grossman. As good as he was in 2016 at the plate, the defensive output was enough to make either Delmon Young or Josh Willingham blush. Being worth -21 DRS with a -13.8 UZR in just 637 innings is nothing short of an abomination. Spending his time patrolling left field for Paul Molitor’s club, there’s no arguing that his abilities in the outfield aided heavily into such a terrible year.

Being used more sparingly in 2017, and then making improvements in 2018, Grossman does deserve somewhat of a pass on such an outlier of a year during his debut in Twins Territory. The reality however is that Robbie isn’t someone this Twins squad wants in the outfield, and it’s arguable as to whether any big-league club would see that as an ideal fit. Without a real defensive position, that’s where things get a bit dicey.

MLB Trade Rumors projects Grossman’s arbitration value at $4MM. That number isn’t a significant amount in the landscape of salaries today, but it’s also one that makes him more than expendable. Serving primarily as a designated hitter or bench bat, there’s likely better out there equal to or lower than that valuation. The Tampa Bay Rays just DFA’d C.J. Cron coming off a 30 HR season and an .816 OPS. Both players made similar figures in 2018, and Cron is a capable defender.

Knowing that the Twins are looking to upgrade their corner infield spots, have depth in the outfield (and recently acquired another OBP guy in Michael Reed), and have some desire to bring in thump to the designated hitter role, there’s plenty of factors working against Grossman. If this is the end, and it’s trending that way, it’s hard to look back at the tenure and not be happy for both sides. Grossman jumpstarted a career that failed to launch, while the Twins got a bat for the lineup that proved more serviceable than anyone could’ve imagine. At some point we all become expendable as the scales tip in favor of opportunity cost. Grossman will find work and the Twins will fill his role. Going forward, there’s just not the same ideal fit.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Twins Telling in Tea Leaves

Recently there were two rather significant developments regarding the 2019 Minnesota Twins roster construction. With the deadline to add Rule 5 Draft eligible players to the 40-man roster now in the rearview mirror, we know how the organization handled the situation. Also, in the early stages of free agency, Jon Morosi reported that the Twins have had discussions with the Arizona Diamondbacks about dealing for Paul Goldschmidt. Both of those scenarios could be hints at what’s next from the front office.

Concerning the 40-man roster and Rule 5 decisions, the Twins added Nick Gordon, LaMonte Wade, and Luis Arraez to the fold. The first two were givens while Arraez makes a ton of sense as a great contact and average hitter for a team currently lacking talent up the middle. Still having two open spots on the 40 man, the front office decided to trade reliever Nick Anderson instead of keeping him around. Jake Reed, who was deserving of a September call up, will again be exposed to the Rule 5 draft, and former 1st round pick Tyler Jay was left out in the cold as well.

Given the openings on the roster there would have been no downside for Minnesota to add the likes of Reed and Jay, even if more moves necessitated their removal in the coming months. Bullpen help has been assumed to be a key area of focus this offseason, and the internal options being passed over could be somewhat of a hint.

The reality is that the Twins certainly could benefit from some top tier relief help. The starting rotation is in a much better place than any time in recent memory, but it’s still void of a true ace. The depth is there but expecting the group to compete with the best in baseball is probably a bit far-fetched. Add in the reality that the game has shifted to being reliever dominated, and Rocco Baldelli would certainly benefit from some elite arms out in the pen.

By deciding to forego adding internal options that would have signified depth, we may be able to assume that the intention is to truly aim high in relief. If the front office was going to target more middle-of-the-road relievers, having players like Reed, Anderson, or even Jay to slot in should things go south seems like a solid backup plan. If Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are shooting for the stars though, there should be a reasonable expectation that a backup plan becomes much less necessary.

Working from a place of familiarity the Twins and Diamondbacks were trade partners just last season when Eduardo Escobar was shipped out. Goldschmidt is the premiere first basemen available at this point, and even in the final year of his deal, would be an exciting option to replace Joe Mauer. The free agent market at the position is beyond underwhelming, and exploring a trade there sends a few signals.

Minnesota is clearly starting at the top by inquiring on Goldschmidt, and they’re also obviously exploring the trade market. Carlos Santana remains an ideal fit a rung down and comes with a bit more longevity provided to the club. What we can glean is that all options are being explored, and that the immediate sense points to Miguel Sano staying at third base.

Both discussed situations above help to provide some clarity with regards to how Minnesota may be viewing the 2019 season. Goldschmidt fits oddly as he’s on a one-year deal, but maybe the intention is to go for it and reload. While Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, and the next wave of big prospects don’t seem to factor in before 2020, there’s plenty of talent here to make a run in the year ahead.

With the Cleveland Indians clearly approaching the end of their run, Minnesota is positioned to be next in line for consistency within the division. The infrastructure has been put in place by the front office and executing on the personnel would be the next logical step. There’s a ton of money to be spent this offseason, and there will be more to go around in 2020 and beyond. Putting the pedal down now could have the Twins looking like the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers, and that’s a team who made significant noise in the Postseason.

Monday, November 19, 2018

A Different Advantage for the Twins

Last summer during a late season Minnesota Twins game Thad Levine sat on stage with Aaron Gleeman during the now annual Baseball Prospectus event at Target Field. There was a myriad of topics discussed but on point stood out to me. The general manager quipped that while Minnesota may not be able to outspend the competition in the form of player acquisition, they were committed to adding talent and spending dollars in other facets of the organization. Fast forward to today, and we’re beginning to see that all take shape.

Recently announced skipper Rocco Baldelli certainly is a step outside of the typical candidate pool. He’s just 37 years-old and has no previous managerial experience. While that is something that would’ve been unheard of years ago, it’s a decision that has become more common recently. Alex Cora just won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in his debut season, and Aaron Boone faired well with the Yankees out of the same division. It’s not just the managerial role that the Twins have committed to a different structure though, and it’s felt throughout the organization.

Behind the scenes Minnesota has beefed up its analytics department, adding bodies in the front office that should be expected to push the needle. Formerly of Baseball Reference, Hans Van Slooten was brought into the fold prior to the 2018 season. A glance through his timeline will highlight the multiple intern, baseball operations, and baseball research positions the organization has committed to. It’s not just off the field talent though, and that has really played out as Baldelli’s staff has been named.

After working with the Twins as an Advance Scout, Jeremy Hefner has been added to the field staff for 2019. He’s just 32 years-old and was pitching professionally as recently as 2017. Despite a lack of coaching experience, he has been named the Assistant Pitching Coach. The man he’ll be working next to is green in the big leagues as well. Wes Johnson was plucked from Arkansas after a successful stint with Mississippi State. He’s well regarded as a forward thinker using TrackMan and Rapsodo technologies, as well as being billed a velocity savant.

On the diamond during play, Tony Diaz joins the Twins organization at the age of 41 after holding a base coaching position with the Colorado Rockies last season. Tommy Watkins is just 38 and joins the field staff after serving as a minor league manager and drawing rave reviews from all those he interacted with. Bringing both diversity as well as youth to the highest level of Twins baseball, there’s a very visible shift in dynamics taking place here.

It was assumed that Paul Molitor would’ve been on his way out following the 2017 season had he not won Manager of the Year. Not handpicked by the front office, the collective obviously had plans of how they wanted things run and see those interacting with players as an avenue to get more production in the box score. Looking at how this new staff has been filled out, it’s plenty apparent to see that Molitor (by no fault of his own) wasn’t anywhere close to the ideal profile.

From a top down view, and before the games begin to matter, it’s plenty fair to suggest that this whole blueprint has a very real chance to go up completely in flames. With so many coaches lacking experience at this level, and youth being a very common thread among them, it will be necessary to overcome hurdles in the process. However, the Twins are very clearly going out on a limb in the vein of innovation. If their competitive advantage isn’t going to come through outspending, looking to exploit market inefficiencies is a very astute way to go about gaining ground.

We will still need to see if everything comes together and this formula ends up being worthwhile. That said, innovation doesn’t happen for those unwilling to take the first step, and the Twins front office has committed to a process that bucks the trend of retreads being selected as new hires first. Investing in the opportunity to pioneer a new process, and hopefully benefit both the 25-man active roster as well as the organization, the Twins could certainly be venturing down a path that helps to ever-so-slightly tip the scales in their favor.

There’ll come a point in which we can look back and judge how it all worked out, but that remains at least a couple of years in the future right now. Reasoning and process alone make this plan appealing, and there’s little reason to cast aside the hope that it works.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A First Basemen with Familiarity

On Monday morning the legendary career of Minnesota Twins great Joe Mauer came to an end. While it's obvious that his exploits behind the dish were far superior to what he did at first base, the reality for Derek Falvey and Thad Levine is that they now have a hole in their infield. Heading into free agency the first base market is pretty ugly, but a familiar name could make a ton of sense.

Last winter Carlos Santana signed a three-year, $60 million pact with the Philadelphia Phillies. Now according to Ken Rosenthal, they are "shopping the hell" out of their newly acquired first basemen. Of course the optics of such a move don't look great for the Phillies, but there's much more to it than meets the eye. Everything boils down to the fact that Rhys Hoskins is a bonafide stud, but he cannot play in the outfield. Serving as the regular left fielder last season he was worth an abysmal -24 DRS. The best configuration for Gabe Kapler's squad has the young star back at first base.

For the Twins (and any other suitors) there's somewhat of a perfect storm brewing. Santana had a down year in 2018 (not terrible however), and his team is motivated to move him before the start of the 2019 season. With those two factors at play it'd be fair to assume that leverage may be on the side of the acquiring ballclub. At 33 next year, Santana is owed $20.3MM with a $20.8MM commitment in 2020. There's a $17.5MM team option for 2021 but the buyout is a measly $500k. For teams interested in corner infield help, Carlos Santana at two-years and $40 million doesn't sound like a bad ask. Trading prospects and taking on the deal though, you're probably looking at asking the Phillies to eat something in the range of $10 million.

Right now you'd like to believe that the Minnesota Twins have Miguel Sano inked at third base to open 2019. A position change across the diamond could be in the not-so-distant future, but keeping him in his current role as long as possible is the most optimal scenario. As he transitions across the diamond though, a sort of mentor could be a great addition to the process. Santana has dabbled at third base in both 2014 and last year. He knows the position well enough to understand Sano's process, and Carlos has been a league-average at worst first basemen since coming out from behind the plate.

Offensively there isn't a box that Santana doesn't check for the Twins. Sure he had a down 2018, but even that included a respectable .766 OPS. In his final two seasons with Cleveland (yes, not the Falvey connection) Santana owned an .842 OPS. He has a career .363 OBP and has routinely split walks and strikeouts at the dish. With three straight seasons of at least 23 homers the ability to lose the ball in the seats is also present. Of course the best ability is availability, and Santana has been incredibly reliable as a big leaguer. Dating back to 2011, he's played in no less than 143 games and has gotten in 152-plus in all but one of those seasons.

Despite playing Gold Glove caliber defense at first base dating back to his positional change, Mauer's greatest detraction on the right corner was the ability to hit for power. Santana brings that to the table, combining his efforts with Sano on the other side. Minnesota's lineup also needs an infusion of on-base ability as Joe (and likely Robbie Grossman) has been subtracted from the mix. On paper this is certainly a perfect fit.

According to 1500 ESPN's Darren Wolfson, Santana is "on their radar" and that's a great sign for Twins fans. While the Phillies are motivated to move him, this is a team considered front-runners for one (or both) of Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. They aren't going to take pennies on the dollar and Carlos' services will be coveted by more than a few clubs. If there's a deal to be made in Minnesota this offseason involving prospects however, this is the one I'd like to see get done.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Well Played, Mauer

Sitting in the Charleston International Airport at 12 pm eastern time, I grabbed my phone and watched as Joseph Patrick Mauer delivered a 17 minute speech to announce his retirement from playing professional baseball. This is a man who had been in the Minnesota Twins organization for nearly 20 years, and spent 15 seasons at the Major League level. Sandwiched between two magazine covers emblazoned with his image, there was nothing left to say except, "Well played, Mauer."

For two straight seasons, in 2010 and 2011, Sony used Joe Mauer as their coverboy for the popular MLB The Show franchise. On the heels of his 2009 Most Valuable Player season he was the focal point of a limited Nike shoe and countless commercials to promote the game. As the premiere virtual offering to baseball fans around the world, the iconic line "Well played, Mauer," grew plenty of steam. As the dust settles it's incredible how fitting those three words were.

At this point we know that the incredible year peak will be his calling card to the Hall of Fame. Three batting titles (a feat in which no other catcher in 118 years of American League Baseball has accomplished once), six All Star games, three Gold Gloves, five Silver Sluggers, and an MVP in tow, the resume is impressive in and of itself. That alone doesn't define the career of the Minnesota Twins legend however. Mauer's reach was felt far beyond his impact behind the dish.

Being the incredible athlete he is, and one that could've been a first round NFL draft pick or likely selection in the NBA draft as well, Joe adapted better than anyone could've expected. Following his career altering brain injury he transitioned to a new position and was snubbed of a deserved Gold Glove there. Despite being miscast as a power hitter due to his incredibly 2009, the leadoff prowess always displayed through his on-base skills only gained momentum as his tenure drew on. Regardless of what he set out to do, Mauer played it, and well.

Through all of the accolades, thanks, and tears Joe displayed up on that stage there was one statement that got me the most. During the media portion of his press conference Mauer was asked how he wants his legacy to be remembered. This is one of the most decorated Minnesotans ever; a guy that did it all at the highest levels. If there's a loaded question with the ability to draw out an answer filled with never-ending glory, that one was it. His response, "Respect, and the way I played the game."

All of the time I find myself suggesting that athletes, celebrities, and public figures are not people to look up to. They're human, have faults, and are unnecessarily placed in the spotlight. This man however, gets it at every level. The last playing embodiment of the legendary Johnny Bench, Joe Mauer wanted his legacy to revolve around respect and the way in which he carried himself. In a landscape starved for great human beings, we didn't deserve what Joe Mauer gave us.

The clock now begins, with 2024 being the first time Mauer is eligible for enshrinement into Cooperstown. We'll have to wait and see how the vote shakes out, and it may take a few tries, but make no mistake that the St. Paul native will be the fourth member of the city voted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. In the meantime, we'll need to look back with fondness of what was, and enjoy the continued involvement of a man that has given of himself in every avenue possible.

1,868 games, 15 seasons, one press conference...It was all "Well played, Mauer."

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Donaldson to Fix Twins Hot Corner?

Bryce Harper has the best hair on the open market this winter, but Josh Donaldson may not be far behind. The oft-injured third basemen is a free agent and coincidentally plays a position that the Minnesota Twins could be looking to rectify. Joe Mauer should provide clarity to the club soon, and that could leave Miguel Sano with an opportunity to swap sides on the diamond. Transitioning from the division-rival Indians, Donaldson could be an answer to the Twins questions.

When the 2019 season gets underway the former Oakland and Toronto third basemen will be 33 years old. He's got just shy of 900 big league games under his belt, and has eight years of MLB service to his credit. Talent is undeniable when looking at what Donaldson possesses, but he's also played in just 165 games across the past two seasons.

Last season the Donaldson made $23 million in the final year of arbitration eligibility. He enters the market at an odd time, looking for a long term payday but also having to calm fears of recent injury concerns and the reality of being an aging commodity. While a one-year deal may be more team friendly this is probably his last chance to get paid, and some level of stability will be hard to pass up.

From a dollars and cents standpoint, something like three years and $75 million seems like fair market value. Donaldson would be 36 at the end of that deal, and $25 million is a steal for a guy that has owned a .931 OPS dating back to 2015. There's obviously the risk that injuries derail things from the get go, but he played in 16 games down the stretch for Cleveland and was healthy enough to act as an impact bat in the Postseason.

The Minnesota Twins have to decide how they are going to handle both their corner and middle infield spots during the first year under Rocco Baldelli. Manny Machado is a perfect fit solely from a positional standpoint, but in that same vein, so to is Donaldson. The latter comes in at a far lower price point, and given the spending flexibility, is still well within the realm of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine's reach.

At his absolute best Miguel Sano is probably a league average defender at third base. Moving over to first puts him in a spot where defense is less of an issue, but also allows him the opportunity to take strides forward at a less demanding position. In Donaldson an acquiring team is getting a player that has never posted a negative defensive season in terms of DRS. With over 7,000 innings to his credit he owns a 53 DRS total and has a combined 30.3 UZR. Although he's never been rewarded with a Gold Glove, the leather is plenty strong with this one.

If there's another avenue that Donaldson plays up for the Twins, it's a middle-of-the-order bat that checks off every box. Not only is he a real power threat, having hit 29 or more home runs in each full season since 2014, but he's not a strikeout machine either. On-base threats are something Minnesota's lineup could use, and his .383 mark since 2015 is beyond impressive. Allowing Sano to see that kind of production, and likely learn from it, could pay dividends in more ways than one.

The reality is that when dealing with free agents the marriage has to be an ideal fit for both sides. No matter how much money the Twins could throw at the likes of Manny Machado, there's plenty of other big hurdles to overcome. Going into contract talks with Donaldson hoping for a one-year pact may be enticing for the Twins, but it probably doesn't move the needle or position them well amongst competing markets. Should the front office push their chips forward and believe the injury issues are behind him, this could be the opportunity to land a superstar talent through a perfect storm.

Pairing the likes of Donaldson with a lineup that includes Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton should be mouth-watering for Twins Territorians. You're never going to avoid risk when ponying up this level of cash, but being able to make a move like this doesn't often present itself so perfectly to organizations like the Twins. Whether Mauer returns or not, Donaldson fits and the iron is hot.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Case for Cutch

Going into this offseason the Minnesota Twins have some very clear needs. Deciding what to do in the infield, and adding a few relief arms are chief among them. If there's a position that isn't immediately on the radar it's adding a body in the outfield. That being said, we don't know what the offseason will bring, and there's a free agent of intrigue on the market.

After being the 11th overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2005 Major League Baseball draft, Andrew McCutchen spent the first nine years of his big league career with the same organization. Traded to the Giants prior to 2018, he was then shipped to the New York Yankees down the stretch. This isn't the same perennial MVP candidate that Pennsylvania natives came to love from 2012-2015, but there's something left in the 32 year-old's tank.

At 29 in 2016, there was a real fear that McCutchen was hitting the skids and looking at the downside of his career. A .766 OPS and awful centerfield defense brought plenty of questions heading into the 2017 season. He responded by moving to right field and putting up an .849 OPS which was bolstered by a near-career high home run total. 2018 saw Cutch post a .792 OPS that was buoyed by a strong .368 OBP and a very nice 25 game stretch for the Yankees.

Coming off a $14.75 million salary in 2018, and a long term deal with the Pirates, McCutchen gets to test the waters for the first time in his career. His market will be interesting, but I'd think that logic suggests years may be the greater focus than a high AAV. If he could be had for something like three years and $30 million you'd certainly find teams willing to play the role of suitor.

With Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario in tow for the Minnesota Twins there isn't an immediate opening. However if I'm Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, two of those players should absolutely be made available on the trading block. Max Kepler likely has the lower value at the moment given his statistical output, but I'm fine in believing he could end up being the superior player.

In 2018 Eddie Rosario was deserving of being Minnesota's representative at the All Star game. He was on fire in the first half and finished with an .803 OPS. Playing in 138 games, he displayed power and production at the plate. From where I sit however, I think we're seeing the absolute peak of what Rosario can bring to the table. If there's a partner out there willing to match the Twins asset with real value, that's a guy to move with certainty.

Never mind that despite the All Star caliber start, Rosario put up lower numbers in 2018 than he did the year prior. His plan at the plate has always been to work as a bad ball hitter, and that didn't change last season. He chased 43% of the pitches he swung at, and he whiffed nearly 13% of the time. On top of that, his walk rate remained at an ugly 5%. When the lumber connects things go well, but that's a trio of numbers just begging for a chance to fall off the table.

Since his debut, Rosario's outfield defense has also taken a dip. As a rookie the outfield assists piled up and were a number to recognize. While his arm strength is a known commodity at this point, he sees himself tested less. Although he did perform positively in 2018, there's still more than a handful of blunders due to routes and decision making that have negative impacts on the scenarios at play.

Make no mistake, there should never be a suggestion to move a 27 year-old Rosario for a 32 year-old McCutchen. Looking at how this could play out however, we aren't operating in a vacuum. If another team wants to bring Rosario on board in exchange for pitching help or something of equal value to the Twins, it's a swap that needs to be heavily considered. At 27 Rosario isn't a kid anymore, and his approach doesn't lend itself to production heights much higher than what we've seen. If the Twins can cash in before things go belly up, it'd be a move you'd need to applaud.

The front office needs to inject this current roster with a bit of leadership, some significant on-base prowess, and talent that can challenge the Cleveland Indians in the very weak AL Central. There's more than one way for them to get that done this winter, and it will be interesting to see how it all takes place.