Monday, August 31, 2020

Trading with Eyes on the Future

The Minnesota Twins came into 2020 having set a Major League record in home runs, had one of the best seasons in franchise history, and with an offense poised to set the world on fire. As with everything else this year, very little has gone as expected. Now on the final day to make some roster swaps, it isn’t time to push the panic button.


Major League Baseball bumped the trade deadline back to August 31st this year in order to accommodate a sensible timeline amidst a 60-game sprint. Minnesota currently stands at 20-15 looking up at both the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians in the AL Central division. While division titles are nice, they couldn’t mean less this year. The top seeds will still face a club with a winning record, and they’ll do so in just a three-game series.


I love the idea of adding Trevor Bauer to this club, solely because it’s my belief he’s the only pitcher capable of slotting into the top of Minnesota’s rotation. Although he’s a short-term rental and would make something like 5-8 starts, maybe the familiarity helps to re-sign him this offseason. Outside of that, any move should come with a future caveat as well.


Next season the Twins will need to replace three-fifths of their Opening Day starting rotation. Trevor May is an impending free agent, and Nelson Cruz’s status remains up in the air. While the core of this club remains strong, there’s certainly pieces that will need to be shuffled around. For Minnesota to target an asset in the midst of a volatile year, and only have eyes on making it pay off immediately, would be a misstep.


In any season there’s a relative amount of luck when it comes to winning a World Series. Doing so amongst a 16-team playoff field, with no fans, and potentially no home field to speak of, is a crapshoot at best. That doesn’t water down winning a ring this year, everyone is dealing with the same conditions, but it does make operating in a traditional sense irrational.


Maybe a reunion with Lance Lynn works out. He’s a really good pitcher that really didn’t like his situation back in 2018. Maybe Dylan Bundy and his slider are another weapon for Wes Johnson and the Minnesota brain trust to deploy. Those are the types of moves that have future benefit too. Do you go all in on Josh Hader? That’s a great arm in play as well. No matter what the Twins do though, having more benefit than just 2020 has to be part of the outcome.


There’s no doubt this club is going to make the Postseason. There’s no doubt the healthy version of their lineup is a force to be reckoned with. The greatest doubt is how it all comes together the rest of the way, and then when 2021 rolls around, what remains when the dust has settled?

Monday, August 24, 2020

Approaching a Critical Timing for Twins Injuries

This week is quite possibly the most important the Minnesota Twins will have embarked upon in 2020. Monday represents the halfway point in the 60-game sprint, while a week from then is the 2020 Trade Deadline. With plenty of guys on the shelf, it’s imperative Rocco’s boys keep winning and get healthy.


Starting out with three games on the road against the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota will miss both Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac but deal with Shane Bieber anyways. After leaving Ohio, they’ll travel to Michigan for a four-game set with the lowly Detroit Tigers. In terms of opponents, there couldn’t be more of a stark contrast, but putting distance between themselves and The Tribe will be reliant on early week wins and later expected results.


Leading the division by 1.5 games as of August 24, Minnesota is in a very good position to make the Postseason. This team’s goals are significantly loftier than that however, and it’s in that reality that the situation off the field may prove even more dire. Right now, Baldelli’s lineup is void of 33% of the Opening Day group, and the pitching staff seems to take a new hit each day. The latter is an issue, but the former could prove to be a real problem.


Josh Donaldson has been shelved since July 31, playing just seven games in his debut season with his new team. Miguel Sano swapped positions to accommodate him, and following a COVID positive, it took Sano roughly two weeks into the season to get his bat going. Donaldson currently owns a .614 OPS on the year and hasn’t settled in at the plate. If he misses much more beyond this week, expecting him to be acclimated and contribute from the outset of October would be somewhat of a fool’s errand.


Ryan Jeffers is the future tandem partner with Mitch Garver anyways, so ushering him in hasn’t been a problem. Garver also hasn’t gotten going however, and while it looked like he was starting to find it, the intercostal injury could cost him ample time to lock in. The injury is just a grade 1 problem, but it still remains to be seen when he’ll be back on the field.


In the outfield Byron Buxton has been among the Twins greatest assets this season. It’s a sigh of relief that his shoulder injury doesn’t involve the surgically repaired labrum, but it seemed to come out of nowhere and anything more than a 10-day breather would seem problematic. Jake Cave has not stepped up at the plate, and both Rosario and Kepler on the corners have yet to consistently contribute.


On the mound there’s a reinforcement coming in the form of Michael Pineda. However, Cody Stashak has been one of the club’s best relievers and him going down out of nowhere was a blow. Zack Littell worked plenty of high leverage a season ago, and now an elbow injury could prove to be a serious problem. Tyler Clippard gets bit by unluckiness being hit by a comebacker, and Homer Bailey has yet to do anything of substance for Minnesota. To say that the shuffling on the mound is starting to wear thing would probably be putting it lightly.


There’s not much in the form of starting pitching options that will be available at the deadline, and that means Minnesota will either need to stay internal or go the route of relief to bolster their staff for the stretch run. I’m not yet considering who is brought in being impactful to the same extent as who can get healthy. This week is a critical juncture for the players and training staff to get bodies back on the field.


Ideally Buxton misses the minimum, Donaldson returns to the lineup, and Clippard has now more than a bruise needing to heal. This club has all the talent in the world, but there’s only so many injuries one roster can truly withstand.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Keep Your Unwritten Rules, Let the Kids Play

Last night Fernando Tatis Jr. got a grooved fastball in a 3-0 count and sent it into orbit. The San Diego Padres were already up seven late in the game, and with the bases loaded, his grand slam put it way out of reach. Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward, he of the crotchety old age of 44, took exception to it.


Woodward told reporters after the game, "I didn't like it personally. You're up by 7 in the 8th inning, it's typically not a good time 3-0. It's kind of the way we were all raised in the game. But ... the norms are being challenged." He literally was asking for his opponent to quit playing. After Major League Baseball marketed their young talent wonderfully during the 2019 season with the slogan “Let the kids play” this is where we’re at.


I have no problem with baseball having unwritten rules. I think there’s a certain level of affection I have reserved specifically for the nuances in the sport. By and large though, the vast majority of said unwritten rules are dated and should be re-evaluated. Retaliation in the form of beanballs has long been silly. Bunting late in a game solely to break up a no-hit bid is one I think should draw some ire. If a pitcher wants to get on you for walking unnecessarily over his mound, so be it. Suggesting there’s counts in which the pitcher should know what the batter is doing though, and even further, completely expecting them to give up, is not a good look.


More often than not a 3-0 count results in a take due to the game scenario. Unless the pitch is absolutely grooved, that’s not a situation in which you want to miss and make an out. If a pitcher is going to throw a get-me-over fastball though, by all means the batter should be locked in and ready to ride it into orbit.


When Fernando Tatis Jr. did just that, his own manager Jayce Tingler missed the mark in defending him. Instead of noting that there was a sign missed, he simply could’ve said that he put a great swing on the pitch. Sure, missing signs is suboptimal, but that’s not the talking point in that specific spot. It’s like the basketball coach wanting the guard to work the offense, but he steps back and drains a three, which then causes exhale anyways.

There were takes all over the place in the wake of Tatis’ performance. Many of them correctly called out Woodward as off base and old school. Former Twins pitcher Phil Hughes chimed in comparing the situation to that of a football team taking a knee. The difference between all of those types of comparisons however is that baseball is the lone sport not dictated by time. When you’re up against a clock, strategy involved suggests killing the seconds and minutes in order to get you closer to victory. Baseball has outs, 27 of them, all finite. The only strategy when it comes to results in baseball is scoring more than the opposition before your self-inflicted missed opportunities run out.

If you want to be mad at a guy for swinging 3-0 at a bad pitch and giving up an opportunity to get on base, so be it. If you want to get mad at a guy for putting the ball in the seats, under any circumstances, by all means hop aboard the leather and ride it right on outta here.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Devil’s in the Defense for the Twins

You’ve heard of the Devil being in the details, well finding what advantage the Twins have crafted in 2020 may come from a surprising place, their defense. After finishing 23rd overall in team defense last season, Minnesota currently finds themselves 2nd in 2020.


We knew many of the problems from a year ago. Jorge Polanco was not a good defensive shortstop, particularly coming in on the ball. Luis Arraez was stretched going to his right, and the outfield suffered every game Byron Buxton had to miss. Bringing in Josh Donaldson was expected to be a boost for the infield, and a healthy Buck would be a great remedy on the grass. Not all of that has played out though, and yet, here we are.


Minnesota has gotten just 7 games from Donaldson in his first year with the club. Despite that, their 14 DRS is 3rd in the big leagues and leads the American League. Byron Buxton has already been worth 6 DRS on his own, and while Polanco has been worth -3 DRS, his 0.7 UZR represents the only positive mark of his entire career. Luis Arraez was worth -8 DRS in just shy of 400 innings during 2019. This year, he’s been worth 2 DRS in 157 frames.


This isn’t just an individual player thing though, and it’s clear Minnesota is taking an analytical approach to cutting down base hits. With 322 shifts, or 42.4% this year, Rocco Baldelli’s club ranks 10th in the majors. Last season they shifted just 35.5% of the time. Against righties the Twins are shifting 33% of the time, or virtually the same frequency they did a year ago. Against lefties though, they’ve gone from 36.4% in 2019 to 53.2% in 2020.

Thinking about configuration, left-handed shifts also bring some interesting possibilities to consider. Miguel Sano is holding down first base for the first time in his career. He’s been caught a couple of time straying to far from the bag. In a shift however, he’s solely responsible for the line. Luis Arraez, who was challenged going up the middle last season, plays a roving right field with Polanco up the middle to his right. Whether it’s Donaldson or Ehire Adrianza at the hot corner, there’s a plus defender standing near the shortstop hole against a lefty.


In the outfield, Minnesota again has made tweaks with Byron Buxton. In a recent article for The Athletic Aaron Gleeman talked about how the centerfielder is starting deeper than he ever has. With the ability to come in on virtually anything, this gives him the opportunity to find the wall and remain more in control when playing balls near it. Eddie Rosario looks the part of a healthier left-fielder, and Max Kepler asserted himself as a stalwart while pulling double time last year.


Thus far we haven’t seen the Twins offense click on all cylinders, and there hasn’t been a certainty to the entirety of the rotation either. While the bullpen has flashed very well at points, there have been cracks on that front also. If there’s a tried and true narrative for 2020 it’s that this team shows up with the glove. Errors are a dated way to measure success, but from the most basic number the club has committed just two through their first 22 games.


Pitching and hitting can go in slumps, but defense is completely mental beyond the overall athleticism needed to compete. Give it to the Twins for being completely locked in there on a nightly basis.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Minnie and Paul Changing for Twins?

Today WCCO posted a story regarding the Minnesota Twins longstanding logo of Minnie and Paul shaking hands. The depiction is of two individuals representing Minneapolis and St. Paul coming together over what would be the Mississippi River. In the ongoing effort to advance diversity and inclusion however, the imagery is now be called for questioning.

While not a Twins employee, Dr. Charles Crutchfield acts as the Twins consulting dermatologist. He offers that the pair need a fresh look that, “honors and reflects the team’s players and its fans from different backgrounds. He goes on to say the change is “long overdue.”

Although I initially posted my thoughts on Twitter saying in short, “This is a no for me,” there’s a bit more nuance to unpack here. I couldn’t be more supportive of initiatives looking to drive a heightened opportunity for diversity and acceptance. Further, I remain open to the idea that we can revisit history and even change the way we both celebrate and cherish it. What I think those avenues provide however, are legitimate opportunities for growth and advancement. What I think should be avoided is an agenda designed solely to spark a false sense of need.

In short, the imagery of Minnie and Paul couldn’t be more unassuming and less offensive. While there is no indication of a female or person of color within the logo, suggesting a need to create that storyline for the sake of diversity falsely applies an impact of presumed consciousness. We don’t need to be told whether the two individuals are trans, their sexual orientation, or their political beliefs. It’s a picture of two communities coming together to support one Twins Territory.

This story appears to be the work of WCCO sports reporter Norman Seawright. I didn’t see a name attached in the byline, but he chimed in on Twitter. The initial response was that a change in skin tone of the individual on a logo could “inspire someone who looks like me (Norman is African America) and isn’t into baseball to give it a shot.”

I have no idea what the world looks like through the eyes of someone in a minority class, and I’ll never pretend to understand. What I think is fair is suggesting that there’s a leap in believing inclusivity is spawned more by creating a talking point in an image moreso than actual initiatives that reflect genuine action. Almost more than any other sport, baseball’s on-field diversity is unmatched. We still need to do a better job stretching that to all other facets of the game and that remains a work in progress.

Maybe I’m way off on this, but channeling focus into something that should be found in no way offensive looks like a hollow workaround to a greater good. What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Moment Randy Dobnak Has Earned

You could call him a former Uber driver, but you’d be selling it short. You could call him a prospect, but he probably never garnered that status. Instead, Randy Dobnak is a self-made grinder that went from small-college West Virginia to one of the best pitchers on a staff that supports one of Major League Baseball’s best teams.

After spending the better part of three seasons in the minor leagues as an undrafted free agent, Dobnak will toe the rubber tonight in what equates to his backyard. From South Park, Pennsylvania, Dobnak takes the ball for the Minnesota Twins against his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. Something out of a storybook, this narrative couldn’t have played out better, but if you haven’t been expecting it you might also have not been watching.

Pitching for three different levels in the Minnesota Twins minor league system last season Dobnak posted a 2.07 ERA 7.3 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9. No level was too big for him, and each stop he made the job continued to get done. Then he was promoted to the majors and got even better. With the Twins a year ago Dobnak owned a 1.59 ERA 7.3 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9. After putting just 28.1 IP under his belt at the highest level, he was called upon to pitch game two of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees.

Despite all of the success a year ago, nothing was guaranteed for 2020. Dobnak was on the outside looking in when it came to a rotation spot or even a big-league job. The Twins had acquired the likes of Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, and Homer Bailey to round out the rotation. COVID-19 had threatened the season as a whole, and the man with the mustache became somewhat of a forgotten commodity once again.

Now two turns through the rotation in 2020, Dobnak is reminding those around the sport once again, his title is Major League Pitcher. He owns a 1.00 ERA allowing a single run in nine innings on six hits. He’s fanned seven and given up an uncharacteristic four walks. When he steps on the mound in the bottom half of the first inning at PNC Park however, none of that will matter. It’ll be another night of work for a guy that’s become a lunch pail type ready to get the job done each time he’s tasked with doing so.

Although every team is looking for their ace that throws 100 mph and blows the doors of every batter they see, it’s clear there’s different ways to get the job done at the highest level. Dobnak knows who he is as a pitcher, and that’s probably why he continues to see success. One of the most light-hearted personalities you’ll see postgame, Randy genuinely enjoys playing baseball and his mental makeup allows him to never let the moment get too big.

Tonight, some of his biggest fans including his wife and dad won’t be in attendance. In fact, no one will be. I can’t imagine that Randy envisioned his first start in Pittsburgh to be without anyone in the stadium, but you can bet there will be plenty of eyes glued on him attending from their couches. It’s a moment he’s earned, one that he won’t allow to get bigger than him, and if any previous indications are to be believed, one he’ll rise to the occasion of.

Every team in baseball would like to have a Randy Dobnak. Someone unphased by the situation, routinely able to produce, and always willing to soak it all in. Unfortunately, not all Uber drivers turn out to be Major League Pitchers.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Critical Week for the Twins

The Minnesota Twins have jumped out to a 7-2 start for the 9th time in franchise history, and first since 2001. Facing arguably the toughest portion of their schedule, they’ve certainly been up to the challenge. Now with some basement dwellers on tap, this is a massively important week.

Rocco Baldelli’s club welcomes former bench coach Derek Shelton to Target Field tonight for a two-game, home and home series. The Pirates are just 2-7, don’t have much in the form of Major League talent, and also aren’t ready to call up any impact prospects. The Twins getting four games with a team expected to finish near the bottom of the NL Central is a nice reward following the tough stretch.

From there, things don’t get too much tougher either. While the road trip does continue to Kansas City, three games with the Royals is something this very good ballclub should be licking their chops about. Mike Matheny’s group may not finish below the Detroit Tigers, but both clubs should be battling to be the worst in the AL Central.

While that’s seven games in a row where Minnesota should be substantial favorites, the schedule also tilts in their direction when it comes to the chief competition. Cleveland has a home and home series with the Reds before traveling to face the White Sox and needing to cannibalize a division rival. Chicago does the home and home thing with Milwaukee to start their week off.

Just nine games in the Twins already have a 2.0 game lead, but they also have a +22-run differential with the White Sox behind them at +5. By the end of the week Minnesota could have something like a four or five game lead, and in a season that the number represents over 8% of the total action, that’s substantial.

You could make a very solid argument that the Twins toughest part of the season is now behind them. They do have a difficult run in September that spans just over a week and includes the Cardinals, Indians, White Sox, and Cubs as opponents. While that period certainly will determine the division, setting themselves up in such impressive starting position is a very enviable spot to be in.

Only the New York Yankees have a better record than Minnesota right now and just the Dodgers have a better run differential (+30). Baldelli’s lineup hasn’t come close to thriving yet, and still a significant part of the damage is being done in the first two innings. However, the Twins haven’t lost when scoring first so jumping on the opposing starter early is hardly a bad strategy.

We knew this season was going to be a sprint, and a good start generally sets up the ability for some pace in the middle. Josh Donaldson needs to get healthy and return. The lineup needs to get going. There are some tweaks to be made, but this group is setting up for something special.