Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Kobe Was so Much More than Basketball

Heroes get remembered but legends never die. That’s what we were told in that 1993 classic right? I have long been of the belief that idolizing celebrities or athletes almost certainly isn’t a good practice, but we can absolutely learn from them. At its core, I think that’s why the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant hit me so differently.

The Black Mamba was an 18-year-old rookie that went on to play over 1,300 games, score over 33,000 points, and will go down among the inner-circle of greatest hoopers ever. During his career though, he wasn’t my guy. Despite being too young to really appreciate his greatness, I was Team Jordan. Kobe represented the villain. He was a dominating force that stopped at nothing to best his opponent. It wasn’t until years later that reflection set in for me.

Baseball, basketball, or otherwise, the reality is that the athletes we see on a field of play are as flawed and fallible as the rest of us. It is in that reality where pedestals crumble and holding those we may never meet in such high regard can end up feeling empty. It’s also in that same vein that Kobe transcended what he was on the court inside of Staples Center.

During summer of 2003 Kobe made arguably the worst decision of his life. At best he was an adulterer and cheater; at worst something substantially more reprehensible. What he was during those times though was human. At the top of the basketball world, he still faced the same trials, setbacks, and punishments that many others around the world could find themselves involved in. That’s not to dismiss the levity of what happened, or the terrible decision making that transpired, but it highlights how quickly stature can be dealt a blow.

Sometime, and likely years later, that’s when I began to see it and turned towards emotions of respect for the man known by a single name. Attacking life with the same tenacity and mentality that he did on the basketball court, no one was going to outwork him. Bryant rebuilt his public image, but only after doing so in his own backyard. His marriage made it through that horrendous occurrence, and then again in 2011 when Vanessa filed for divorce. I can’t pretend to know the intimate details of their family, but my assumption would be that coming out on the other side in 2013 and establishing a family unit with ties that look deep, wrongs had been righted.

We will never know what it’s like to win multiple NBA titles or score all those points. However, there isn’t a human alive that can’t associate with bad decisions, hurt, and forgiveness. That’s the story of Kobe Bryant that rocks me to my core. He was a man that, by his own doing, went through it all and came out for the better.

Fortunately for so many of us simply labeled fans or onlookers, we got to see that better. From Vanessa blowing Kobe a kiss in that final 60-point performance (to which he gave her a quick smile and wink), or the way the Lakers great lit up when talking about any of his daughters. It was apparent that Gianna was the apple of his eye, and regardless of her determination to carry on the family legacy in the gym, it was her mentality that Kobe shined brightest in.
Tragedies by nature will never be easy, but it’s hard not to look at this one and see people taken away that were destined to have a profound impact on the world. Kobe looked poised and positioned to have a greater impact in the next 40 years than he did in the first, and he had both the platform and resources to accomplish that feat. Gianna may have been the next trailblazer, WNBA superstar, and advocate for all things the matured Mamba had instilled in her.

We’ll never know what could have been, but I finally lost it when ESPN’s Elle Duncan gave us some of the most-raw emotion we’ll ever see on TV.  Kobe didn’t need boys, and he didn’t need basketball. He had a mindsight that would allow him to push, drive, and accomplish anything in this world. His family was better for it, his girls were better for it, and most importantly he was better for it.
Kobe Bryant wasn’t an idol to me. He wasn’t someone I cared about on the Lakers. He wasn’t even someone I planned to tune into their Hall of Fame speech. Kobe Bryant was a flawed human being with exceptional traits and a desire to rise above, grow, and be better. That’s a father and man I can absolutely choose to emulate.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Trade Market Calling for the Twins

Today the Pittsburgh Pirates swapped Sterling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a pair of prospects. In completing that deal, it’s another reminder that the trade market has yet to truly take off, and it makes a good amount of sense that the Minnesota Twins be involved.

We still have yet to see any organizations move a big pitcher. Nolan Arenado looks to be on his way out of Colorado, and Mookie Betts could certainly be headed somewhere else if Boston is ready to deal. Going into the offseason it appeared that the Twins were well positioned to make a move, and nothing has changed to suggest otherwise.

Right now, there’s a decent level of redundancy in Minnesota’s farm system, and there’s a strong mix of impact prospects alongside depth talent. The organization is not only going to have a substantial amount of decisions to make on the 40-man roster prior to 2021, but there’s going to be more than a handful that are extremely difficult.

Expecting the Twins to land either Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg would have always been a pipe dream at best. Zack Wheeler and Hyun-Jin Ryu would have completed Derek Falvey’s quest for an impact arm, but one was an upside play while the other has significant injury concerns. Doling out cash on either could have went up in smoke, and the long-term effects may be more costly.

This is where we should again begin thinking about the trade market. After Josh Donaldson was signed by Minnesota, it appeared to put a bow on their offseason. Realistically though, neither Rich Hill nor Homer Bailey represent the necessary addition to calm concern out of the gate. Bailey is more a Kyle Gibson replacement than anything, and Hill’s impact may not be felt until October. Just recently clearing the previous high in payroll, there should still be room to squeak out a few more dollars.

We haven’t entered a scenario in which it becomes necessary to move either Royce Lewis or Alex Kirilloff but listening on offers and pursuing arms can be done knowing everything else is taken care of. Donaldson is more than an exciting addition on his own, but he wasn’t brought here for four years to sit back and carry the load. Minnesota made an aggressive move like that with the idea that talent can be supplemented as a whole and getting the entire 26-man help is a must.

I have no idea if the Twins are content with the rotation as it stands today. It’s certainly not in shambles, but there’s also clear opportunities for growth. Maybe they’ll play a handful of games before deciding that something else needs to be done. What I do know is that making a trade remains a very sensible action, the assets are there, the timing is right, and the market is beginning to reveal itself.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Projecting the Twins 2020 Opening Day Roster

After making their biggest splash in franchise history, the Minnesota Twins have all but put a bow on the offseason. There’s less than a month until pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, and the first season of 26-man rosters will soon be underway. Rocco Baldelli will soon begin year two, and it’s worth wondering who goes north with him.

I think Minnesota could still afford to add a starting pitcher and doing so through a trade has always seemed like the most logical path. That may not come before the games begin to matter however, so now seems like a good time to blueprint what is currently in the fold. No doubt there’s some key cogs on the shelf to start the year, but that leaves a couple of spots open for competition.

Before kicking things off at Spring Training, here’s where I see the 26-man headed as of today:

Catcher (2) – Mitch Garver, Alex Avila

This should be a certainty. Garver is coming off the best year of his career, and Avila was signed to replace Jason Castro. It will be interesting to see if the Twins unleash a bit more Garv Sauce this year, but the load will be handled by this tandem.

Infield (5) – Miguel Sano, Luis Arraez, Jorge Polanco, Josh Donaldson, Ehire Adrianza

You’ve got a group of four starters that are all but locked into their positions. Obviously, Donaldson’s signing was a massive get for the Twins, and he pushes Sano into a new position. How the infield works, and what steps forward the group takes, are still in question but no one is unsure of who will play where. Adrianza returns as the utility man, and he had a very nice 2019 season.

Outfield (5) – Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jake Cave, Marwin Gonzalez

At this moment Rosario has not yet been dealt anywhere. That could certainly change at some point throughout the year, but the starting outfield should be set in stone. Byron Buxton will be returning from surgery, and hopefully pick back up where he left off. Kepler looks like a guy that could break out as one of the best players in baseball. Cave did some very nice things last year, and Marwin should transition to more of an outfield first utility role.

Designated Hitter (1) – Nelson Cruz

He’s back, and he’ll hit more bombas. Not much else to say here.

Rotation (5) – Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Homer Bailey, Lewis Thorpe, Randy Dobnak

There should be a good deal of turnover in this group as the season goes on, and that’s not something we saw much of in 2019. Berrios and Odorizzi will remain the whole year, and Bailey should be a fine replacement for Kyle Gibson. I think Lewis Thorpe has immense potential and starting in the Opening Day rotation would give him a great opportunity. Dobnak gets the nod here for me over Devin Smeltzer. This spot eventually may be taken by Brusdar Graterol, but ultimately, I think he begins the year at Triple-A.

Bullpen (8) – Taylor Rogers, Trevor May, Sergio Romo, Tyler Duffey, Tyler Clippard, Zack Littell, Matt Wisler, Cody Stashak

This group has six current locks in Rogers, May, Romo, Duffey, Clippard, and Littell. From there, I think they go with two more arms and that includes Wisler and Stashak. Wisler is a slider specialist that Minnesota gave a guaranteed contract to this offseason. Stashak debuted at the end of 2019 and threw 25 innings to the tune of a 3.24 ERA. He made a great first impression, and the 25/1 K/BB was something special out of the gates. Fernando Romero could be on the cusp here, and Ryne Harper may have lost his opportunity.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Donaldson Provides a Twins Day for the Ages

Tonight Josh Donaldson agreed to a four-year, $92 million contract with the Minnesota Twins. It's the largest in franchise history by nearly double the financial commitment, and it's the first major commitment placed by the new front office. Early into the decade or not, this one is something that will go down in history.

Last offseason I touched on Donaldson as a guy that the Twins should target. Coming off of injury it seemed like he could be a guy that they nail for a one-year deal and utilize as a massive superstar. Unfortunately he chose to make good in his hometown state, but the opportunity presented itself again. While the front office looked to be dragging their feet, and Donaldson was obviously angling for the largest payday, and eventual resolution was reached.

Although Donaldson is known for punishing baseballs into the stratosphere, he presents a far greater impact to a team like the Twins. With such strong infield defense at the hot corner, a reconfiguration of bodies on the corners should give the overall unit a boost. Rocco Baldelli's club was not good up the middle on the dirt last year, and Josh Donaldson has an ability to change that. We'll wait and see how Miguel Sano adapts to first base, but the assumption should be net zero at worst.

After possessing the second best lineup in baseball a year ago, the Bomba Squad just landed a guy who posted a .900 OPS on his own. There have been injury concerns in recent seasons, but a clean bill of health allowed performance to reign supreme in Atlanta. Adding that level of production to a group that tallied an .832 OPS is unheralded, and one way to combat staunch pitching.

There's certainly reason to gripe about what Minnesota has done on the mound. Michael Pineda and Rich Hill are nice additions, but neither are available from the outset. Falvey and Levine have built the rotation to compete when it matters, and this club will have a lineup capable of pounding the opposition to a pulp.

At this point there's no other option for those tossing out the "Pocket Protector" remarks and doubt towards the front office than to take a lap. Spending has always made the most sense when there's opportunity and sustenance behind it. We've reached that window, and the men in charge have made good.

Now, it's time to Bring the Rain.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Relief Provided in a Big Year for Twins

Going into 2019 one of the biggest storylines was that of the Minnesota Twins bullpen. New manager Rocco Baldelli had a rag tag group of arms, and there were more question marks than anyone would have liked. Fast forward a year and Wes Johnson transformed that narrative allowing 2020 to keep the unit entirely off the radar.

When the team broke from Spring Training down in Fort Myers last year, only six players were truly relievers. The group consisted of Taylor Rogers, Trevor Mayer, Blake Parker, Adalberto Mejia, Trevor Hildenberger, and Ryne Harper. Of those, only three remain.

Over the course of 2019 that unit took on a considerably different feeling. From one of uncertainty to a relative strength, new faces were added, and steps forward were taken. When the dust settled, Minnesota’s unit posted the 3rd highest fWAR in baseball, and were on par with the vaunted Yankees relief corps. The 3.92 FIP was the best in baseball, and while they didn’t have the best strikeout rate, a 2.9 BB/9 led the sport as well.

Fast forward to today and the bullpen is all but settled. The Twins have some pieces to add on the roster, but this isn’t an area that needs work. With a 26-man roster for 2020, an eight-man staff to start out the year makes a good amount of sense. The names that make the most sense are Rogers, May, Sergio Romo, Tyler Duffey, Tyler Clippard, Zack Littell, Cody Stashak, and Matt Wisler. As a holdover from 2019, Ryne Harper could also push to eek his way in.

This configuration includes hard throwers, bat missers, and guys with a strong ability to hit their spots. Breaking balls are present in the arms of Romo, Duffey, and Wisler. Littell and May can both shove, while arms like Rogers, Clippard, and Stashak are well rounded overall. This group doesn’t have names like Chapman or Britton, but you can bet that on performance alone, there’s household contributors to be utilized.

After needing to replace four-fifths of the starting rotation from last year, it’s there that the Twins will find the most question marks for the year ahead. Give credit to Wes Johnson stepping in and immediately establishing himself as a viable and impressive pitching coach at the Major League level. The rotation is now buoyed mainly by veterans, but the supplementation of younger arms will need to be positioned with opportunity for success.

Last season there was a good deal of changes made on the fly in the pen and being able to successfully navigate those waters provides a blueprint for the year ahead. No team will ever have enough pitching, and while Minnesota has flip-flopped the avenue in which they are needy, an infrastructure that fosters success is clearly in place.

We don’t yet know how the Twins relievers will perform in the year ahead, and volatility on that part of the roster is to be expected. Given where the narrative was just a season ago however, the development and change are to be celebrated.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Sano Reaches Promised Land in New Deal

After having avoided arbitration hearings for the vast majority of their existence, the Minnesota Twins looked like they may be headed to the table with both Jose Berrios and Miguel Sano. Then after the clock had struck seven, Jeff Passan broke the news that the Dominican slugger is staying in a Twins uniform for a while.
Earlier on in the evening it was noted that Minnesota and Miggy had not reached an agreement. While that may suggest things trending towards a filing disparity or a hearing, it was then later reported the club had inked him to a three-year, $30 million contract. Sano will receive $27 million over the first three years, with a $14 million club option or $3 million buyout in year four.

Slated to hit free agency in the 2022 season, this new deal buys out two years of free agency with the possibility of a third. The deal will take Sano through his age-30 season, and could keep him in a Twins uniform until after he turns 31.

After being a heralded prospect expected to lead the Twins to the Promised Land, he’s gone through quite a bit of growing pains. From nearly winning Rookie of the Year, to playing right field, to off-field transgressions, a demotion to Single-A, and ultimately a rise that culminated in a career year, the 26-year-old has experience it all.

That career year in 2019 shouldn’t be looked at solely through numbers either. It started out with a trip from Rocco Baldelli to the Dominican, and was soon aided by the presence of elder-slugger Nelson Cruz. The message has been one of maturation and commitment. Sano has always possessed the entire toolkit when it comes to playing baseball, but choosing to harness it has been a different story. He put in the work both physically and mentally last year, and unsurprisingly the results followed.

Over 105 games Sano clubbed 34 dingers and posted a .923 OPS. His .346 OBP and .576 SLG were noteworthy on their own. He generated a 138 OPS+ and looked the part of a power bat in one of the most dangerous lineups in the sport.

The extension follows a similar pattern to those handed out to both Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco a year prior. The hope would now be that the Twins would hammer out a deal with starting pitcher Jose Berrios. Both he and Byron Buxton look the part of future cogs as well, and coming to a common ground that creates future certainty would be a great development for the club.

Minnesota still has work to do this offseason, but they nailed this in locking down their Bringer of Sano.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

New Metrics Paint Ugly Picture for Twins Infield

In the ever-expanding quest for information, Baseball Savant unveiled new metrics for public consumption yesterday. We’ve had Outs Above Average for a couple of years now, but it’s only related to outfielders. Now thanks to technology provided through Statcast we have quantifiable infield numbers. For the Twins, that’s not a great thing.

At the top of the infield leaderboards there are plenty of familiar names. Javier Baez paces the league with 19 OAA. He’s followed by Nolan Arenado and Andrelton Simmons. Nick Ahmed gets in there before Trevor Story and then Matt Chapman. Everyone in that group is considered an elite defender of the dirt. When looking for Minnesota Twins though, they’re nowhere to be found.

Marwin Gonzalez was the highest performer of Rocco Baldelli’s squad, posting 7 OAA (good enough for 19th). You can then skip over the since departed Jonathan Schoop (5/31st) and C.J. Cron (1/99th) before reaching another currently rostered player. As a part-time player, Ehire Adrianza posted a -1 OAA (147th) and Miguel Sano checked in at -5 OAA (194th). That leaves just Luis Arraez (-6/206th) and Jorge Polanco, whose -16 OAA is tied with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for dead last (218th).

If you think back to 2019 there was a quiet concern as defensive ability dipped for Minnesota as the season went on. The reality isn’t necessarily that the unit got substantially worse, but that without Byron Buxton in the outfield, the over output was weighed down much more heavily by the sagging infield. Three of the infield spots are already spoken for in 2020, and unless there’s a concentrated jump in performance, they can be expected to provide much of the same.

Even without digging into advanced analytics, it was visible to the naked eye that Minnesota left plenty to be desired on the dirt. A poor infield makes groundball pitchers less than ideal fits for team construction, so seeing an appeal in Dallas Keuchel was always hard, and a reunion with Kyle Gibson might have been hard to swing.

Right now, we only have three years of OAA infield data at our disposal, but it will be interesting to see how the Twins look to evolve and attack the deficiency in 2020. Rather than dismissing the information as too invasive, it’s at least worth acknowledging that it describes exactly what we were able to see and solidify there may be a problem worth addressing.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Spend Some Dollars, Extend Jose

Right now, the Minnesota Twins sit something like $20 million below the point in which they entered the 2018 season in terms of payroll. A $135 million figure should’ve been expected for 2020 and barring a big acquisition they’ll struggle to get there. Utilizing some of the available cash on Jose Berrios seems like a worthwhile investment.

Over at Twins Daily recently, Matthew Taylor touched on what could be ahead for the soon-to-be 26-year-old. Berrios was a dark horse Cy Young candidate going into 2019 and harnessing his ability to the next level could put him squarely in the conversation. Once that takes place, the price for his services will go up, and free agency looms large in 2023.

Obviously, any negotiation is going to require both sides to find common ground. In talking with Skor North Contributor Darren Wolfson at multiple different points, he notes the two sides have had extensive dialogue. At this point there hasn’t been a number that makes the Puerto Rican jump at the opportunity, but there’s been groundwork laid. If we’re looking for somewhat of a blueprint, Aaron Nola may have provided that last offseason.

Both Nola (4/$45MM) and Yankees Luis Severino (4/$40MM) inked extensions last winter and are the same age as Berrios. Both of those arms had previously garnered Cy Young votes and had appeared in All-Star Games. Minnesota’s man made his first All Star Game in 2018 (and a second last year) but has yet to climb into the Cy Young consideration. Having pushed another year into team control, Berrios landing a four-year deal would buy out two years of his free agency as opposed to one and make him eligible for the first time as an impending 30-year-old.

Projected for a $5.4 million payday through 1st year arbitration eligibility, any extension would represent a substantial pay increase. Looking for something north of a $10 million annual valuation, he’d more than double his earnings in 2020. Continuing down this path, or more hopefully taking another step forward in the year ahead, would have him quickly outpacing any deal in yearly raises.
I’m not sure what it would take for the Berrios camp to buy in, but the second year of free agency would come at an obvious premium. Minnesota paying 4/$55MM could make both parties happen, and lock in what has the makings of a future ace. There’s less reason for the team to be interested in a three-year deal, but something like 3/$38MM strikes me as reasonable.

Without having a ton of foresight into what the financials would look like, using any leftover cash flow to lock down some of the three unsigned cornerstones (Berrios with Buxton and Sano) seems like good business. Buxton may still be looking to increase his footing from a positioning standpoint, and Sano’s ceiling is arguably the most capped. Jose is the logical target, but will all parties dance?