Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 Was a Year, and We Had Baseball

 


We’re about to close the book on one of the craziest years in my lifetime. At 30 years old, I’ve hardly seen as much as the next person, but to say this calendar was filled with unprecedented events would be putting it lightly. Through it all though, we had baseball, and that was a distraction I know that I needed.

 

I remember many months ago now, waking up from a nap and looking at my phone. There was an alert from ESPN noting that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter accident. As I processed that, it didn’t hit me as to what the magnitude I’d feel from that event would be. Kobe was a cultural icon, more than just a basketball player, and despite being a Jordan guy he was an athlete I respected. From there, things got worse.

 

I’ll never forget sitting in Pott’s Sports Café in Fort Myers, Florida on March 13. The night before Rudy Gobert had tested positive for Coronavirus and the NBA effectively closed its doors. Covering the Twins Spring Training, things seemed ominous that morning as teams had already gone to distancing fans from players with roped off areas. By noon, Major League Baseball had put a halt on all operations. I hopped a flight and headed home.

 

Since that day, I have not returned to the office for my day job. We’ve dealt with closings of restaurants, public spaces, wearing masks, and plenty of other new versions of normal. Minneapolis experienced extreme racial unrest as the city turned into a warzone. There’s been political and social unrest, and countless other prominent figures that have now left us. For a brief four-month period though, there was baseball.

 

Leading up to the regular season we watched as the commissioner and ownership groups publicly tore down their players in an effort to squeeze profits through what would be a different year. There was uncertainty as to whether a season would be played at all and writing about the sport took a different turn. There was no minor league action to cover, and in months there typically would have been action, an ability to get creative was necessary.

 

As the dust settled though, we had the resumption of a game. Teams were diligent in their efforts to avoid Covid-19 outbreaks, the play on the field checked in at a high level, and the Los Angeles Dodgers won a World Series. Back in early summer, none of that seemed remotely possible.

 

More than any other year, I needed this out. I lost my grandpa to cancer in August, and the day following his funeral my 59-year-old father died in a car accident. I’ve spent more time in a cemetery over the past three months than I have during the entire duration of my life. I know that my challenges in 2020 are not alone, and that this year has been trying on so many. Financial distress, learning to cope with new working situations, understanding how to handle a certain level of social isolation, the totality of it all is not lost on anyone.

 

At the end of the day though, it was this, a child’s game, that provided a reprieve. We’ll have baseball again, the world will heal, and we can all be better and stronger people for what we have overcome. It will forever be a passion to break down the effectiveness of Jorge Polanco at shortstop, or whether Jose Berrios will round into a bonafide ace. Even if you take away that type of consumption though, the purity of a game, the crack of the bat, and the smell of fresh cut grass will always be an inviting escape.

 

Thank you for venturing on this journey with me, and I look forward to a more consistent level of normalcy in the months ahead. Below you’ll also find some of my favorite pieces from this season.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Twins Quest for Pitching Becomes Clearer

 


Update: It appears that the Padres will be also landing Yu Darvish from the Cubs. While that takes a target away from the Twins, they have less competition on the Reds front. Arms like Joe Musgrove and Jon Gray also remain enticing.

Late on Sunday night the market for starting pitching pursuits took a drastic change. After the Tampa Bay Rays had announced they’d make Blake Snell available, the San Diego Padres decided to cap off their Christmas weekend with a blockbuster trade. This provides a blueprint for the Minnesota Twins, and also removes some potential competition.

 

Thus far during the offseason things have been quit from the Derek Falvey and Thad Levine camp. Minnesota has made a few smaller moves on the reliever front, but they have not addressed their rotation or lineup. For what seems like weeks we’ve now heard about the Twins being a team potential waiting in the weeds and ready to strike. One big name discussed has been that of Marcus Semien, but it remains true that starting pitching is a must.

 

You can probably bet on veteran Rich Hill not being a guy brought back for 2021, and while Jake Odorizzi looks like one of the best arms not named Trevor Bauer, he will have some options. For Minnesota, sustainability could be the key and finding a trade partner with an arm having some team control could be as enticing as anything.

 

Although it’s not known to what extent Minnesota may have been intrigued by Snell, the reality is he’s a good pitcher and was available. At the very least that made the two organizations a match. Following that logic, the Cubs and Yu Darvish as well as the Reds and their arms Luis Castillo or Sonny Gray could all be fits. Darvish comes with the hefty price tag, while both Gray and Castillo are more affordable options that should command a premium in prospect capital.

 

It’s fine to still call this relatively early in the offseason, but the reality is that we’re over the halfway point. Despite the fact that Rob Manfred still hasn’t solidified the 2021 Major League Baseball schedule and we still have no idea what the exact set of rules are going to be, time is not waiting, and Spring Training will soon be around the corner. Minnesota’s front office hasn’t been afraid of being a last-minute suitor, but getting guys acclimate could hold some weight given how the Lance Lynn and Logan Morrison moves ultimately worked out.

 

When the Padres decided to spring for Snell with a package centered around their second-best pitching prospect, they effectively took themselves out of any discussion regarding another deal. The money is still there for them to target Trevor Bauer, but they don’t seem likely to move Mackenzie Gore or C.J. Abrams, so swapping for another top arm would be difficult. This benefits the Twins as it’s one less club vying for the same prizes.

 

Given the organization he played for it was probably a near-guarantee that Snell would be moved. I think Chicago still flips Darvish, but Jed Hoyer will want to get his first big move right. Castillo and Gray don’t necessarily need to be shipped out, but Cincinnati appears intent on tearing it down after a one-year run at going for it. Asking Minnesota to be engaged on all of those fronts is hardly a leap.

 

It’s not yet clear where the Twins will turn, but I’d bet a decent amount that they have plenty of irons in the fire, and it’s clear there’s a decent amount of smoke. Having a better bargaining position than they did yesterday, and also a representative idea of a framework, Falvey and Levine have more clarity now than they may have a few days ago.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Twins Spending Can Take Another Step Forward

 


Today Maury Brown put an article out at Forbes that illustrated some of the economic impact across baseball in relation to a pandemic shortened 2020 season. While the league as a whole spent roughly $2.5B less on salaries, the per game adjustments note a step forward. The Twins can and need to afford a similar path in the year ahead.

 

In 2019 $2,472,194,292 more dollars were spent on payrolls across baseball. Obviously, there were also 102 more games played that season. Adjusting the calendar to be in line with what we experienced during 2020 however, a 12% increase in player salaries would’ve been realized.

 

On the Twins front, Minnesota paid out $52,627,942 in salaries during the 2020 season. That was good enough for 19th in baseball. They paid a total of $125,205,980 in 2019, and that comes out to an adjusted amount of $46,372,585. It makes sense that the Pohlad family would push more finances into roster construction during an open window and following a length period of cost savings, but it’s glad to see that come to fruition.

 

After going big on Josh Donaldson to the tune of a four-year deal worth at least $100 million, Minnesota again finds themselves in a position to spend. Although payroll positioning isn’t indicative of talent of future finish (just ask the Tampa Bay Rays), stockpiling more assets is hardly a bad practice. Coming off a second straight AL Central division title and looking to supplement an already strong core around a star like Donaldson, another step up makes plenty of sense.

 

Despite the down revenues for the league as a whole in 2020, the reality is that Scott Boras’ assessment is likely factual. Teams didn’t actually lose money as much as they simply didn’t take in typical profits. Coming off years of record growth financially however, that should hardly be the sole motivator, and especially not for organizations in the midst of prime competitive windows.

 

Minnesota has a respectable farm system and one that has both established depth while harboring some very high projected prospects at the top. Even Royce Lewis though shouldn’t be considered a cornerstone on a Major League team for the next one or two seasons. That’s a point in which most of the Twins core is looking into their 30’s while the big contract for Donaldson is a year from lapsing. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine can’t throw caution to the wind, but they’ve built a sustained winner, and now is time to continue adding pieces.

 

There have been rumblings about what the Twins plan to do at the shortstop position, and there’s no doubt they have holes in the starting rotation as it would currently be constructed. Minnesota is never going to be able to compete with big market clubs purely from an enticement factor but saving dollars doesn’t make much sense given the state of the competitive opportunity and the challenge Chicago will certainly present.

 

It’s good to see that even in a year with decreased revenues and unprecedented hurdles the Twins stepped up on the bottom line. Now they need to continue to weather the storm and do it again for 2021.

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Twins Want a New Shortstop?

 


Over the past couple of weeks, it has been rumored that the Twins are acting as a shark circling blood in the water. Waiting for an opportunity to make a big move like they did last offseason, it’s been anyone’s guess as to what that may be. Today it was reported that the move could come up the middle.

 

Trevor Bauer is the premier free agent this winter, but shortstop talent is aplenty as well. Andrelton Simmons is a perennial Gold Glove type, while both Didi Gregorious and Marcus Semien bring a more balanced offering in a stopgap type situation. Ken Rosenthal reported today that Minnesota is considering moving Luis Arraez and shifting Jorge Polanco to second base. The question then becomes, who plays short?

 

Arraez broke onto the scene in 2019 and immediately became a fan favorite that looked the part of a Tony Gwynn clone. With great command of the zone and an innate ability to make strong contact, multiple batting titles were projected for his future. Dealing with a slow start in 2020, and lingering knee issues, he finished the year off fine. It’s probably fair to describe him as virtually what we see being who he is. There’s going to be a high average, he won’t strike out, and he’s passable at best on defense. On its own, that works fine for Minnesota.

 

The problem here is that Jorge Polanco is miscast as a shortstop. His arm strength is questionable, and while improved in 2020, his range is suspect. That’s easier to overlook when the power production is what it was in 2019, but he dealt with a nagging ankle issue last season and just underwent another surgery to correct it. There was some talk he could take over as Minnesota’s replacement for Marwin Gonzalez, but you’d probably be sacrificing lineup prowess in that scenario. Moving him to second base seems like a much more fluid fit.

 

So, what happens at short? Royce Lewis is obviously seen as the heir, but there’s plenty of warts to dissect there. His 2019 was not good, and despite glowing reports from the CHS Field alternate site last season, 2020 featured no real game action. A handful of national names continue to suggest he’s not a fit at short long term, and a spot in centerfield makes more sense. That alone isn’t enough to bump him off the position now, but it might be worthy to consider him less than untouchable.

 

At the current juncture two of the game’s best shortstops are on the trade market. Cleveland is going to move Francisco Lindor this offseason, and the Colorado Rockies should be sending Trevor Story out. Neither are under team control past 2022 and as always you have the Coors effect in play (.760 OPS away .994 OPS home) for Story. Both players are going to command an absolute premium and depending on what Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are willing to give up, the hope would likely be an extension works out following a swap.

 

Despite lost revenues in 2020, the Minnesota Twins can’t afford to wait out their next move. The farm system has some very good top prospects, and the depth is also pretty solid. It’s this core however that the front office has been fine tuning, and the window to go all in is the immediate future. With Josh Donaldson having three years left on his mega deal, pairing him and the homegrown core should be of the utmost importance. What impact Royce Lewis or Jordan Balazovic have as key pieces two or three years from now could be the start of an entirely new competitive cycle.

 

This front office can’t go all in and throw care to the wind, but they’ve also never shown a reason to believe that’s how they would operate. Donaldson seemed like a great fit for Minnesota all along last winter, and the Twins picked their spot to get the deal done. Nothing may be imminent on a big splash front right now, but the makings of smoke seem to be billowing and there’s plenty of reason to fan for some flame.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Are the Twins Preparing a Big Surprise?

 


This offseason was always going to be incredibly weird. Coming off a pandemic shortened season, with no fans, and an unprecedented amount of uncertainty still ahead, how teams would tackle preparations for 2021 is a mystery. The Twins are good though, and despite a few holes they want to get better. What if they go all in?

 

This morning at ESPN Jeff Passan penned a piece regarding some rumblings he’s heard around the league. One of them was a note on the Minnesota Twins circling like a shark in the water. Executives had apparently suggested that Minnesota is “lurking” and appears “ready to strike with a big move as they did last season.” That big move alluded to was the signing of Josh Donaldson to a $100 million deal. How could something like that be replicated?

 

On the free agent market there’s only a couple of splashes that would fall into that category in and of themselves. Signing Trevor Bauer, George Springer, or J.T. Realmuto would push dollar signs into that realm. Bauer is arguably the most natural fit of the group, and his next deal could be the most interesting. He’s previously said he’d like to by an assassin for hire and string together lucrative one-year deals. Agent Rachel Luba has commented that they’re open to whatever the best fit is. Bauer makes sense in Minnesota, but I’d imagine there’s other more desirable markets.

 

Looking at the latter two options, the Twins would be in a bit of a weird spot even though both are clear upgrades. Springer plays corner outfield, and despite the departure of Eddie Rosario, the assumption is that top prospect Alex Kirilloff will take over in short order. Mitch Garver had a down and injury plagued year in 2020, but Ryan Jeffers looked the part of a starting quality option. Realmuto would push both to the bench, although he could make the DH spot less of a pressing Nelson Cruz matter.

 

I don’t think anything else on the free agency front would qualify as Donaldson-esque. Maybe signing Didi Gregorious, Marcus Semien, or Andrelton Simmons to be the starting shortstop creates ripples, but none of those guys should break the bank. If it’s not going to happen on the open market, swinging a deal is something Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have done well with.

 

Although the system isn’t as loaded as it once was, the Twins minor league depth right now is in a great place. Royce Lewis probably remains off the table, but he’s less untouchable than I assumed even a year ago. Beyond that, everyone should be under consideration. Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran headline the pitching while Trevor Larnach, Aaron Sabato, and Keoni Cavaco are the offensive gems.

 

Without reading too much into what Passan has reported, there’s certainly a feeling of a silent killer right now. Chicago is looking to load up as the White Sox have their most competitive team in years. The Twins are the clear cream of the crop right now though and remaining there will take legitimate additions. After hearing about payroll decreases and scaled back financial efforts after decreased revenues in 2020, there should have been legitimate fear regarding Minnesota’s opportunity to capitalize.

 

If this is just the beginning of smoke, and we don’t have fire for some time, the hope should be that this is an inkling of the Twins keeping their foot on the gas. The front office and development staff have pushed a largely home-grown roster to the point of opportunity. The window is wide open and continuing to jump through it as long as they can, should be the goal. One Postseason win, or a series victory is where it starts, but this organization has all the makings of a legitimate contender.

Monday, December 7, 2020

2021 Minnesota Twins Top 15 Prospects

 


This will be my 6th annual top 15 Twins prospect update. As was the case with the midseason edition back in June, we’re dealing with an unprecedented scenario here. Having not played any minor league baseball action in 2020, movement is based more on what I heard out of the alternate site and what took place from prospects appearing at Target Field.

 

The hope would be that a level of normalcy is restored in 2021. While I’m optimistic we see something closer to what we’ve come accustomed to, changes are still in store. Major League Baseball booted just over 40 affiliates, and the regular season is still looking like there may be a delay in getting things underway. I’m hopeful that the yearly trip to Fort Myers happens, but that all remains in flux currently.

 

Here’s where players checked in during previous seasons:

 

2016 Top 15 Prospects

2017 Top 15 Prospects

2018 Top 15 Prospects

2019 Top 15 Prospects

2020 Top 15 Prospects

Now, let’s get to it!

15. Akil Baddoo OF

Taking over this spot from Wander Javier, Baddoo has had somewhat of a similar professional trajectory. He’s been hurt plenty and there’s still much more projection than actual results. However, he’ll play 2021 at 22-years-old and has already reached High-A. Growing into his body more and increasing muscle mass, there’s an exciting combination of strength and speed. He needs to begin producing on the field, but the ceiling is one to get excited about.

14. Gilberto Celestino OF

Celestino is on the 40-man roster and could play in the big leagues right now from a defensive standpoint. It was good for him to be at CHS Field in 2020 and get additional coaching in what could’ve been a lost year. The Twins are still looking for the additional come-up on the Ryan Pressly trade, and it’s this kid that could end up providing it.

13. Matt Wallner OF

The Minnesota native will be 23 when he gets back into a professional game having lost his age-22 season. However, Wallner is an advanced bat that has a plus arm. He’s probably more Trevor Larnach than he is Brent Rooker when it comes to athleticism, and that’s a good thing. Reaching Cedar Rapids in his first pro season was a nice showing, and he could be pushed through the system quickly if everything continues to go according to plan.

12. Matt Canterino RHP

On the outside of my top 10 but looking in, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Canterino as a top-5 Twins prospect a year from now. He’s got a great arm and was nothing short of dominant in his first seven professional outings. He’ll be 23 in 2021 and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Twins look to get him extended time at Double-A Wichita. He could be a part of the next wave behind the likes of Balazovic and Duran.

11. Lewis Thorpe LHP

Seeing somewhat of a slip for the Aussie in 2020 was a disappointing reality. Thorpe has always looked like the lefty to bet on in the Twins system, and I really thought he was in for a breakout. Initially dealing with some personal issues during Spring Training, and then fighting ineffectiveness when he was out there, 2020 was as forgettable for Lewis as it was anyone. The talent is all there, and so is the stuff, but it’ll be on him to close the gap between the ears.

10. Aaron Sabato 1B

I struggled with where to put Sabato as I think what happens and what could go wrong are both pretty straightforward. The former Tar Heel’s bat is beyond legit, but so too is his limit when it comes to impact. He’s never going to move off first base and may ultimately be a designated hitter. There’s less swing and miss than Rooker here, and the floor is probably a bit safer. Without him having played a professional game though, this feels right.

9. Keoni Cavaco SS

Entirely projection is what you’ve got to go off on Cavaco. He was an extreme helium pick and only got in 20 games before his professional career was put on hold. He’s 19-years-old and will start 2021 at that age. Likely destined to play for the newly designated Low-A Mighty Mussels, Cavaco will have to prove he can stick at shortstop. Playing third base during his prep career, the hope is that the bat develops power, and his 35/4 K/BB was just part of the acclimation process.

8. Brent Rooker OF/1B

If you were waiting on Brent Rooker’s bat to play in the big leagues before believing, the seven-game sample size certainly didn’t do anything to calm your excitement. It was a short debut, but he crushed the baseball, posted a .960 OPS, and launched his first Major League home run. A fractured forearm ended his season, but he’s all systems go and should be looking at an Opening Day roster spot in 2021.

7. Blayne Enlow RHP

I might be a bit higher on Enlow than most, but I think this is the next Twins pitching prospect to take a big leap. The front office prioritized him in a draft a couple of years ago, and he’s flashed great stuff since. Enlow will be 22 in 2021, but he’s already reached High-A. The strikeouts need to keep rising, but he’s got some electricity to his arm and has done a good job of avoiding substantial damage. Another step forwards and he’ll make another leap on this list.

6. Ryan Jeffers C

Like Rooker, Jeffers made his Major League debut in 2020. With Mitch Garver fighting both injury and ineffectiveness the Twins needed to turn to their rising prospect. In 26 games he posted a .791 OPS and did a fine job behind the plate. When drafted the narrative was that the bat would play but uncertainty remained about whether he could hack it behind the plate. Minnesota believed he could, and while that remains a work in progress, a pairing with Garver should give Rocco Baldelli two solid options.

5. Jhoan Duran RHP

There were a couple of different points that a Duran promotion seemed like a good bet during 2020, but the Twins ultimately never went that direction. He’s got a near triple-digit fastball and I heard plenty of great reports from the people I checked on him with. He probably has a higher ceiling than the pitching prospect ranked higher than him on this list, but the floor is more volatile as well.

4. Trevor Larnach OF

For the duration they’ve been in the system together it’s been hard to separate Larnach and Kirilloff. They are virtually the same player with the former having had some college seasoning and the latter having a bit of youth on his side. I’d give Larnach the edge when it comes to athleticism, but both should be seen as advanced bats with unmatched upside especially at the plate.

3. Jordan Balazovic RHP

Hailing from Canada, Balazovic has entrenched himself as the Twins top pitching prospect. He has the right mix of high ceiling ability with a very projectable and safe floor. I’d be pretty shocked if he ends up flaming out and working as a reliever. There may not be ace potential here but expecting him to be a two or three is hardly a lofty expectation.

2. Royce Lewis SS

Minnesota’s top prospect for the past two years drops a spot for me, but only because I think the year without game action leaves some uncertainty. I’ve been bullish on Lewis, and even if he doesn’t stick at shortstop, I think he’s an All-Star caliber talent. While his ceiling is unquestionably higher than Kirilloff’s, there’s also a more volatile floor here. I really wanted to see how Royce would bounce back in 2020, and despite glowing reports from the alternate site, we didn’t get actual evaluation opportunity. I’m not betting against him by any means.

1. Alex Kirilloff OF/1B

Talk about being thrown into the fire as Kirilloff was asked to make his Major League debut during an elimination game in the Postseason. He could be ticketed for the starting left field role on Opening Day in 2021, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be expected to at least match Eddie Rosario’s production level. Kirilloff’s bat is the real deal, and while his arm won’t play quite as high, there’s no reason not to get excited about his prognosis as a regular.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Thad Levine Being Poached Shows Twins Growth

 


Welcome to a new era of Minnesota Twins baseball. This isn’t the Terry Ryan regime anymore, and it hasn’t been for quite some time. What was ushered in with Derek Falvey represented a more progressive way of thinking. Unfortunately, the downside to that is having other organizations looking to play copycat. Now that is beginning to come full circle.

 

Last offseason the Twins lost their hitting coach. James Rowson was the architect behind a lineup that hit the most home runs in Major League Baseball history, and his championing of launch angle and exit velocity was a far cry from the contact approach of yesteryear. Rudy Hernandez and Edgar Varela remained, but Twins fans often wondered if Rowson’s departure didn’t explain some of the step backwards this season.

 

While the offseason is hardly aged yet as we head into 2021, the Twins have seen a few coaches poached from their minor league ranks as well. Although it’s big league losses like Rowson and Derek Shelton that resonate most with the casual fan, it’s the absence of names like Tanner Swanson and J.P. Martinez that really signify the strength of organization infrastructure.

Today it was announced that Twins General Manager Thad Levine is a “significant player” in the Phillies search for a new head of baseball operations. That’s an appealing job no doubt, given Levine’s hand in retooling the Twins organization. Philadelphia has fallen flat on developing prospects, and now they are Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola, and Zack Wheeler with little else to make a serious run. Orchestrating that turnaround on his own without sharing credit under Falvey has to be an exciting premise.

 

Initially that would seem like a brutal blow for Minnesota. Levine and Falvey have seemingly been connected at the hip, and since their introductory press conference they’ve consistently talked about a collaborative environment. What has become apparent since that time, however, is that Falvey is no stranger to identifying and hiring the right people in the right positions. It’s because of the Twins infrastructure that he has orchestrated that teams are interested in pulling from the club.

 

Ken Rosenthal recently wrote a piece that included bit praising the Twins throughout the contract negotiation period with their arbitration eligible players. Agents noted that Levine was great to work with and that comes across as a glowing report for Minnesota’s GM. Expecting Falvey to find someone internally or externally to replace those shoes is hardly unfathomable, however. That’s not to say losing Levine is without consequence but trusting in the process from the top down has truly become something easy to buy into.

 

I’d prefer not to see Minnesota lose Thad Levine prior to reaching the peak with a World Series that this organization is now directed towards. However, as architectural as he has been throughout the years here, I believe the process and structure in place will continue bearing fruit regardless of the replacement. The Twins have turned themselves into an organization akin to the Tampa Bay Rays from a front office and coaching perspective. That’s more than an enviable reality to look into.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Twins Join Cities as Saints Become Affiliate

 


As has been the expectation now for week, the St. Paul Saints will officially join the Minnesota Twins organization in 2021 per reports from the Star Tribune. Previously playing in the American Association as an Independent Baseball team, they’ll now assume the role of the Twins Triple-A affiliate.

 

For years there has been talk about the convenience having an affiliate just down I-94 would provide the Twins. Then during the pandemic shortened season, CHS Field acted as the alternate site for the Major League club. With Major League Baseball throwing around its weight and controlling baseball across the country, a massive reshuffling has taken place. Gone are roughly 40 minor league clubs as 120 total affiliates is the new number. Regional restructuring has taken place, and new draft feeder leagues have emerged.

 

Impacting the Twins is a new partner at the highest minor league level. Having been affiliated with the Rochester Red Wings since 2003, the Minnesota Twins will now turn a new chapter in their developmental history. The Saints were founded in 1993 and were originally part of the Northern League prior to joining the American Association.

 

As it’s the Saints joining the Twins organization, they’ll inherit talent from within. Minnesota will now send Triple-A destined prospects to St. Paul rather than Rochester. This means that the players previously under contract with the Saints will be displaced throughout Independent Baseball. Per reporter Chelsea Ladd, there have been talks the American Association will hold a draft of sorts to find those players new teams.

 

Also, of note is the Twins swapping their Double-A affiliate. After just one season working with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the Twins will now join forces with the Wichita Wind Surge. The Wind Surge were originally scheduled to operate as the Miami Marlins Triple-A affiliate, with 2020 being their first season. Obviously with the pandemic that never happened. It’s not great news for Wichita, who will drop a level in with the affiliation, but Minnesota inherits a closer Double-A club and one that is opening a brand-new ballpark and facilities.

 

Certainly, Major League Baseball expanding its reach across Major League, Minor League, and now even amateur baseball is a suboptimal development. Having such a monopoly over the sport, ownership groups continue to line their pockets while paydays for future generations of talent can continue to be stifled. However, if you’re simply a Twins fan, having the ability to watch future franchise pieces just 13 miles from Target Field, and a driveable journey to Wichita as a possibility, isn’t the worst silver lining.

 

For years, the St. Paul Saints possibility has been kicked around, and now in the first year it will happen top prospects like Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, Jordan Balazovic, and Jhoan Duran should all be featured for a time in St. Paul. We may have to wait through the waning stages of a pandemic to see them in person, but a new era of baseball in Twins Territory has been ushered in.

Monday, November 30, 2020

If This is it for Eddie…

 


On Wednesday, the Minnesota Twins will need to decide whether or not they’ll tender a contract to left fielder Eddie Rosario for the 2021 Major League Baseball season. A 4th round pick in 2010, he’s been in the organization for a decade since he was a 19-year-old. A changing of the guard could be coming involving a core player, and it’s worth looking back on the impact he’s had.

 

Rosario was selected out of high school in Puerto Rico as a second basemen, and he stuck there pretty regularly through his first four professional seasons. At that point it was determined his arm was an underutilized asset, and his glove on the dirt simply wasn’t going to get the job done. By 2012 he’d cracked a top 100 prospect list (Baseball Prospectus) and prior to 2014 he landed 60th from the same publication.

 

It was in 2014 that adversity caught up with Rosario a bit as he received a 50-game suspension for a drug of abuse. This was something that there had been rumblings about for some time but was brought to the forefront through the failed test. A maturation process was going to be necessary, and it was one that ultimately took place leading to a Major League debut in 2015.

 

To this point the Twins have had Rosario play in 697 career games with a .277/.310/.478 slash line. His last four seasons have amounted to an .810 OPS and some of the breakout power potential that was expected from him. He contributed 32 dingers to the 2019 Bomba Squad’s tally, and despite lacking any real on-base presence, remained a run producer at the plate.

 

In the outfield there’s been flashes of brilliance from a guy with such a strong right arm. Putting up gaudy DRS numbers on somewhat of a scattered basis, injury and an inconsistent motor are the only things that have held him back from entering elite territory when in the field. Any given night can result in Twitter faithful providing reminders not to run on his rocket arm, and that ability should carry well into his 30’s.

 

Should Minnesota decide to non-tender their home-grown outfielder it won’t be due to lack of talent. The OPS hovering around .800 is a strong number, but an arbitration figure teetering on $10 million is quite a lot for a player that has replaceable qualities and is battling with internal talent expected to be as good or better.

 

There should be no shock if Rosario goes elsewhere and flourishes. He did well with former Twins hitting coach James Rowson, and a mutual fit in Miami could make sense for a plethora of reasons. Rosario was among the prospects Twins fans waited on for years, and he’s parlayed that into six years of production that will be missed should his time be up.

 

No matter what happens, Minnesota’s hot stove gets cooking forcibly sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

2021 IBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot

 


There’s been some turnover with the IBWAA this year as long time founder Howard Cole stepped away from operations. Following an unprecedented season, a constant takes place this time of year. It’s Hall of Fame voting season. Coming a week earlier than the 2020 ballot, the 2021 hopefuls have entered my inbox.

 

This will now be my fourth year as an IBWAA member casting a vote. The BBWAA is the official voting contingency, but the IBWAA handles things very similarly. Voters may select up to 12 players, and there are a few that have already been enshrined by the IBWAA group (namely, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens).

 

Previous ballots:

2020

2019

2018

 

Despite an initial backlog needing to be worked through, I have not voted for the maximum amount since my initial opportunity in 2018. While I do believe there are some very close cases, I have chosen to continue leaving off the same players I have previously passed over. Nothing about their resumes have changed, and I have previously had the space to include them deciding not to.

 

None of the newcomers made the cut for me, and that left just three players previously eligible for consideration.

 

Curt Schilling: 79.7 fWAR

 

Bloody sock nonsense aside, Schilling is a three time Cy Young runner-up, and six-time All Star. He struck out 3,116 batters in his career and owns a 3.46 ERA while totaling more than 200 wins. Three World Series rings, an MVP, and a 2.23 postseason ERA do him favors as well. Since voting for him last year, Schilling has made plenty of splashes in the media. He's not well liked off the field, but the character clause is among the most dated pieces of inclusion into the Hall of Fame. On baseball merit alone, he's worthy of the nod.

 

Scott Rolen 70.1 fWAR

 

Vastly under appreciated, Rolen started as a Rookie of the Year winner, and went on to tally eight Gold Glove awards. He was a seven time All Star and among the best to ever field the Hot Corner. With an .855 career OPS, his bat more than does enough to supplement what was an exceptional defensive career.

 

Andruw Jones 67.1 fWAR

 

Jones's 17 year career is often going to be questioned as he held on for five uninspiring seasons to closer out his time as a big leaguer. That aside, the 10 year stretch from 199-2007 was one for the ages. With 10 Gold Glove's and five All Star appearances, he was easily among the greatest in the game for a decade.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Thankful for Baseball’s Distraction

 



There’s no denying that 2020 has been arguably the most difficult year I’ve ever lived through. Dealing with a global pandemic while hobbies are shelved, and uncertainty runs rampant is quite the mental ringer. Add in the unexpected loss of a parent and the Minnesota Twins have seemed like nothing short of a bright spot through the clouds.

 

I remember back in March; I was sitting at Pott’s Sports Café on the 12th as Major League Baseball put a halt to Spring Training. The night before Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz threw the NBA into a pause, and not long after college basketball would follow suit. For months Major League owners and the MLBPA engaged in an ugly, extremely public, dispute between finances and resumption. How would the sport go on, and more importantly could it?

 

Fast forward to where we are now. Another lockdown is being instituted across the country. Thanksgiving isn’t the same, and the family prognosis for Christmas doesn’t look great either. For four months this year though, we had baseball. It didn’t always go smoothly, and leadership was lacking at times, but there was a season and there was a World Series Champion. For that, I am thankful.

 

The Minnesota Twins played one of their best season’s in franchise history during 2019. They set power records and looked like a team to mess with come October. While that didn’t come to fruition, so much promise remained for 2020. Despite having that all taken away, even a small sliver of normalcy was experienced during a 60-game sprint. Minnesota wasn’t as dominant as expected, but a second straight division title is nothing to scoff at. The Postseason woes continued, but opportunity was there once again.

 

During this week that’s normally spent eating good food with better company, the most important reminder is that it’s a time of thanks. I’m thankful for my health in a time when so many others are less fortunate. I’m thankful for the amount of time this change in situation has allowed me to spend at home, enjoying my family, seeing my kids grow on a daily basis. I’m thankful that there’s been an opportunity to slow life down and reflect. And yes, as silly as it may seem, I’m thankful that we had baseball.

 

As the calendar eventually turns to 2021, I can change that word of thanks into hope. I look forward to a renewed sense of normalcy. I am hopeful that there’s an ability to make the yearly voyage down to Fort Myers for Twins Spring Training. I am hopeful that we get 162 games to dissect what should again be a very good baseball team in Minnesota. As so many things hang in the balance, I’m thankful for the opportunities provided to this point, and hopeful for what’s ahead.

 

Baseball doesn’t define our lives, but it’s an extremely substantial part of mine. It was a light in what has otherwise been a very dark year, and I’m thankful for that. Being able to enjoy the sunshine once again in person, hoping on better times ahead, it’s yet again a child’s game that provided an opportunity for warmth.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Dark Horse Rule 5 Addition for Minnesota

 


By the end of the week the Minnesota Twins must add their Rule 5 eligible prospects to the 40-man roster in order to protect them from selection. There are not too many candidates that are considered a lock, but there’s a dark horse from the 2016 MLB Draft that should absolutely make the cut.

 

The name you know by now is Jordan Balazovic. The Canadian native is arguably the Twins top starting pitching prospect and there’s no way he won’t be added. As a potential top of the rotation pitcher, protecting him from another club is common procedure. He could be joined by defense first backstop Ben Rortvedt, or maybe former high ceiling prospect Wander Javier. The name that’s less obvious however, and I’d contend it shouldn’t be, is Griffin Jax.

 

Drafted out of Air Force Academy in the 3rd round during the 2016 MLB Draft, Jax is a guy with plenty of upside. He doesn’t have the heavy fastball, and he isn’t a gaudy strikeout pitcher, but if you want the next coming of Randy Dobnak-like results it very well may be this kid. Across 250+ minor league innings he owns a 3.18 ERA with a 6.6 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9. In other words, while he doesn’t mow everyone down, he very rarely gets burned.

 

Last season Jax, like every other minor leaguer, missed valuable game development time with the season put on the shelf. In 2019 at Double-A Pensacola, he worked 111.1 IP and tallied just a 2.67 ERA. While his three turns at Triple-A Rochester didn’t go as smoothly in the hits and runs columns, he continued to be an average strikeout arm with the ability to command the zone and limit free passes.

 

In just a couple of days Jax will turn 26 years old. He’s essentially a non-prospect, but plenty of those types contribute in the big leagues. While the ceiling shouldn’t be expected to be really high, the floor is where the intrigue lies here. Looking ahead to a season in which teams apparently are trying to limit payroll, a big-league ready arm on a minimum salary has a lot of appeal. There’s plenty of pitching-needy teams around the majors, and there’s no doubt Jax could find himself in an Opening Day rotation.

 

On the Twins front, the rotation is an area needing to be addressed this offseason. Gone are the likes of Jake Odorizzi, Rich Hill, and Homer Bailey. Needing to fill two spots behind Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, and Michael Pineda, the organization will likely turn to the outside for help in at least one of those roles. No matter what though, a full season (if that’s what we get in) will require no less than 10 starters to take a turn. Asking Jax to contribute in one of those spots is a very likely scenario, and one Minnesota should embrace.

 

The 40-man roster still has plenty of space on it, and while the Twins need to add this winter, it’s about quality more than it is quantity at this point. They should protect Griffin Jax, run him out there in 2021, and be excited about an arm that will put them in a position for the lineup to win games.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Should Twins Again Scoop Up Schoop?

 


This offseason one of the areas Minnesota must address is the utility role. A player that primarily plays the infield, with an ability to start for a significant stretch at either second or third base makes sense. Former Twins two-bagger Jonathan Schoop fits that bill, but should the organization be interested?

 

After a solid 2019 season with the Twins, Schoop signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Tigers. He stayed in the AL Central division, and it came at a $1.4M pay cut. Now having substantiated the success and being just 29 years old, it may be his best opportunity to look for a multi-year deal.

 

Schoop’s history is somewhat of an interesting one. He was an All-Star for the Orioles in 2017 posting an .841 OPS. Then in 2018 he took a step backwards, ultimately being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, where he was downright abysmal. Signing in the winter to be the Twins starter at second, he eventually would lose the role to rookie Luis Arraez. Playing in 44 games for the Tigers this past season, he was a steadying veteran presence on a bad club but put up a solid .799 OPS.

 

I don’t know that you can expect the .841 OPS again from Schoop as it was a career high and certainly represents an outlier over the course of his career. An OPS in the high .700’s with 20+ home run potential is a valuable asset, however. Schoop has starting experience and could spell either Arraez or Josh Donaldson for stretches if need be. Add in that he’s still in what should be considered his prime, and the familiarity with an organization could provide a smooth and productive transition.

 

Another interesting aspect of bringing Schoop back is exactly what his market will look like. He took a pay cut in 2020 despite rebounding well the season before. Now he’s coming off an even better year, albeit in a small sample, but ownership groups across the league are looking to spend less. Factor in that Schoop could also be eyeing a multi-year pact, and it’s hard to gauge what a realistic number for him may actually be.

 

In targeting Schoop, or any utility option, the Twins are needing to mitigate against what Marwin Gonzalez wound up being in 2020. His .606 OPS rendered him an unplayable asset, and the .713 OPS since 2017 really calls into question how much of a boost the sign-stealing scandal helped in producing a career best .907 OPS that year. With Arraez having knee issues in 2020, and Donaldson being a consistent injury concern due to calf issues, the next man up must be a high-quality player and not just a short-term fill in. On the surface it would be fair to suggest Schoop fits the bill.

 

There’s actually a decent amount of utility targets this winter, and more than a few of them have significant run playing in starting roles. Maybe Schoop doesn’t want to return to a team in which his job may be in jeopardy again. There’s plenty of reason to believe he could garner a few starts each week however and being a part of the Bomba Squad probably provides some pretty good memories.

 

The market is going to take time developing this offseason and expecting it to be depressed across the board is a pretty good bet. We may not have great inclinations as to what Minnesota will want to do for some time, but Schoop provides another avenue for them to explore.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Twins Must Get Creative as Options Dwindle

 


The Minnesota Twins entered the offseason as one of the best teams in baseball. Forget about the futility in the Postseason, this roster is loaded. They have some holes to fill thanks to departing free agents, but there’s a lot to work with. In the rotation Rocco Baldelli could use another horse, but that’s gotten more complicated now.

 

On the final day to decide, both Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman accepted the $18.9 million qualifying offer. The Giants handing a QO to Gausman seemed like a bit of a reach, and despite having multi-year interest from a few teams, was too tempting for him to pass up. With Stroman the situation was a bit more interesting. He opted out of the season on the day in which he accrued enough service time to reach free agency this winter. That left the Mets in a tough spot, but the business side of baseball played out in the form of a QO. I though Stroman would land the second largest deal of the winter, behind only Trevor Bauer, so this isn’t a great sign for an expected poor market.

 

As much as it would be great to see Derek Falvey reunite with former Indians colleague Bauer, it’s just not real logical. With two of the best alternatives off the board, there’s a ton of uncertainty left. Masahiro Tanaka is now probably the next best thing, with the injury-risk James Paxton and Corey Kluber behind him. It’s not as though the Twins need to go acquire an ace, but they can’t have a Homer Bailey situation play out over the course of 162.

 

It’s long seemed like a good bet that a trade would be swung for rotation help. Acquiring someone like Joe Musgrove or Jon Gray could be a very strong boost to the back end of the group. Derek Falvey flipped infield prospect Jermaine Palacios to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Jake Odorizzi, and Brusdar Graterol netted Minnesota Kenta Maeda. It’s not as though there’s a poor track record there and leaning on that success makes a ton of sense.

 

Speaking of Odorizzi, he looks like a nice piece at this point in the game as well. Although he dealt with injury virtually all of 2020, they could be categorized as fluky at best. He’s been nothing short of great for Minnesota when healthy, and while he’s not an innings eater by any means, the consistency when on the bump is more than a nice thing to lean on.

 

While Minnesota entered the offseason in a good place, it always was necessary to fill those few key holes. As options dwindle on the pitching front, they’ll need to navigate a minefield of uncertainty in the free agent market, and still look to shore up the group with more than a veteran dart throw. I don’t know if the answer is currently unemployed, but it should be plenty interesting to see which way they go.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Pair of Rebound Candidates for Twins

 


After the 2019 Major League Baseball season gave us the Bomba Squad, there was plenty of regression expected for the Minnesota Twins lineup. Knowing the group hit a Major League record of homers made it unlikely for a repeat in 2020. Now coming off the weird season that was, there’s a pair of contributors the Twins need back in form.

 

It’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions based on a 60-game season, and even less so when dealing with injuries or missed time. The slate in and of itself resulted in little more than September action, and with a handful of untested players, the competition was different as well. That said, I’ll make the argument that the greatest avenue for success regarding the Twins lineup in 2021 is a resurgence from Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco.

 

Maybe Nelson Cruz is back, maybe he isn’t. Josh Donaldson is an elite talent when his calves are cooperating, but the injury prognosis isn’t one we can predict. That same line of thinking follows uber-talented centerfielder Byron Buxton as well. It’s the backstop and shortstop though, that resemble keys to an offense never really defining a launch this season.

 

Looking back at the leadup to 2020, I think it was wildly suggested that Garver wouldn’t replicate his .995 OPS from 2019. He has always had a good bat, and has a great mind for hitting, but the .630 slugging percentage was truly otherworldly. That said, projecting him to post a .511 OPS would’ve been a foolish undertaking as well. Assuming the truth lies somewhere in the middle, getting the New Mexico native back to an .800 OPS in 2021 is a must.

 

A couple areas where things fell off for Garver in his batted ball profile start with the hard-hit rate. It dropped roughly 6%, and he hit line drives nearly 10% more often. The lack of elevation combined with a lesser burst behind the batted ball resulted in more outs and a severely diminished HR/FB ratio. Mitch was also clearly not himself when swinging. A disciplined and contact driven hitter through and through, he jumped his whiff rate up to a career worst 13% while posted a 64% contact rate (15% below his career average). Knowing he was put on the shelf with a muscle injury, there’s plenty of reason to believe that could be the cause for such a slide.

 

Moving out from behind the plate we get to Jorge Polanco. On one hand the Minnesota shortstop had a career year as he made impressive strides defensively. On the flip side, he parlayed an .841 OPS from 2019 into just a .658 OPS in 2020. Clobbering 22 homers last season, just four balls left the park this year for the Dominican native. It was clear he was often slapping at the ball with no strong base below him. The results turned him into little more than a singles hitter with a mediocre average.

 

Polanco saw a massive dip in his hard-hit rate, dropping from 39.5% all the way down to                 a career worst 24.3%. With a batted ball profile that generally generates gap power, traditional doubles were now outs with a lot more batted ball activity that never began with a high probability for success. Unlike Garver, the plate discipline metrics didn’t change much. For Polanco, this was almost entirely a reflection of a process lacking solid contact. Like the Minnesota catcher though, Jorge was dealing with an injury. Undergoing offseason ankle surgery there should be hope that was what was ailing him and causing a change in his abilities.

 

Neither of these two players are going to be replaced in the 2021 Minnesota lineup. While Ryan Jeffers stepped up in Garver’s absence, he’s more a tandem duty player until the 26-game sample size is substantiated and forces more of a lead role. Polanco is entrenched as the Twins shortstop, and even top prospect Royce Lewis may not immediately challenge that. Getting production from these two key areas, something that was missing a season ago, is an absolute must.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Caution on Youth for Twins

 


Going into this offseason there’s expected to be a couple of certainties for the Minnesota Twins. One is that payroll will reflect lost revenue and take a step backwards, the other is that a return of an intact 2020 roster likely isn’t going to happen. Both of those things lean towards a youth movement, but how much can the roster support?

 

Regardless of it being a truncated 60 game sprint, the 2020 season provided Minnesota their second straight AL Central division title. Although they went winless in the Postseason yet again, it was their second straight trip, and third time in the past four years. This organization hasn’t finished lower than 2nd in the division since 2016, and it’s during this window of competitiveness that capitalization must be executed upon.

 

At this point the two most likely avenues for a youth movement come at designated hitter and in left field. It’s far from a certainty that the Twins bring Nelson Cruz back. He’s been an integral part of their roster, but he’s also 40-years-old, worthy of a hefty paycheck, and time will eventually run its course. It probably is a certainty that Eddie Rosario isn’t back in left field, his arbitration number seems destined for a non-tender.

 

So, what do you do? The most generally accepted answer is that Brent Rooker could take over as the designated hitter with top prospect Alex Kirilloff parlaying his Postseason MLB debut into an Opening Day starter role. There’s a lot of talent in both of those bodies, but that reality is also asking a substantial amount.

 

Over two seasons with the Twins Nelson Cruz has launched 57 homers and posted an OPS of 1.020. In fact, the last time he finished a season with an OPS south of .800 was a decade ago as a 31-year-old. Brent Rooker has played in seven big league games, and his minor league OPS checked in at .861. I don’t think there’s any denying that Rooker’s bat is exciting, but it’s also much less disciplined than Cruz’s, and he’d be replacing someone with credentials worth of Hall of Fame consideration.

 

In the outfield things get a little bit easier. Rosario, while he has a cannon, plays left field, and has slipped defensively as the years have gone by. The Puerto Rican native has a general hollow slash line with a career OPS of just .788. He hasn’t been an excellent hitter since the .836 OPS in 2017, and even that was heavily carried by his slugging prowess. Kirilloff looks the part of a more advanced profile at the plate, but again, he’s stepping into expectations that will no doubt be through the roof.

 

I’m not one to believe that prospects need to force their way into opportunity consistently before they find it. I think sometimes there’s merit to allowing talent the opportunity to shine on its own. However, asking two prospects to fill the shoes of two key contributors on a team that’s once again aiming for 90+ wins and a Postseason berth is quite a tall task. Minnesota probably is better off signing a tested veteran with an expected floor to play at least one of those positions.

 

Maybe the answer doesn’t need to be a big spend on someone like Marcel Ozuna. Maybe asking Jake Cave to operate as the Opening Day left fielder isn’t aiming high enough. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle of those outcomes, but I’m not sure reality should allow it to be a youth overhaul without the expectation of growing pains.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Byron Buxton’s Next Great Act

 


The Minnesota Twins employ arguably the fastest player in Major League Baseball. Byron Buxton looks the part of a gazelle in the Target Field grass. As fast as he is though, it isn’t his speed that unlocks the next level for him, and Rocco Baldelli would be unleashing an absolute unit if the centerfielder can get there.

 

2020 may very well have been Buxton’s best year in the big leagues. Calling it that comes with some caveats. He was once again injured and playing in just 39 games is more reflective of a strong month. Nonetheless, every organization in the big leagues dealt with a 60-game sprint this year. For Buxton, there was a development I’ve been on for a while that should have Twins fans licking their chops. He has begun coming into his power.

 

During 2021 Buxton will play the entirety of the year as a 27-year-old. Across the past three seasons he’s gotten into just 154 games, but there’s no denying that talent has turned the corner on with regards to its uncertain arrival. Batting average be damned, Buxton is now a defensive stalwart that contributes at the dish as well. Here’s the caveat, just how much opportunity can he give himself?

 

Buxton’s .844 OPS in 2020 was a career best. In 2017 he garnered his first career MVP votes and did so with a .728 OPS. Across 87 games a year ago, his .827 OPS put distance behind the lost season that was 2018. Despite replicating a .314 OBP in both of those previous years, 2020 saw the Twins star get on base at just a .267 clip. He had a hilariously awful 36/2 K/BB on the season, and career worst plate discipline (51% chase 17% whiff).

 

It’s there that Buxton’s next act comes. Despite his speed, Byron has never swiped more than 29 bases in a season. Half of his big-league career he’s failed to record double digits, and in two stretches of roughly 40 games at the highest level he’s generated just two. That’s less indicative of a lacking skill as it is reflective of the type of player Buck is.


At the plate, Byron Buxton gets off his “A-swing.” He’s somewhat of a guess hitter, and that’s left him susceptible to opposing pitchers having their way with him, but his Statcast profile is reminiscent of teammates like Miguel Sano and Nelson Cruz rather than a player like Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton. Barreling the baseball as often as he does, Buxton’s prognosis over the course of a full healthy season should be nothing shy of a 25-homer result. His 13 per 39 in 2020 is a 54 over 162 game pace, and while the sustainability is probably not there, being shocked at a 30-home run season would seem to be lacking foresight.

 

It’s not as though a step forward in plate discipline is beyond reach either. Buxton owns a career 34% chase rate and 14% whiff rate. He was attacked with first pitch strikes nearly 10% more often in 2020 than at any other point in his career, and he took his aggressiveness up a notch on his own volition as well (80% zone swing and 64% swing rates were well over career norms).

 

Edgar Varela stepped into the role of hitting coach for the 2020 Twins. Lots has been made about James Rowson leaving, and there’s no doubt he was an asset for Minnesota, but it’s not as though Varela’s teaching deviates much from a guy he worked alongside of. If the Twins can get Buxton into a level of comfort when it comes to battling and seeing pitches, what he’s able to do while making contact should only increase. An OBP over .300 would’ve put Byron within sniffing distance of a .900 OPS, and an already dangerous hitter then enters a whole new realm.

 

There were points this season that Buxton mentioned his desire to steal more bases. It’s unnecessary for him to steal third, and he won’t find opportunity while jogging the bases. The next step forward for Minnesota’s superstar is to sprinkle walks in between the loud base hits and doing so takes him to the tier projected for him as a previous top prospect in all of baseball.

 

Byron Buxton will always battle the health risks related to his play style, but he’s very close to being among the most productive players in the game, and the Twins should be salivating at that fact.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Twins Unlikely Byron Buxton Insurance



This offseason the Minnesota Twins needed to allocate some dollars into contingency plans. With Josh Donaldson having missed so much time, and Byron Buxton always an injury away, legitimate talent behind both is a must. For Buxton, that answer may be more exciting than initially anticipated.

When Rocco Baldelli was filling out his American League Wild Card Series roster in October, one of the biggest surprises in recent memory took place. Top prospect Alex Kirilloff not only made the roster, but he drew his Major League debut start in game 2. Kirilloff garnered rave reviews all summer from Minnesota’s alternate site, and so too did the other top Twins prospect, Royce Lewis.

There has been plenty written already wondering what happens with Jorge Polanco at shortstop, if a utility role makes sense, and if he sticks there long term. Offensively in 2020, the 2019 All-Star was a problem. He posted a career worst .658 OPS and lost all power at the dish. We now know that could’ve been related to his bulky ankle, and a strong improvement in the outs above average category means his may be taking steps forward defensively. Under contact until 2024 and just 27 years old, he’s not going anywhere any time soon. Maybe the position changes, but here to suggest maybe it doesn’t.

We now enter a scenario in which the 2017 first overall draft pick makes his debut in centerfield.

Last fall the Twins allowed Lewis to play centerfield in the Arizona Fall League solely for the purpose of allowing him the flexibility to generate more at bats. It’s a position he’s been suggested of potentially moving to, and there’s reason to believe he’s not necessarily a lock to stick at shortstop. Coming off such a weird year in 2020, the focus in 2021 will be offensively contributing as fast as possible, and then likely finding a way to get him up to the big league club.

Although shortstop would be the traditional and straightforward path of progression, Lewis could experience a similar scenario to his teammate Kirilloff. For much of the past year Minnesota has begun to groom the lefty slugger as a first basemen. Regardless of Miguel Sano currently occupying the position, Kirilloff has found more of a home on the dirt than he did in the corner outfield. It was right field though that provided the opportunity for his debut, and it’s left field where he could find a home should the Twins non-tender Eddie Rosario.

Back to Lewis, we are working with a scenario in which the roster becomes constructed with the most possible talent, and Royce finds the quickest opportunity to play. Whether or not Byron Buxton finds himself on the shelf in 2021 isn’t a situation Minnesota wants to dream on. By having Lewis ready for that possibility however, they have a ready-made fill-in that could represent a higher ceiling than any bench alternative brought in from the outside.

No matter how or where it happens, I’d bet a sizeable amount that Royce Lewis makes his Major League debut for the Minnesota Twins in 2021. I’d place a greater than 25% chance that it comes at a position other than shortstop, and it’s a decent bet that there won’t need to be an injury to Jorge Polanco in order to facilitate the opportunity.

I can definitely imagine that Minnesota would like to simplify things for a prospect with so much promise. Bringing multiple gloves to the yard each day, and positional uncertainty wouldn’t represent that. Lewis is a poised kid though, and once they feel the bat is ready to play, the athleticism and instincts will take him far on their own no matter which number designates his position.

Go out and get pitching. Go out and find a worthy fill in for Josh Donaldson. Minnesota Twins, you can skip the centerfield replacement, your top prospect has that covered.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Twins Can’t Afford to Decrease Payroll in 2021


At this point of the offseason for the Minnesota Twins, we’re dealing with an astronomical amount of assumptions and hypotheticals. Given the league year has yet to flip over to 2021, we have no idea what will actually happen. The general consensus is one of teams taking a step back, and well, for Minnesota that’s the wrong move.

 

In 2020 the Minnesota Twins owned the 18th highest payroll in Major League Baseball. The prorated portion of their commitment was just north of $55 million. They jumped the overall commitment north by taking on established veteran Kenta Maeda, and signing Josh Donaldson to a four-year, $100 million contract. Coming off a record setting 2019, it was clear that this team was in the midst of a competitive window.

 

Fast forward to where we are today. Minnesota won the AL Central Division for a second straight season (even if it was in a shortened schedule) and played to the pace of a 97-win baseball club. For all intents and purposes, they were again among the best teams in the sport. Naturally, that would lead us to an offseason in which they are looking to…take a step backwards?

 

If you haven’t yet taken a look at TwinsPayroll.com, head over there right now. What you’ll quickly see is that the tool put together by Twins Daily highlights the constraints facing an expected tightening of the payroll for 2021. You want Nelson Cruz back? Good luck winding up with any pitching. How about signing Trevor Bauer? The bullpen will be filled with guys making the league minimum. Almost any way you cut it, there’s no avenue to bring back the majority of what was a very good 2020 club.

 

Entering the pre-pandemic 2020 season with a payroll around $140 million, we’re suggesting even a small step backwards resulting in a payroll around $125 million. Despite entering the height of their most recent competitive window, Minnesota would be tasked with shedding talent in order to help out the bottom line.

 

On one hand this is understandable. Major League Baseball organizations played out the string this year with no fans in attendance. No concessions were bought, and ticket sales very clearly didn’t happen. On the other hand, ownership groups signed off on a new Postseason deal valued at nearly $4 billion. Those same owners have been making money hand over fist for years, and while MLB claims financial hardship, the more likely reality is that the bottom line isn’t quite as green. Of course, we’ll never know for sure with all of their books being top secret.

 

Should taking a step backwards from an overall payroll perspective make sense, it would seem that buck would be passed onto players. The arbitration process isn’t likely to change prior to the CBA being renegotiated following the 2021 season, but free agency could become somewhat of a market inefficiency. Ownership groups may decide to tell players simply take what’s out there or wait and see what happens a year from now. Maybe the contracts agreed to are a fraction of what would’ve been guaranteed in a traditional cycle. Short of that, it’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen.

 

This can’t happen for the Twins, not now, and it would be damaging if it does. Minnesota has dealt with years of poor play to build up to this point. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have constructed a consistent winner. The farm system is in a good, not great, place ready to bear fruit. The Major League roster is among the best in the sport and just had a mega-star added to it. Taking their foot off the gas now and trying to piece it together with lesser parts would be counterproductive to everything necessary up until this point.

 

I can understand the fiscal desire to recoup funds following a year of certainty. If you’re goal is to maximize return on investment through the course of winning though, the time to take a step backwards is not now. That’s a tough pill to swallow in times of economic strife, but it’s why billionaires’ own franchises instead of those simply making ends meet.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Bring Back the Light on Littell

 


Going into the 2019 Major League Baseball season the Twins had few question marks more glaring than what their bullpen would look like. Fast forward to season’s end and it was among the best units in baseball. That happened largely because of internal development, and Zack Littell was part of that.

 

Acquired from the New York Yankees, Littell had pitched a brief 20.1 innings during the 2018 season. Working as both a starter and reliever in his debut year, he moved completely to the pen in 2019. Across 37.0 IP Littell posted a 2.68 ERA and 171 ERA+. While he wasn’t counted upon as one of Rocco Baldelli’s top arms, he consistently got the job done.

 

Fast forward to 2020 and Littell seemed to quickly fall out of favor with the big-league club. He was given just 6.1 IP this past season, and after a disastrous debut in which he allowed three homers and four runs in just a single inning to White Sox hitters, there wasn’t much more opportunity from there. Ultimately Littell was DFA’d from the 40-man, and after passing through waivers unclaimed, was assigned to the alternate site in St. Paul.

 

What Minnesota really has here is probably something in the middle of the two extremes. As good as the ERA was in 2020, Littell still owned a 3.62 FIP and whiffed just 7.8 per nine while allowing 2.2 free passes per nine. He saw nearly a 2 mph jump on his fastball velocity once moving to the pen full time, and the 12.8% swinging strike rate in 2019 was nearly double the mark set the year before. Without pitching in too many high leverage situations though, it was on the basis of a relatively untested arm.

 

Given the emergence of guys like Tyler Duffey and Caleb Thielbar, opportunities dwindled for someone on the fringe. Minnesota tabbed Matt Wisler as a worthy project right away during the 2019 offseason however, and Littell feels like someone worth investing in this time around. Should the Twins not add him back to the 40-man, he’d be a free agent, but letting g of talent like that needing to fill spots in the pen seems foolish.

 

There was next to no amount of normalization when it comes to production in 2020. With the season being just 60 games, a small sample size was the absolute best you’d be able to get. Having chopped up opportunity as Littell did, and seemingly losing his stature during the first week of the season, it’d be great to see him compete with a traditional runway once again.

 

If Minnesota is truly going to shave payroll in response to decreased revenues during 2020, then making sure there’s an adequate amount of low-cost, high-performing talents internally is a must. That may mean there’s a revolving door for some spots until they get it right, but it can’t mean moving on from options prior to determining what is truly there. Zack Littell looks the part of a bounce-back contributor next season and giving up on that possibility when he’s just 25-years-old would be a mistake.