Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Justifying Minnesota’s 92-Win Explosion

Calling the Minnesota Twins 2018 performance disappointing would be selling it short. After jumping up to an unexpected 85 wins in 2017, and a Wild Card appearance, the team took a step backwards last season. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano gave the club nothing of substance, and Paul Molitor was canned while the organization looked for answers. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have provided a blueprint that they have confidence in, and here’s why it could turn into a surprise story on the diamond.

Coaching Additions

More than any free agent, I’m convinced that the Twins current infrastructure is better than it has ever been. Falvey and Levine have left no stone unturned when it comes to talent focused on development, and I love what that means for the organization. Rocco Baldelli appears to be someone that can connect with a clubhouse of youth on a better level than Molitor may have been able, and his staff seems constructed with that in mind as well. Derek Shelton helps to bring continuity, while Tommy Watkins is a familiar face for many of the Twins young core. Wes Johnson is heralded as a pitching guru at a similarly high level of the game, and Jeremy Hefner marries that with a major league feel. Add in the talent infused on the minor league side, and things are looking up throughout the system.

Avoiding situations where players aren’t given the ability to buy in or understand the why behind the what is certainly a key portion of the analytical age. This front office is forward thinking, and while that is great on paper, the key is getting it to translate on the field. Minnesota now has people in place to not only teach the difference, but also help to incorporate it in a results-driven manner. Whether or not we see it completely pay off this season or down the road, the infrastructure of the organization should draw excitement that it has never previously warranted.

Offensive Opportunity

When it comes to the lineup, Minnesota lost only Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier from the 2018 squad. Although Mauer was a defensive (and on-base) asset a season ago, the replacements provide a realistic vision for growth. C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, and Nelson Cruz all should provide a step up in offensive production. Hedging bets all over the place with the bargain that is Marwin Gonzalez only continues to be a boost for Baldelli’s overall goals.

Internally, the most important players have nowhere for production to go but up. Jorge Polanco played in just half of the team’s 162 games, Buxton had a season lost to injury, and Sano displayed a lack of commitment that finally caught up to him. Sure, Eddie Rosario likely flashed something close to his 100th percentile, but Max Kepler has yet to put it all together as well. Getting a more middle-of-the-road baseline from that group does nothing but raise the overall water level.

Cleveland Effect

There’s something to be said about being the reigning champ, and it’s always going to be on someone else to knock you off. The opportunity has never been riper than it is right now. Career years were had by Trevor Bauer, Jose Ramirez, and Francisco Lindor. Losing Lindor from the get-go is beyond suboptimal and starting with a collective cast that has taken steps backwards should be felt in the standings.

It’s not as though Terry Francona’s group is falling off a massive cliff, but it also wasn’t as though they were a stalwart coming into these new circumstances. Minnesota went 9-10 against the Indians last season but had a run differential of -14. Facing many of the same faces, with a lineup that’s a bit more watered down, a swing here or there could end up being a difference maker.

I realize the rose-colored glasses this could all be viewed as, and maybe the homerism wreaks a bit too strong here. I think there’s a certain level of realism present in every aspect of the opportunity as well. If things are going to blow up, I’d imagine it will be for less of the reasons stated above than it will be the one aspect of the offseason that has me from sending roses to Falvey and Levine at 1 Twins Way: Pitching.

Still a bit south of the Opening Day payroll in 2018, the front office has largely dismissed any substantial pitching upgrades for this club. Blake Parker does bring more talent than we saw at the bottom of the pen a year ago, and it’s hard not to get excited about a healthy Trevor May or a short-stint Fernando Romero. Martin Perez rounding out the rotation is a head scratcher, but there is at least a handful of dart throw depth types behind him.

There could be a move made to support the pitching staff prior to the season starting, or that could be an explored avenue for a trade when we start to see the win column fill up. What would be disappointing is to see the positive efforts wiped out by what takes place on the bump.

At the end of the day, I think the trio of positives leading this piece off are too much to ignore. In 2018 the Cleveland Indians won a terrible AL Central with just 91 wins. The bottom of the division has gotten better, and Minnesota is the only club that made necessary moves to suggest hope in grabbing some additional victories. The branch may have broken by July, but I’m out here standing on it. Give me Rocco Baldelli, in his first year as Minnesota skipper, pushing the Twins to 92 wins and an AL Central Division title.

2019 AL Central Division Preview

We are now at the point in the Major League Baseball calendar where exhibition games have commenced, teams are looking at how to fill out their 25-man roster, and the regular season is on the horizon. Although a few marquee free agents remain, I’m at a point where I feel good about how what could potentially be baseball’s worst division, is going to play out. The incumbent division winning Cleveland Indians are ready to defend their throne and it’ll be on a challenger to emerge.

Including current PECOTA projections (as of February 26, 2019) next to predicted records, here’s how this writer has the standings for the American League Central playing out:

1. Minnesota Twins 92-70 (83-79)

No team has done more in the division to take strides forward than the Twins for 2019. While that’s great in a vacuum, no team was also able to make bigger moves than Minnesota as well. I’ve dug deeper into why I think this is realistic in a secondary piece here, but the front office must be hoping what they’ve done is enough. Despite what’s being billed as a “wait and see” type approach, I’m all in on the Falvey and Levine being vindicated in their decision making.

2. Cleveland Indians 89-73 (96-66)

Quite opposite of the Twins, arguably no team within the division has gotten worse than the Indians. Cleveland loses Michael Brantley as well as Edwin Encarnacion. They’ve replaced the latter with Carlos Santana, but there’s no outfield to speak of, and significant reliance on repeat performances. Trevor Bauer, Jose Ramirez, and Francisco Lindor all posted career year’s in 2018, all while Cleveland mustered just 91 wins. Lindor will miss the beginning of the season, and despite the rotation still being among the best in baseball, it’s hard not wondering what else to fall in love with surrounding this team.

3. Chicago White Sox 73-89 (70-92)

One of the trendiest teams in baseball right now, the White Sox are being lauded for their stellar farm system. There’s no denying that Eloy Jimenez is a stud, and he’s backed by names like Kopech, Cease, and Robert. The first starter on that list is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery though, and there’s always an incredible amount of volatility when it comes to top prospects (ask Twins fans about that.) Manny Machado would’ve moved the needle for this franchise, but instead of going all in, Kenny Williams signed friends and family hoping that would be enough. Chicago will get there, and an 11-game jump in the win column from 2018 is no small task, but that’s about where the fun ends.

4. Kansas City Royals 69-93 (72-90)

Welcome to the dreaded middle ground. It was great for the Royals that they popped up and won a World Series, as the fanbase could be looking at mediocrity or worse for quite some time. The big-league club is void of any real star potential, and the farm system is among the worst in baseball. Kansas City can’t spend big with it making any sort of a difference, but they’ve also yet to hit on any prospects that put them in a better light going forward. If you’re a Royals fan, the highlight of the season is June 3rd when Dayton Moore will have the second overall pick in the 2019 Major League Baseball Draft.

5. Detroit Tigers 62-100 (67-95)

If Kansas City is considered the dreaded middle ground, then Detroit is trending in a much better direction. The Tigers have a strong farm system headlined by pitching stalwarts, and they also hold the 5th overall pick this summer. There’s still plenty of questions surrounding both Michael Fulmer and Matthew Boyd, and Detroit is hoping to see Nicholas Castellanos take yet another step forward, but there’s some building blocks here. Miguel Cabrera is on his way to Cooperstown, but Niko Goodrum has provided some immediate intrigue in the infield. This team won’t be good in 2019, but they could certainly flip the script in the coming years.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Topps with a 1970 Throwback

Although it’s Series 1 that kicks off a new year of baseball card collection each season, it’s the early year release of Heritage that is often seen as the first big product. Heritage carries a promise of being a throwback to yesteryear, this time 1970 specifically. Producing some of the most desired rookie cards, and short prints in all the collecting landscape, this product is one Topps knows you won’t want to miss.

Much like Series 1, Heritage isn’t designed as a massive hit factory. The biggest pulls in this product have more to do with photo variations and differing parallels. Although Topps has changed to define what each different type of card is on the reverse side in recent years, slow rolling through packs to spot differences helps to add appeal to this set.

For the Minnesota Twins specifically, there’s a lot to like in 2019.

Base Set-

There are 13 different players in the Twins base set, and they are delivered on 11 different cards. Heritage represents the first time C.J. Cron, Nelson Cruz, and Jonathan Schoop will be in Minnesota uniforms. Although Kohl Stewart had his first rookie card in Series 1, both Willians Astudillo and Stephen Gonsalves will make their Topps rookie debut on a three-person card joining Stewart. Continuing with the tradition of short printed base cards, Minnesota has two entrants in the 100-card grouping. Schoop’s first Minnesota card is short printed, while he’s joined by Jose Berrios.


A set utilizing a throwback theme, Heritage has remained consistent with many of the insert offerings transferring from year to year. Jim Perry and Harmon Killebrew are paired with current stars on three different Then & Now cards, while Rod Carew is included in the Baseball Flashback set. Sitting somewhere in between an insert and a hit, Joe Mauer is offered on a 1970 Poster Boxloader.


For Twins fans looking at the big chase, there’s a bit of a letdown here. Both Schoop and Berrios are in the new Silver Metal run, which are serial numbered to just 70 copies. Eddie Rosario joins the duo as the three Minnesota offerings among the base mini set, all serial numbered to 100. The crown jewel of Heritage has always been the Real One autographs, and this is where fans may have wished for more. Bert Blyleven and Rod Carew are the only single signed cards. The former isn’t a hobby darling, and the latter is hitting collecting fatigue with autographs in virtually every product currently produced.

Branching out a bit to a bit tougher pulls, there are two separate cards that should turn out nicely. A dual Real One autograph features Carew and Rosario together, hand numbering, and likely a very small print run. There’s also a Real One triple autograph that features Byron Buxton, Torii Hunter, and Carew. Buxton has had Real One autos recently in Heritage, but Hunter getting back into the game is something of a nice development.

Relics will remain aplenty in Heritage and the Twins are represented there as well. From the 1970 mint coin cards to the postage stamp offerings, you’ll find plenty of throwback flavor. Cut up pieces of Eddie Rosario’s game worn jersey can also be expected as part of the Clubhouse Collection relics.

All in all, 2019 Topps Heritage is shaping up to be a fun set once again. The 1970 design won’t be a favorite for all, but this should be a fun set to build. The autograph portion of the program is a bit of a letdown for Twins fans, but there’s enough meat here to draw in other excitement. Look for the product in both hobby stores and on retail shelves February 27.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Magill, the Pen, and What to Make of it All

Going into the offseason, the Minnesota Twins had plenty of opportunity to make waves. Playing in a bad AL Central division with a strong farm system on the rise, jump starting a competitive window seemingly was the obvious play for the front office. At this point, they’ve upgraded the offense while ignoring their pitching staff. In the bullpen, the most central name in all of this is none other than Matt Magill.

The 29-year-old returned to the majors in 2018 after having big league stints during 2013 and 2016. He logged 56.2 IP under the tutelage of Paul Molitor, and his 3.81 ERA was plenty shiny. That’s where the luster wears off. Under the hood is an ugly 5.08 FIP, 1.7 HR/9, and a 1.429 WHIP. He did average 95 mph on his fastball last season, and the 75% contact rate was plenty workable, but in the big leagues, there needs to be more.

Magill needed just 8.2 IP in Rochester prior to getting the call for Minnesota. His minor league track record has been relatively spotty though, and there’s the tale of a guy who owns middle-of-the-road numbers in just about every stop he makes. Knowing that Rocco Baldelli could use a significantly upgraded bullpen, it’s curious as to why such a smart front office would go down this path.

Currently Minnesota is all but accepting the idea that Magill and Fernando Romero will round out the final two spots in relief. The former is a regression candidate waiting to happen, while the latter is a starter being pushed into this position. There’s nothing to suggest that Romero couldn’t move back to the rotation in the future, but this duo has become plan A as opposed to being the fallback for what could have been better executed.

As big-league talent signs on minor league deals, and quality options remain free agents despite the Twins having an abundance of unused funds, the blueprint seems sketchy at best. Spending on relievers is hardly a winning strategy in a vacuum, but right now Minnesota has a need along with a position in which cash considerations aren’t a factor now or the future.

There’s zero argument to be made against the substantial upgrade that Craig Kimbrel would provide in relief for the Twins. Baldelli is tasked with a dart throw or committee approach at present, and while saves aren’t a worthy chase, that level of reliever takes the collective whole up another notch. Shying away from relief, Dallas Keuchel would improve the rotation, and in turn allow Martin Perez to bolster the pen. Something like $20 million per year for either of these guys does nothing to the Twins bottom line and would undoubtedly be a more realistic process to drive results.

At the end of the day, Minnesota isn’t doing anything with the bullpen or the rotation. Matt Magill and his shiny ERA are somewhat of a defining principle for how this offseason has been handled. Sure, there’s plenty of reason to look for more, but why not see what regression we can hope to stave off? In relief, the Twins start with a low bar, and they’ll need to bet on the bottom not falling out.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Next Man Up on the Bump

Right now, the Minnesota Twins have a tentative five-man starting rotation penciled in for 2019. Martin Perez was signed as a free agent to round out the group, and Michael Pineda will pitch for the first time in a Twins uniform. No matter how set the plan may be today however, there’s no denying a wrench will soon be thrown into it. How things are handled from there are worth speculating about.

The reality for the Twins is that they’ve burned through pitchers in recent seasons. Both in the rotation and the bullpen, no number of fresh arms have been enough. The good part of this equation is that depth is being stockpiled on both fronts and that gives us something to look at. While there’s no argument against the fact that the front office could’ve added more arm talent this winter, we’re now in a spot to consider what is readily available to them.

During the 2018 season players like Kohl Stewart, Fernando Romero, and Stephen Gonsalves all got their shot. Zack Littell showed up in the big leagues, and some higher tier prospects made significant strides on the farm. In 2019 though, there’s just one guy I’m keying in on, and he comes from the Land Down Under.

Lewis Thorpe missed two full seasons due to Tommy John surgery and then illness. Since his return though, he’s done nothing but vault up prospect rankings and lay waster to opposing hitters. At 22 last season, he reached Triple-A for the first time in his career. Through four rotation turns Thorpe posted a 3.32 ERA along with a 10.8 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. As a lefty, he’s not the soft-tossing crafty type, with an ability to put the ball by opposing hitters. The strikeout stuff has been there throughout his whole career, as evidenced by a 10.7 K/9 across 328.1 minor league IP.

Recently turning 23, Thorpe should factor into the Rochester rotation from day one. Fernando Romero looks like he’ll work in Minnesota as a reliever and Adalberto Mejia needs to make the big-league roster being out of options. Those developments put Thorpe in a group with guys like Gonsalves and Stewart. Everyone at Triple-A will have some level of prospect status and be looked upon as depth at some point during 2019. For Thorpe though, he could certainly find himself creating distance from the pack.

It seems that while there are top pitching prospects that get focus each season, like Romero and Gonsalves last year, there’s guys that pop up and take the reigns like Littell did early. I’m not sure how the season will go for any of the guys pitching for the Red Wings, but I’d bet against Thorpe being held down. If the capability he has shown over the past two seasons is on display early, he could push for big league time soon.

Baldelli’s starting rotation could use some help on the back end, and despite Dallas Keuchel being able to provide that, he doesn’t seem to be on Minnesota’s radar. The emergence, and sustainability of an internal talent would be a great reality, and the Aussie has as good of a shot as anyone to provide that.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Here Lies the Mauer Critic

The Minnesota Twins have kicked off Spring Training with pitchers and catchers reporting. Position players have begun to trickle into camp and soon games will commence. One noticeable name will not be in the clubhouse this season however, and that’s Joe Mauer. Fortunately for his critics, this ends the seemingly endless nightmare of a contract that was seen as an albatross for the organization. Although moves could still be made, this is an opportunity to put the Mauer critics to rest.

As outlined by the tweet pinned at the top of my Twitter feed, Joe Mauer went underpaid in terms of valuation over the course of his career. While winning batting titles and an MVP award, the hometown hero was making peanuts. Even after the megadeal, Minnesota came out nearly $100 million ahead when it comes to dollars dispersed. Even with Joe taking a below market deal to stay in Minnesota, those who chastise him will never wrap their head around the career altering injuries that drastically changed his trajectory over the final half-decade.

There’s little reason to continue arguing against those stubborn enough to believe that Mauer was anything but an asset to the Twins organization. If that was the intent here, we could’ve stopped long ago. Instead, there’s always been the premise that it was Joe’s deal hampering Minnesota from making any moves of consequence. Despite an organization-record salary bill in 2018, maybe more could’ve been done in Mauer wasn’t around. Right now, I’m here to tell you that’s wrong, and so are the Twins.

With few free agents of consequence remaining available on the open market, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine erasing the near $25 million deficit between spend in 2018 and 2019 seems like a longshot at best. Instead of this false reality that Mauer’s $23 million was preventing the Twins from spending more, we’re dealing with a scenario in which Minnesota is spending $25 million less and pocketing the surplus from Joe’s departure.

I’d assume anyone thinking through a logical train of thought would not conclude that Mauer not being on the Twins would open doors to more dollars for better players. A more logical reality has always been that those things are mutually exclusive. Mauer was never hampering the Twins possible expenditures, but we’re also now seeing the reality that this organization simply isn’t willing to utilize resources when the avenue is available to them either.

For the first time maybe ever, the “Cheap Pohlad’s” narrative has run, but Mauer critics end up looking just as silly in all of this.

Twins Opening Day Roster Projection 1.0

Down in sunny Fort Myers, Florida the Minnesota Twins pitchers and catchers have officially reported, and practice is underway. With many position players either already in camp, or soon to join them, real game action is not far off. Attempting to decipher how Rocco Baldelli will shape his first major league roster should be a fun exercise and doing a first projection before we see anything take shape is plenty exciting.

In past seasons there was some level of continuity with how Paul Molitor wanted his roster to look. The front office had influence, but it was the skipper that ultimately was responsible for the 25 men that headed north. Now having to get used to a new process, we’ll have to figure out how the former Rays star feels about organizing the ends of his roster.

For your first Opening Day roster projection of 2019, here’s how I see the Twins embarking upon Target Field:

Rotation (5): Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda, Martin Perez

Barring another signing, this group looks to be inked in pen. The Perez signing is a head scratcher, and he was better in relief for the Rangers in 2018. That said, the front office has been bullish about him being their 5th guy, and none of the depth behind him makes that a ridiculous proposition. Minnesota could still go out and acquire another arm, with the bar being relatively low, but today this is where we’re at.

Bullpen (7): Trevor May, Addison Reed, Blake Parker, Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger, Adalberto Mejia, Fernando Romero

The Twins bullpen was an area capable of improving the most going into 2019, and while it’s ok, there’s still plenty of uncertainty. Rogers looks like a very reliable, and high-quality arm, while May projects as one of the better relievers in the division. Reed is a prime candidate for a bounce back year and Hildenberger has flashed plenty of potential in his previous exploits. Mejia is out of options, and I’d imagine the Twins won’t move on without reason. Really the only question here is what happens with Romero. Ideally, he still gets developed as a starter, but he could very well be an elite level reliever right now.

Catchers (2): Jason Castro, Mitch Garver

Going into the year Castro will get the lion’s share of the reps but seeing that swing as the season goes on would not be a surprise. Garver needs to take steps forward defensively, but the bat is impressive and needs to be in the lineup often. He was under-utilized at times by Molitor, and that’s hopefully not a path Baldelli goes down. There’s no Willians Astudillo here which will disappoint some, but his days as a catcher could also be limited.

Infielders (6): C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sano, Ehire Adrianza, Lucas Duda

There’s not much question regarding the starters around the diamond. I could listen to an argument that Duda and Tyler Austin make up a platoon that pushes out Cron, but I don’t think there’s much steam to that. The front office made upgrades at both first and second base this winter, and the returning tandem of Sano and Polanco looks enticing on paper. Adrianza will once again play the utility role, and Duda as a platoon partner and bench bat makes a good deal of sense.

Outfielders (5): Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Nelson Cruz, Jake Cave

Like the infield, Minnesota’s outfield is all but set in stone. The corners are well established, and Buxton will return to start in center. This needs to be the campaign in which he puts it all together, and that taking shape could lead to his first All Star appearance. Nelson Cruz is going to be a full-time DH but could see time in the field during interleague play, although everyone would probably prefer that doesn’t happen. There should be worry about regression from Cave this year, and that could open the door for another suitor, but he’ll have the role to start.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Sano Turning an Important Corner

Miguel Sano enters the 2019 Major League Baseball season as one half of the Minnesota Twins largest question mark. The front office has tied the upcoming schedule to the production of both Sano and Byron Buxton. Needing to rebound from his worst year as a professional, it seems that an important development has taken place for the former top prospect. Commitment and accountability appear evident in a new report, and that’s always been the biggest question for the Dominican Native.

Recently the Star Tribune’s LaVelle E. Neal penned a piece on possible extension candidates for the Twins. Within the writing he noted that the Minnesota third basemen has lost 25 pounds, which would comfortably put him in the 265-275 range. At 6’4” he’s still a very large human being, but there’s no denying that it’s a more doable number and a development that should only relieve pressure on the titanium rod inserted into his leg. For this writer though, it’s never been about the weight.

Despite being signed as a shortstop, Sano bulked up and moved off the position quickly. He only continued to grow and add size as he progressed through the minors, and while much of that was muscle mass, the weight became an issue in recent years. Instructed by the Twins to take conditioning more seriously, in hopes of seeing a bump in production and renewed focus from the player, Sano failed to take the direction as anything more than advice. Despite being looked at as a key cornerstone, and knowing the investment made in him, the 25-year-old simply ignored his employer’s demands. With a trip back to Single-A and a .679 OPS in his rear-view mirror, the former All Star appears he’s finally had enough.

Obviously, there are physical limitations to what is realistically acceptable for a high-performing athlete to adhere to, but from purely a weight standpoint I could care less. What has always seemed most important from Sano is that he buy into the vision the organization has for him and believe in their process to get the most out of himself. After posting a .916 OPS in his rookie season, the .859 OPS during his All-Star campaign left room for improvement. Strikeouts are always going to be a part of a power hitters’ profile, but a consistent command of the strike zone and the ability to punish misses needs to be a key focus. Turning 26 in 2019, staving off a shift across the diamond or to a designated hitter role is also an integral piece of the puzzle.

So where does this all leave us in the year ahead? If process drives results, the fact that Miguel has committed to a conditioning program (and more importantly his employer’s wishes), suggests he’s on board with believing there’s more in the tank. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections have him slated for just a .752 OPS. Obviously that number doesn’t account for his injury or the ramifications of his 2018 output. Using that as a baseline however, I’d like to bet on the over.

At his best, Sano is a monster in the batter’s box. He punished baseballs with a hard-hit rate north of 44%. Fly balls leave the yard over a quarter of the time, and he chases out of the zone less than 25% while also missing under 15% of the time. That profile doesn’t work for everyone, but a player having the strength and slugging ability that this one does, it’s a perfect storm of relevancy.

On top of his own decisions this winter, Miguel may find accountability in the form of a clubhouse confidant for 2019. 38-year-old countryman Nelson Cruz joins the Twins fold for the year ahead. He was never a top prospect and didn’t truly debut until he was 28 years old. With more than enough wisdom to his credit, imparting learned principles on Sano could be a valuable development that holds weight well beyond whatever time they spend competing together.

As a new manager, Rocco Baldelli’s greatest accomplishment in the year ahead is going to be how well he can connect with and what he can generate out of his expected stars. Right now, it seems like the one playing the infield is catching up to the one in the outfield as far as desire is concerned, and that’s more than half of the battle.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Buxton Ready for a Big Breakthrough

It was a simpler time, and it wasn’t long ago. The 2017 Minnesota Twins finished with 85 wins and ended their season with a Wild Card loss to the New York Yankees. Although the success didn’t carry over to 2018, their centerfielder was chief among the reasons that squad was competitive. Byron Buxton won a Gold Glove, was named the Defensive Player of the Year, and finished 18th in American League MVP voting. How crazy is it to think we could see that again?

Back in 2017, the former first round pick was having a season of mediocrity at best. On July 14th, he owned a .218/.292/.311 slash line through his first 84 games. Then hitting the injured list and playing in three games at Triple-A before a big-league return, a new hot streak was started. Over Byron’s final 56 games in 2017 he posted a .298/.342/.541 slash line with 23 XBH (11 HRs) and 13 stolen bases. Already an elite defender, he flashed an elite bat that once had him ranked as the best prospect in all of baseball.

Unfortunately, after that October game in the Bronx, nothing ever carried over to 2018. A slow start was combined with migraines and eventually a broken foot that ended his season at just 28 games played and 94 total plate appearances. It’s unfair to categorize last year as a poor showing for the Georgia native when the reality is that he was hurt and simply never was able to go. Fast forward to where we are today however, and there’s optimism with the slate wiped clean.

The Athletic’s Dan Hayes recently penned a piece after spending time with Buxton this offseason. Added muscle and a September-sized chip on his shoulder, the 25-year-old seems determined to put fort his best effort yet. Where other players have a questionable motor, that has never been the issue for Byron. Talent and desire are all there, but the results have yet to follow the process. We know that players develop at rapidly different paces, and to bet against a guy with everything going for him, this early in his career, seems like a foolish proposition.

Baseball Prospectus’ well-regarded projection system PECOTA recently unveiled numbers for 2019. Minnesota’s starting centerfielder is assumed to miss some time with just 403 plate appearances to his credit. In that time the expectation is a .233/.297/.386 slash line that results in 11 homers and 17 stolen bases. Although that seems like a harsh suggestion and low bar to clear, Buxton’s career line is just .230/.285/.387.

Projection systems are based solely on hard and fast inputs, which is to be expected. The largest outlier in any expectation that this is where things turn for Buxton is predicated almost entirely on the human. A clean bill of health, added muscle, and determination to prove a 2018 decision wrong makes this writer’s gut feel as good as it’s going to get. I’ll take the over on that .683 OPS, and I’ll even suggest he trumps the .728 OPS from 2017. Those numbers will be enough to generate MVP votes once again, and I’d hardly be shocked if there’s an exhibition stop in Cleveland along the way.

Byron Buxton has failed to launch thus far, but I’ll conduct the train that says we’ll see it in 2019.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Is the Twins Narrative Really “Punting on 2019?”

For weeks we’ve seen news outlets and beat writers suggest that the Twins have instructed them the focus for 2019 has been in seeing what Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano bring to the table. In a sport with a 25-man roster, the front office has trotted out a narrative that suggests the year ahead rests solely on the shoulders of a once promising duo. The reality in all of this is that same suggestion could be turned in to Minnesota punting on the season ahead, and the constructs of that suggestion remain relatively similar.

When 2018 ended the Minnesota Twins were done paying Joe Mauer $23 million a season for a contract that he easily earned. Regardless of whether or not he retired, the organization had no substantial money committed anywhere for either the year ahead or those to come. Given that situation, the hope was that the front office would find a way to allocate dollars and acquire talent for the road ahead. New faces have been brought in, but the reality is that the finished product looks like a half-hearted job.

Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training this week, a point in which the offseason was generally seen as concluded. Last season we watched as Lance Lynn and Logan Morrison joined the club after that point, and in 2019, the top three free agents are still homeless when it comes to a team for the year ahead. Although a significant amount of deals have been done, there’re impactful moves for plenty of organizations still to take place.

In Minnesota, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine essentially have sat on their hands and suggested they’re good with “just enough.”

Right now most projection systems have the 2019 Twins tabbed for somewhere in the mid-80s as a win total. With Cleveland coming in about 10 games higher than that, the division certainly will go through the Indians once again. Given the steps back Terry Francona’s team has taken on paper however, it’s beyond disheartening to see Minnesota giving up on an attempt to make things interesting.

There’s currently a $30 million deficit between year-over-year spending. Sure this market will never compete with the biggest in baseball, but the $128 million bill for the 2018 squad was hardly breaking the bank for anyone connected to the Pohlad’s. It was a reach to call it league average, and the revenues generated were still enormous. Given the payroll constraints for the current season and the next one, Falvey and Levine could legitimately pay any free agent $30 million on a one-year deal, or $60 million over two to join the Twins today.

You’ll hear the retort that players have to want to come to the Twins, but it’s a suggestion that should fall on deaf ears. That premise operates under the guise that Minnesota is being turned down despite being the highest bidder. Last offseason Yu Darvish was the apple of the front office’s eye, and they lost out after failing to match the years in Chicago. Obviously that’s a bullet dodged today, but Minnesota got beat by themselves as opposed to an offer that genuinely allowed the player to weigh a possibility. Yasmani Grandal signed with the Brewers this winter on an extremely friendly deal, and while the Twins were “interested” and made an offer, things never went anywhere.

So many things went wrong in Minnesota a season ago, and chief among them were the regression of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. The club still ended up winning 78 games in an equally bad AL Central and is operating as if that’s the expectation for the year ahead. If Minnesota’s front office sees this team as a 75 game winner, then there’s no amount of free agent firepower that will close the gap. As an 80 win team banking on a rebound by former top prospects though, choosing to balk at more talent is irresponsible.

Adalberto Mejia may start in the bullpen. Fernando Romero may transition to a reliever. Matt Magill could be the 25th man, and Rocco Baldelli could be served with a pitching staff filled with question marks in the season ahead. Or, those sitting atop the org chart at 1 Twins Way could throw their remaining cash at Keuchel, Kimbrel, Gonzalez or some other assets that sets things on a better foot, and we could let the chips fall where they may.

If and when this season goes sideways, the front office can point back to suggesting they were waiting on Buxton and Sano. In reality, everyone is starting with a clean slate, and no one did less to capitalize on theirs than those in charge of righting the ship at Target Field.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Berrios In Line for Some Hardware?

The Minnesota Twins decided to forego an opportunity to upgrade their starting rotation this offseason. Michael Pineda returns from injury, and Kyle Gibson has rounded out into an above average hurler. The greatest development from the holdovers would be Jose Berrios taking another step forwards. An All Star in 2018, the Puerto Rican was recently tabbed as a dark horse for the AL Cy Young.

MLB.com’s Matt Kelly named the young Twins starter as one of six sleeper candidates for the 2019 AL Cy Young award last week. Coming off a season in which he posted a 3.84 ERA along with a 1.144 WHIP and just a 3.90 FIP, that seems like somewhat of a substantial leap. Turning 25 in the middle of this season though, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Berrios’ best days are still ahead of him. If indeed that is the case, the secondary numbers suggest trends flowing in the right direction as well.

At his worst, Berrios gave up far too many homers and often did so with men on base. Having honed in command year-over-year, he’s also drastically improved his ability to keep the ball in the park. In 2018 the 9.5 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 were both career bests, and while the 1.2 HR/9 was a step backwards from the 0.9 HR/9 tally in 2017, it was a far cry from the ugly 1.9 HR/9 in his debut season. The ratios are all getting to a pretty solid place, but the percentages are what truly will help him to turn the corner.

Utilizing a devastating curveball, Berrios generated a career best 11.2% swinging strike rate, reaching double-digits for the first time in his career. He also produced a career best 32.8% chase rate and allowed contact just 76.2% of the time (you guessed it, another career best). To thwart walks, he pounded the zone with a 5% jump on first pitch strikes (64.5%) and he looks to be comfortable with a pitch mix that he replicated from 2017.

Something in between where Jose has been each of the past two seasons is likely the crossroads of optimal production. Hard hit rates were better in 2017, and he allowed just 9% of fly balls to leave the yard two years ago. Loud contact isn’t going to help a guy who will always battle against the plane of his fastball, but pitch tunneling, and sequencing can help to make the curveball an even more difficult offering to deal with.

Steamer projections look at 2019 as somewhat of a hiccup for the Twins blossoming ace. Marking him with a 4.26 ERA and just a 2.6 fWAR, he’d be taking a noticeable step backwards from the production that we saw in 2018. As a guy who routinely racked up strikeouts on the farm and turned in a 2.51 ERA with 10.1 K/9 and just 0.6 BB/9 in his final lengthy stay at Triple-A, there’s reason to believe the ability is there.

The blueprint going forward for Berrios remains similar to what it always has been. He’s a guy who works inside (as noted by his hit by pitch marks) and has struggled when giving up free passes or big innings. Although Minnesota has not done much in the form of additional high-level talent on the field this winter, the additions to the organization from a coach and development standpoint have been impressive. Wes Johnson is noted as a pitching savant, and both Jeremy Heffner and Josh Kalk will have a greater impact with another year of continuity. That foundation could prove to be what helps more than a handful of players take the next step.

I don’t know if I’m ready to get on board with Berrios winning a Cy Young just yet, but 2019 could certainly provide a strong foundation as the point looked backed upon that everything just clicked.