Sunday, September 29, 2019

Who’s Winning the World Series?

Taking a view at the Major League Baseball Postseason there’s an incredible number of great storylines to follow. You have the lowest payroll in baseball making the field, a major league record setting home run lineup, and a handful of expected participants. For the next month we’ll be treated to the culmination of a 162-game schedule used to produce only the best of the best.

Looking back at how I saw things entering the year, I didn’t do too horribly. Looks like I’ll nail a couple of award winners, and four of the six division champs. From there things went downhill, but this is our chance to get it right in October. Let’s get into it.

Wild Card Round:
Rays over Athletics
Nationals over Brewers

We’ve got two intriguing matchups for a one-game situation here. In the American League Tampa Bay is probably the most welcoming team of needing to win a single game. They’ve pieced together nine inning affairs all season long and they still have frontline pitching in the rotation to come out firing. I like the Oakland lineup a good deal more than what Tampa brings to the table but believe that this game will be won on the bump.

In the National League we get two teams that got hot down the stretch. Milwaukee is without their MVP, and the pitching is a definite question mark there, but they’ve had some key contributors step up in big ways. I liked the Nationals as a World Series team before the season started, and I still wouldn’t be shocked if they made a run. Their rotation rivals that of the Houston Astros at the top, and the lineup is filled with guys that can burn you. There’s zero denying the bullpen is a complete mess, but if they could provide some room for the starting arms, they’ll ride them hard.

Divisional Round:
Twins over Yankees
Astros over Rays
Braves over Cardinals
Dodgers over Nationals

Arguably the greatest narrative going into the Postseason is the history Minnesota brings with it. They haven’t won a game in October since 2004, and they’ve been dominated by the New York Yankees. One thing about that rings certain though, it’s history and you can bet no one in that clubhouse gives a damn. The pitching matchups, rotation and bullpen, are relatively even. So, to are lineups that went one-two in home run production this season. James Paxton being a lefty against the powerful righty Twins lineup will set the stage in game one. If the Twins steal one in New York, and they’ve been great on the road, this series will get interesting quick.

I don’t think you can make much argument against Houston being the best team in baseball. They have the rotation, bullpen, and lineup to compete with anyone. Charlie Morton will do his best against his former team, but I’m not sure that Tampa has the lineup to hang with the Astros over the course of a five-game series. The pitching matchups with Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow contributing are going to be great, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see this be a bit of a test for A.J. Hinch’s club.

If there’s a team that could surprise in the National League, I think it’s the Braves. They’re filled with youth that’s contributing in big ways, and their lineup is as potent as anyone. Josh Donaldson has re-emerged as a star, and his presence with Freddie Freeman should provide plenty of veteran leadership for Brian Snitker’s club. St. Louis performed admirably down the stretch to put themselves in this position, but I’m not sure they were tested in the NL Central. They’ll take a game or two, but just don’t see enough here for any real noise.

I’d still love to put the Nationals in a position to make the World Series, and while Los Angeles has some bullpen woes of their own, I just don’t trust Washington enough behind their three horses. Juan Soto is going to be fun on a big stage, but the Dodgers are littered with talent and they’ll pull the right strings to advance. Dave Roberts has been here plenty, and wanting to get over the hump, this is probably his best opportunity.

Championship Round:
Astros over Twins
Dodgers over Braves

There’s a significant amount of parallels between Houston and Minnesota. Similarly constructed organizations at this point, the Twins are still looking at the Astros in a light of what they aspire to be. In a seven-game series when Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke can all take the ball twice if need be, Rocco Baldelli’s piecemeal rotation is going to be up against it. Minnesota is going to need to blast their way to victories at the hitter friendly Minute Maid, but they’ll be doing it against arms that have no intention of giving up runs. It will be fun to see the Twins garner this experience, and while nothing is certain next year, there’s a good deal of returning youth that can use it as fuel to a fire propelling them to take the next step.

A toss up goes to the favorite here. If the Dodgers pen is going to be exposed before the World Series, this is the lineup capable of doing it. Atlanta is the real deal offensively, and while they’ll face Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, there’s no one they’re going to be afraid of. Cody Bellinger could have wrapped up an MVP when the regular season concluded, and though he slowed down some in stretches this year, elevating when the lights are brightest wouldn’t be unexpected for the young star.

Two top seeds matching up together, the two best teams in baseball for much of the year, let me have it.

World Series:
Astros over Dodgers

Just too good to get knocked off, and too hungry to be denied, Houston gets back to the top of the baseball world. Houston didn’t revamp their whole way of operating and develop this much talent to win one title. After falling short in 2018, they’ll get their second ring in three years. Alex Bregman looks like an MVP candidate, Yordan Alvarez is the unquestioned AL Rookie of the Year, and there’s a host of veterans that make this the most dangerous organization in the sport. I don’t expect a veteran club like the Dodgers to put up anything short of a difficult test, but Houston would need to get in their own way to come up empty handed here.

Monday, September 23, 2019

2019 IBWAA Award Ballot

With the 2019 Major League season coming to an end it's become time to hand out awards to those players putting up exceptional results this year. Unfortunately we've seen some of the greatest players this year go down during the stretch run and that's thrown somewhat of a wrench in the voting process. Wanting to wait until I felt completely comfortable with my ballot, I only just filed it today.

The Internet Baseball Writers Association of America differs from the BBWAA but attempts to provide a similar service in fairly handing out seasonal award and Hall of Fame designations. Inclusive of bloggers and bit larger audience, I am again privileged to submit a ballot this season. With that all out of the way, here's who I went with.

MVP: American League - Mike Trout National League - Christian Yelich

In my view Trout had this wrapped up months ago. The greatest player in the game somehow put up even more exceptional numbers in 2019 and continued to take his game to another level. Unfortunately his foot injury ended up requiring surgery and cut his final tallies short. Alex Bregman made this somewhat of a race down the stretch, but he comes up just short.

Like Trout, Yelich watched his season be cut short on a fluke foul ball. The race with Cody Bellinger was a fun one all year, but even with the additional player time, the Dodgers outfield still comes up a bit short for me. Anthony Rendon and Ketel Marte were also in consideration here.

Cy Young: American League- Gerrit Cole National League - Max Scherzer

It's truly something special that the Houston Astros had pitchers 1A and 1B when it came to Cy Young voting this year. You're splitting hairs when trying to decide if it's Cole or Justin Verlander for the award but I went with the former. Cole is an impending free agent, and going into that process with a new piece of hardware is quite the announcement.

You could probably make the argument that it's become a bit boring to see how good Scherzer is on a yearly basis. This would be his fourth Cy Young, and while the Washington Nationals don't have a World Series to validate his mega-deal yet, it isn't because of his performance. The Mets Jacob deGrom is right there when it comes to a secondary candidate, and I don't think you could go wrong choosing him either.

ROY: American League - Yordan Alvarez National League - Pete Alonso

For the Astros to be as good as they have been in 2019, it's not surprising to see them have contributors arise out of nowhere. Alvarez was acquired for a reliever and burst onto the scene as a designated hitter that launched balls out of the park with regularity. The Twins Luis Arraez provided some thought due to his hitting ability, and had he been health for longer the Rays Brandon Lowe likely factors in. The notable omission is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who was the presumed winner here. He'll have better seasons ahead with the talent he possesses.

Unfortunately we didn't get to see a full season of Fernando Tatis Jr., and Mike Soroka was also great for the Atlanta Braves. When the dust settles though, there's no arguing against the Mets first basemen. He leads all of baseball in homers and has been a catalyst on a team that's had as much of a rollercoaster season as you'd ever want to endure. No matter how the rest of Alonso's career goes, his debut in the majors is one he'll be able to look back upon fondly.

MOY: American League - Rocco Baldelli National League - Brian Snitker

Minnesota was coming off a season in which Paul Molitor watched the Twins take a step backwards. Young contributors didn't develop as hoped and Minnesota went from a wild card berth to a losing record. Some of that was expected regression, but Rocco Baldelli represents everything that was missing in the organization. He hasn't been perfect, but he's brought a fresh perspective and a galvanizing attitude that created the Bomba Squad and had them firing on all cylinders.

The NL East was expected to be a hotly contested division this year and while there were arguments made for every club it is the Braves that put it all together. Brian Snitker managed youth and veterans alike to get a result that had them as the clear favorites for most of the season. Ronald Acuna Jr. has flourished, Josh Donaldson returned to stardom, and the pitching staff provided more than could have been expected.

Reliever: American League - Liam Hendriks National League - Kirby Yates

Failed starter solid reliever, and now one of the best in the game, Liam endriks has seen it all. The Oakland Athletics have turned out some really strong pen arms with Blake Treinen having een the 2018 example. Hendriks became a legit weapon for the Athletics this season, having previously been DFA'd, and the journeyman won't be looking for a new landing spot any time soon.

After bouncing around and being a late bloomer, Kirby Yates has flourished in San Diego. He put up strong numbers during 2018 and ratcheted things up another level this season. Despite being a first time All-Star at age 32, the Padres were right to ask for the moon in any Yates focused trade talks. They should trend positively in the near-term, and this is an arm that can stabilize that pen for a while.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Buying In On Twins Pitching Prospects

Tomorrow is the annual release of Topps’ Bowman Chrome product. Each year there is a Bowman Draft and Bowman Chrome offering during the baseball card collecting calendar. As one would expect, the former highlights some of the top picks in the amateur draft while the latter picks up the slack on some of the others. For the Minnesota Twins, Chrome provides and interesting opportunity this time around.

While collecting baseball cards is traditionally a hobby, it’s also now a robust gambling and investor market. From ripping open a box looking for the next hot player or holding onto a card in hopes of it being the next Mike Trout, there’s money to be made and this isn’t just a child’s corner store pickup anymore. That isn’t more apparent anywhere than within the checklist of a Bowman product. These are all players that are defined as prospects or up and coming. Their elusive first autographs can be the most coveted cards in the hobby.

For Minnesota the signers this time around are Jorge Alcala and Jhoan Duran. It’s an intriguing duo in that both were acquired during the 2018 season in trades. Both have now spent a year within the organization, and the arrows for each are trending straight up. Alcala has earned his big-league call although he’s yet to debut, while Duran is still working exclusively as a starter topping out at Double-A.

There’s a difference between baseball good, and baseball card good, so let’s explore that within the parameters these two have provided us.

First and foremost, pitchers are a risky investment. The volatility of injury and sample size is truly one you must cope with. Then there’s the reality of a given market, and no one will argue that Twins players would be more coveted than the likes of Dodgers or Yankees. Beyond that you then get into a merit-based discussion.

Alcala is the fireballer acquired in exchange for Ryan Pressly from Houston. He comes from an organization with good developmental traits and is now in one that represents a similar level of execution. Starting didn’t work out well for Alcala this season, but since moving to relief he had a 0.98 ERA and .479 OPS against in 18.1 IP. The 18/4 K/BB is indicative of a guy that should rack up strikeouts, and his promotion to the big leagues during a Postseason run suggests that Minnesota sees him as a future difference maker as well.

The downside here is that Alcala is already 24 and he appears to be destined for the pen. While the opportunity to become a substantial asset for the Twins is real, the upside in the card collecting community is all but nullified. Josh Hader is one of the best arms on the planet, but his cardboard will never be at a premium because of the market and position he finds himself in. Alcala’s ink should be affordable and that will make him fun to collect, but this isn’t a guy that’s going to appreciate substantially.

When fan favorite Eduardo Escobar was traded the clubhouse went pretty sour. He found out on TV first, and it was among the initial moves that had the Twins parting out pieces as sellers. Duran headlined the return and has looked the part of a solid starting arm since coming over to Minnesota. He’s not a top 100 prospect and finds himself in the middle of the Twins top 10, but that doesn’t negate the production we’ve seen.

Still just 21-years-old, Duran reached Double-A Pensacola during 2019. His 3.76 ERA across two levels is plenty respectable, but the 10.6 K/9 is what jumps off the page. He can push it into the upper 90’s and sits comfortably in the mid-90’s. Homers have never been an issue for him, and we’ll see how that changes with the live ball at Triple-A and the big leagues, but this is an arm that could make its way into the Minnesota rotation by next year.

There isn’t ace-type upside here, and he too will have the designation of playing for the Twins, but a mid-rotation starter with upside is a pretty good bet. Duran would need to go on some sort of hot stretch or have a record setting year to vault himself into significant hobby-lore, but the ability for a short burst jump is certainly there. Another guy that should have very affordable autographs, he’s someone that you could see slight gains following a strong showing immediately after his promotion. More baseball good than hobby good, upside does have a bit of presence with him.

Make sure to check out 2019 Bowman Chrome at your local hobby shops when it drops on September 18. Along with these prospects, Minnesota has a few rookie autograph offerings as well as one of Nelson Cruz’s few depictions in a Twins uniform.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Pineda and the PED Stupidity

Why can't we have nice things? Maybe that's a common refrain, but then again shouldn't it be why does common sense escape so many? As Michael Pineda now faces a 60 game suspension, ending his season and ability to help the Minnesota Twins in the Postseason, we're left shaking our heads as to why cheating is always defined as a mistake.

There's zero denying that Michael Pineda knew what he was doing. Ingesting a diuretic that he obtained from a "close acquaintance" is the same tired excuse we're often fed. You see, those that lack common sense also have this belief the world around them follows suit. Here's the reality, Pineda got caught and still can't own it so he's going down with the ship.

If there was no ill intentions in taking the drug, Pineda could have quickly reached out to team doctors or trainers for an opinion. He made a choice to forego that route because of the assumed answer. Whether Pineda believed there would be substantial helpful effects for whatever he was trying to mask or not, he chose to turn from a protocol that would've been in the best interest of himself and moreso his team.

In the end it's really the Twins that lose here. After paying $2 million on the belief they'd get to monitor rehab and then get a productive pitcher in 2019, they got an $8 million tab that ran out right when they needed it most. Pineda has been Rocco Baldelli's best starter since being shut down for 10 days on May 27, and Minnesota went 11-4 in the 15 games he started. This was supposed to be Jose Berrios' staff, but it was Big Mike that looked the part of ALDS game one pitcher. Not anymore.

Nothing about this suspension changes the Twins outlook when it comes to playing in October or winning the AL Central division. Both of those things will still happen. Where the fallout comes is in how and what Minnesota does to compete against the best of the best. You can get by with three elite starters or four quality ones in Postseason play, but the Twins now have two wild cards, an ill asset, and a handful of unproven commodities. It's been the Bomba Squad all year, and the pen has stepped up of late, but the need has now never been greater.

An era or so ago when PED usage ran rampant in baseball (thank you Bud Selig), I had no problem with the best looking for that advantage. Now the ball is juiced and the playing field is leveled that way. Testing is stricter than it's ever been though, and the sport has since decided drugs have no place in the game. To continue operating that way is as selfish as it gets, and only hurts your club. Pineda will still get paid next season, and he makes a healthy sum for 2019. The fans and players looking to make a splash this season now all lose.

This is a story we've heard plenty of times before. It's an excuse and apology we'll hear plenty of times again. No amount of money can buy common sense, and unfortunately for the Twins, Michael Pineda's desire to be about himself is the latest example.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Hildy’s Back, Tell a Friend

There’s been no larger point of contention for the Minnesota Twins in 2019 than the bullpen. While the starting rotation has dealt with ebbs and flows, it was the relief corps that constantly faced criticism. After acquiring Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson at the deadline, the group improved. Brusdar Graterol has now debuted, and both Trevor May and Tyler Duffey have stepped up. It’s a September call up that could be among the most beneficial though.

Midway through the summer of 2018 Paul Molitor’s best and most trusted relief arm was Trevor Hildenberger. The side-armer owned a 2.80 ERA and .661 OPS against through his first 42 appearances a season ago. Unfortunately, those came in the Twins first 79 games. By all measures, Molitor had run him into the ground, and things went drastically off the tracks from there.

Hildenberger blew his first save on July 15 last year. He made 31 appearances from that point forward totaling a 9.64 ERA and 9.95 OPS against. Opposing batters teed off on his pitches and it carried over to the 2019 season. Starting the year in Rocco Baldelli’s pen, Trevor owned an 8.36 ERA through 14.0 IP before being optioned to Triple-A Rochester. The ineffectiveness continued there, and he was eventually put on the shelf.

Fast forward a few months and back to full health, Minnesota’s former high leverage on was on the track back to the bigs. Across eight post IL appearances (12.1 IP), Hildenberger owned a 0.73 ERA and .315 OPS against. He struck out ten batters and walked one while giving up just a single run on six hits. That’s obviously an incredibly small sample size, and almost half of that work came in the Gulf Coast League, but if we want encouraging signs then this is it.

There’s a lot we don’t yet know, and Baldelli doesn’t have much runway to figure things out. We can assume that Hildenberger will get something less than 15 innings the rest of the way to prove his value. What we do know is that this is a guy who has gotten it done for the Twins in the biggest of spots previously. Adding that type of arm to a Postseason run could be something substantial, and completely out of the question even a month ago.

With a lineup as good as Minnesota has, they’ll never find themselves out of a game. Now having significant options on the mound, they also find themselves in a much better position to make a run into October that had some serious uncertainties prior to the trade deadline. Adding pieces from outside of the organization was always going to happen. Arms emerging from within, and especially those who have previously shown a strong ability, is a testament to hard work and internal development.

If Hildenberger is truly back for Minnesota, that’s something everyone can get on board with.