Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Showing Off The Twins 2020 Season

Tomorrow was scheduled to be Major League Baseball's Opening Day for the 2020 season. Jose Berrios was to toe the rubber against the Oakland Athletics in California. Thanks to COVID-19 none of that will happen, but I'm determined to live out the season we were promised.

Eventually, things will return to normal. As with any bit of adversity, finding a way to rise above and conquer will present the ultimate prize. Until we reach a period in which baseball returns to the real-life diamond, it's MLB The Show that we'll need to live vicariously through.

On Twitter I teased this a few days ago. Currently I'm running a daily thread of the 2019 blasts the Twins sent into the seats. Starting tomorrow, I'll be simulating the day's game on MLB The Show 20 and providing box scores and stats to catalog the action. First pitch against the Athletics was scheduled for 3:07pm CT, so look for the box score around 7pm.
Without playing any of the games myself, it will be interesting to see what the video game sees happening over the course of a season. Baseball Prospectus' projection system, PECOTA, tabbed Twins second basemen Luis Arraez as the 2020 batting champ. Interestingly enough, Out of the Park Baseball 21 suggested the same result. Will The Show follow suit?
One thing I am hoping for is that we don't make it through all 162 games. I'd prefer there be live action sooner rather than later. At this point we're looking at summer as a best case scenario, but any amount of season is better than one being wiped off the map altogether. The Twins were set up to do something special this year, and now while it all hangs in the balance we must wait.

Hopefully this is something we can all rally around together, enjoy some fun, and see a virtual depiction of the Minnesota Twins make a run at a World Series title.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Impact of a Year Off for Certain Twins

We’re pushing towards what should have been Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. Despite the amount of waiting through the winter, COVID-19 has served up other plans and we won’t hit the mark. In what could be a lost season, what impact is there on certain Twins players?

Having casually watched some of the news and hearing this situation equated to one of wartime, I gravitated to players who previously missed big league time by serving in the military. Obviously, we haven’t had a war necessitating that level of commitment for some time, but the list of names is impact. Everyone from Jackie Robinson to Warren Spahn served the country through different branches of the military. Some players were in the peak of their careers, while others were on the fringes. There’s no denying the time off has an impact, but to what extent?

For a guy like Jose Berrios, a lost year couldn’t come at a worse time. While a shortened season may actually benefit him from a stamina and longevity perspective down the stretch, missing out on his age 26 season just a couple of years shy of free agency is suboptimal. He had put in work to retool his process this offseason, and the final hurdle remaining in between him and Cy Young candidacy was a goal to be cleared. There’s lots of good baseball left in that arm, but 2020 was set to be a pretty big turning point.

We know through multiple occurrences that Father Time is undefeated. Obviously, there were no signs of Nelson Cruz slowing down in 2019 after posting career highs across the board, but he’s quickly approaching 40 and without a contract in 2021. There’s been reports that the Twins would like to extend him if there’s desire to continue playing, but all that raises the bar of uncertainty as age trends upwards. Cruz benefits from focusing on solely one aspect of the game, but I’d hate to see ability leave him sooner with strong production still on the table.

On the flip side, there’s probably not a better scenario for guys on the edges of positional battles. Players like Randy Dobnak and Willians Astudillo have waited in the wings for most of their careers. Dobnak is fighting for a final rotation spot, but eventually will see competition from both Michael Pineda and Rich Hill. Astudillo isn’t a great fit anywhere but is adequate almost everywhere. He’s a utility guy that Minnesota currently has an abundance of, but after some departures, he’d be pushing towards the front of the line.

There’s probably no way you can slice it that a lost season is good for any healthy player. A guy like Chris Sale undergoing Tommy John surgery at this juncture becomes about as lucky as you can be given those circumstances, but that’s where the good news ends. We’re losing a year of peak performance for a handful of guys, and regardless if they can reset the health toll on their bodies, so many more questions than answers will remain.

At the end of the day this is all uncharted territory. Sports have stood still like never before, and we’re truly in a period where the level of uncertainty is at an all time high. Getting back to normalcy, on the diamond and elsewhere is the chief goal, but it remains to be seen when we’ll embark on that reality.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Baseball and its Unifying Abilities

We are just days into this global pandemic and so far, COVID-19 has taken a multitude of normalcy away from our daily lives. Forced to reconsider how we’ll operate in the weeks ahead; we no longer have baseball (and sports as a whole) to view. While that’s disappointing, it is in these passions that people have long since become a unified community.

Major League Baseball shelved operations in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues last week. We now have seen teams disperse, with players returning home to the extent of some even leaving the country. As things stand right now, resumption of the sport couldn’t be more distant. First pitches were supposed to be thrown out on Opening Day’s around the league in less than two weeks. That has been taken away from us. Amidst this unfortunate revelation, we’re forced to consider what aspect of the sport really brings us together in the first place.

Statistics, analysis, and fandom is generated by the on-field play of athletes we follow. Baseball is a labor of love requiring buy in over a long seasons that tracks many months. The level of consumption can be different for each fan, but the outlets and offerings available to us are plentiful and provide something for everyone. It’s in this time of stoppage that we can shift a focus to where we’re all at, and that’s a reality of togetherness.

Sure, there’s no breakdowns of Spring Training action or roster movement taking place right now. We don’t have highlights to pour over or tickets to buy.  What we still have however is a community of people that share a passion towards a singular subject. While we’re all divided by teams and players, baseball is the greater thread that brings it all back together.

In this downtime there’s more than a handful of great writers putting out content. There are websites still pumping out great pieces. There have been a handful of awesome books published over the past couple of seasons. Heck, Twitter allows for immediate dialogue and interaction amongst an endless number of participants. Really, it’s baseball that has brought us all together, but not the on-field product that keeps us here.

Hopefully sooner rather than later we’ll have a return to action on the field. In the meantime, though, the fan wins alongside every other fan going through the same experience. Find different ways to consume this passion. Strike up new conversations, read new writers, join new communities. The impact of this experience, and the way we’re able to consume a sport that has temporarily been taken away, is entirely up to each individual.

There won’t be any box scores when it’s all said and done, but the appreciation and love of the game can be certain to grow along the way.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

COVID-19 Threatening Baseball Next

Today in Fort Myers there was a big-league game as well as some minor league intrasquad action. Across the entire landscape though, it was the fallout of Coronavirus that was being felt. Major League implications were now in place, and minor league changes had come as well.

With the Governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, placing a ban on public gatherings in an attempt to cease the spread of COVID-19 the Minnesota Twins had officially felt their first 2020 impact. Scheduled to play the Seattle Mariners for their second series of the season, those games must now be relocated. Talk has been that they could happen in Arizona, where the Mariners hold their Spring Training, but the situation remains fluid.

This isn’t a one city ordeal either. San Francisco has limited public gatherings of more than 1,000 people, and with Oakland just across the bay, a disruption of Minnesota’s Opening Day affairs could soon follow. The NCAA has determined a fan less March Madness will take place, and many individual conferences have followed suit. In response to the newly discovered health scare, many are erring on the side of caution.

It wasn’t until today that the Twins decided things would translate to the minor leagues as well. I talked with a couple of players earlier in the week, and they’d noted having been given instruction and direction relating to Coronavirus. On Wednesday however, the Twins had roped off significant portions of the minor league fields at the Lee Country Sports Complex, and ushers were put in place to interrupt the flow of foot traffic. A full-on quarantine of the athletes from bystanders had now been instituted.
I’m not old enough to understand what the SARS outbreak looked like, and regardless of any research, living this is bordering on interesting to say the least. It feels akin to something like a video-game-esque zombie apocalypse and I feel as though we’re just beginning to see the total fallout. Having had discussions with those more in the know, I’d be greatly surprised to see Major League Baseball play a full 162-game slate in 2020. The logistical hurdles ahead are going to be immense, and without clarification on what could be yet to come, a simple delay could be more straightforward that the nightmare of reactive decisions.

We likely won’t know the overall societal impact of this situation for years to come, and it’s almost assuredly going to be a benchmark in history books. While sports play a very small part of the overall social landscape, they are front and center when determining what many citizens gravitate towards.

Unfortunately, I think this gets worse before it gets better, and the fallout we see from that could be unprecedented.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Tale of the Fifth Starter Tape

There are not many question marks on the Minnesota Twins 26-man roster coming into the 2020 season. Jake Cave and Willians Astudillo are in contention for the final bench spot, and the rotation has turned into a two-man race. How do Randy Dobnak and Jhoulys Chacin stack up?

Coming into the spring there’s no denying the Twins hope was to have the veteran Chacin make this decision easy. Forget that Dobnak was the game two starter during the 2019 ALDS in Yankees Stadium, he’s a guy that showed up out of nowhere and has options remaining. The caveat though, is that he is the one continuing to force Minnesota’s hand.

By now you know the story. Former Uber driver that played through all three levels of the farm in 2019 while posting a ridiculous 2.07 ERA, he’s the fun-loving guy with the handlebar mustache. Although he deviates from the traditional strikeout hurlers of today, he’s also incredibly strong with both his control and command. In not allowing hitters to beat him with big innings, he’s pitching in front of a lineup that will always give him a chance.

After arguably his worst spring start, Dobnak now own a line of 10.0 IP 5 H 3 R 3 ER 3 BB and 6 K. Dominant, maybe not, but he’s looked the part of a big leaguer ever single time he’s stepped on the mound. Again, with the Twins hoping to unlock the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers version of Chacin, this wasn’t likely part of the equation.

The long-time vet was an absolute mess last year. Jhoulys posted a 5.79 ERA while walking everyone before being jettisoned from The Crew. He landed in Boston and things actually got worse. Contributing just north of 14 IP, he tallied an ERA north of 7.00 and continued giving out free passes for frequently than an ice cream man at the playground.

Looking to rekindle the arm that produced a 3.50 ERA in 192 innings during the 2018 season, Minnesota made a smart decision by nabbing him on a non-roster deal. Given his big-league experience, the assumption should have always been that the final rotation spot out of the gate was his to lose. He’s been projected as such in each of my roster breakdowns in this space, but it’s becoming ever harder to do so.

After his last outing Chacin has now totaled 8.0 IP in Grapefruit League play for Minnesota. Although he does have a solid 8/2 K/BB, he’s given up seven hits, plenty of hard contact, and six earned runs. To say that hitters have rarely been fooled by his stuff would be accurate.

Obviously as a newly developed pitching institution, there’s plenty of tweaks the Twins are working on with the Venezuelan. Between analytical deep dives and scrapping of offerings, the goal has been to rekindle a career under the tutelage of Wes Johnson and the infrastructure that Derek Falvey has built. So far, the fruits of everyone’s labor have yet to produce anything ripe.

We’re probably still too far out to call this race over, and still with an option Dobnak is going to need to be head and shoulders above his competition. Right now though, it’s inaccurate to call him anything but the most productive candidate, and once again the taxi driver is weaving his way through traffic.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Award Winners and World Series Victors

I’m doing this a bit earlier than normal this year, and that could wind up being a silly decision depending on injuries and how Spring Training plays out. Regardless, we aren’t sitting on a slew of unsigned talent in early March, and I’m confident with the look of many big-league squads going into 2020 at this point. Let’s hand out some hardware.

The Washington Nationals will head into the season looking to defend their World Series trophy. That hasn’t been successfully accomplished in 20 years, since the New York Yankees ripped off three in a row. I don’t see that trend changing in 2020, and that should be an exciting reality for baseball fans. The sport has never seen so many young superstars, and the landscape of the league’s best is once again shifting.

Here's what I had going into 2019. I got a couple of the awards right, and nailed the World Series, but ultimately came up just short of getting the winner.

MVP: American League – Mike Trout (Dark Horse Gleyber Torres) National League – Bryce Harper (Dark Horse Kris Bryant)

Until further notice, Mike Trout is the selection in the American League. He’s not only the greatest player in the game right now, but very well could be the best we’ve ever seen do it. There isn’t a hole in his game, and he seems to find ways to take another step forward each year. The Angels star now has a more loaded lineup around him and will look to get back to playing 150+ games. Generating 10+ fWAR for the first time since 2013 seems like a good bet.

After signing the massive deal with the Phillies, Bryce Harper had somewhat of a disappointing season. You’ll certainly take an .882 OPS any day of the week however, and now acclimated entering his age-27 campaign, a jump back up to a 1.000+ OPS is something I’m comfortable with. Marry the last two years patience and production to generate something that should be near the total package.

On the dark horse side, it’s more about what I like in each situation as opposed to legitimate threats to the actual award. Gleyber looks like an absolute superstar, and the Yankees are already going to be leaning on him heavily. Bryant has been plagued by injuries and underwhelming narratives, but he’s still coming off a .903 OPS. I don’t know what the Cubs will do, but he’ll stir that drink for sure.

Cy Young: American League – Gerrit Cole (Dark Horse Jose Berrios) National League – Walker Buehler (Dark horse Jack Flaherty)

Switching teams worked out well for Cole the last time he did it, and there’s no reason to expect his dominance to fade in New York. He’s pitched in a hitter’s ballpark before, and the Yankees rotation will count on him heavily. I tabbed Buehler as the pick last year in the National League, and I might have been just a year early. He finished with the 4th best fWAR and could certainly catch the two Nationals arms in the 2020 season. This is still Jacob deGrom’s title to lose, but I like the Dodgers ace.

Maybe recycling Jose Berrios as a dark horse here isn’t fair, but he’s truly so close. A strong finish to his 2019 would’ve have him in a much better position, and he still finished 7th among AL starters in terms of fWAR. Minnesota is going to make noise again, and he should be expected to lead the rotation. If you’ve watched the Cardinals at all then there’s nothing under-the-radar about Flaherty. He’s a stud and emerging as one of baseball’s best arms. He mixed into the tier right below elite territory last year, but another step forward would have him second to no one.

Rookie of the Year: American League – Luis Robert (Dark Horse Jo Adell) National League – Gavin Lux (Dark Horse Mitch Keller)

One of the chief requirements in garnering Rookie of the Year consideration is playing time, and Luis Robert will have that on his side. He’s an uber-prospect and will be with the White Sox from the jump. I’d expect some growing pains, but there’s too much talent not to side with the favorite in the AL. Lux made his debut last season for the Dodgers and will be unleashed fully in 2020. He’s a middle infield stud and should have little issue producing with a star-studded lineup around him.

Back to that playing time issue, which is the only reason I don’t like Adell over Robert. I think the Angels start their outfield prospect in the minors and holding him out for a month or two could make the counting stats lag behind. He looks the part of a worth specimen to play in a Mike Trout led outfield, and you can bet he’ll hold his own. Keller’s big-league career began ugly with the Pirates last year, but he’s far too talented to continue going down that road. He still has rookie eligibility and should use the lessons from 2019 to establish himself as a very good arm for Derek Shelton’s squad.

American League- Yankees, Twins, Astros Wild Card – Angels, Rays
National League- Braves, Cubs, Dodgers Wild Card – Reds, Nationals
ALCS – Twins over Yankees
NLDS – Dodgers over Braves
World Series – Dodgers over Twins

This probably comes off looking like a homer pick, but the Twins showed they’re for real last year. Sure, they didn’t hit in a three-game sample size against New York, but this is a team that will win less regular season games and ultimately be better positioned in the Postseason. Both New York and Houston are going to be very good, but losing Severino is a big blow, while the Astros are eventually going to be squashed by the scrutiny. One of the most interesting teams in the AL this year should be the Angels.

On the National League side, it’s hard to look away from the talent Atlanta has throughout the lineup. Acuna is established, but I think Albies is the guy that takes another step forward. That division will be tightly contested, but I like Washington more than I’ll ever trust the Mets. Chicago is a complete wild card, and Cincinnati is one of those “won the offseason” clubs. It all comes down to how good the Dodgers are, and the only definition needed there is “very.”

Los Angeles has come up short two of the past three years. That ends in 2020 regardless of who is across the diamond. Mookie Betts wasn’t even a necessary addition, but with him in the mix, they’ll be an unstoppable force come October.

Monday, March 2, 2020

What If Jake Odorizzi Is Minnesota’s Impact Arm?

Despite an opportunity to hit the open market after the 2019 season, Jake Odorizzi returned to the Twins on a $17.8 million qualifying offer. It ended up being below market value and could be even more of a coup if Odorizzi continues trending towards the impact arm this rotation covets.

One of the best moves the new regime has made since taking over was flipping middle infield prospect Jermaine Palacios to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Odo. Palacios is 23 years old, still at Double-A, and hasn’t posted an OPS north of .600 since 2017. Jake meanwhile had a career year in 2019, has wholeheartedly embraced data, and could be on the verge of a next step the pushes him into the upper echelon.

Coming off his first All-Star appearance in 2019, Odorizzi posted a 3.51 ERA bolstered by a 3.36 FIP. His 10.1 K/9 was nearly two notches above his career norms, and his 1.208 WHIP was the lowest it’s been since 2016. Despite the Bugs Bunny baseball, the fly ball specialist posted a career low 0.9 HR/9. His 45% career fly ball rate translated into a career low 3.5% HR/FB ratio despite a career high 42% hard hit rate.

How did all that come together? Well, Jake made some key strides in other areas obviously. His 93-mph average velocity was nearly two ticks up from 2018. At 29-years-old, he was adding oomph, and he’s been an early adopter of new technology. With that heavier fastball he was able to post a 12.7% whiff rate (career best) and batters made contact just 74% of the time against him.

Assuming consistent gains is an inexact science. While peak performance falls along different places on a bell curve, Odorizzi’s age 30 season should drop within the realm of peak performance. Looking for competitive advantages as he has been vocal about doing, alongside an infrastructure designed to push the envelope, there should be a perfect storm for Odorizzi and Wes Johnson to marry.

ZiPS projects Odorizzi to be right in line with Jose Berrios at the top of Minnesota’s rotation. His 109 ERA+ would lead the team among players on the Opening Day roster, and a 9.5 K/9 suggests a belief in 2019 performance. A 4.09 ERA would be a step backwards, but the 4.02 FIP holds a level of consistency across the board.

Ultimately Jake has put together back-to-back seasons with a 3.00 ERA just once in his career, and the later was a step off the former. At this point though, I think it’s safe to say we’re dealing with a redesigned set of inputs. Add in the fact that Odorizzi is once again pitching for a contract working on just a one-year deal and squeezing more out of that next opportunity is a very clear goal.

I think you can make a very easy argument that the Twins have a great level of starting pitching depth overall. The focus has always been on acquiring or developing the top tier arm. It’s assumed that Jose Berrios would embody that reality, and that’s a good bet, but Jake Odorizzi being right there with him seems equally as promising.

Zack Wheeler was the guy everyone understandably looked the part of a projectable arm entering this winter. Minnesota brought back the guy that outpitched him and has plenty of momentum in his corner as well.