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.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Embracing New Ideas Highlights World Series Storylines

 


There is no more frustrating word to me in modern baseball than analytics. I love and fully embrace the new avenues in which we are able to evaluate and prepare in regards to the game of baseball. Unfortunately, boiling it down to a buzzword as “analytics” has become, leads to little more than a quick note suggestive of being well versed in actual understanding. This World Series is about two organizations that are fully capable of turning up their nose at those instances.

 

Let’s not be na├»ve, the Los Angeles Dodgers have the second highest payroll in baseball for the 2020 season. It’s not as though Dave Roberts’ team is starved for talent. Similarly built organizations like the New York Yankees (1st) and the Boston Red Sox (3rd) find themselves at home, however. One key difference for the Dodgers is talent utilization.

 

On Sunday night, settling in for a game seven against the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles started Dustin May. He was used as an opener with Tony Gonsolin working as the bulk arm. Quickly into the action the broadcast wondered whether that decision came from the manager or the front office. The likely reality is that the answer is simply both. Suggesting that modern evaluation for baseball success is hidden behind computer computations and that the game is played on paper wildly misunderstands analytics. The point isn’t to simply plug in the components of a calculated answer, but instead best position yourself based upon expected outcomes and marry that with the game on the field.

 

Certainly, the Dodgers have paid for their fair share of talent, what they also know is how to best utilize it in order to capitalize on the effectiveness. There’s an incredible amount of nuance when it comes to how teams deploy information. Some quick digging shows that Los Angeles shifted 55% of the time in 2020. That was more than any team in baseball, one of only two organizations to do so more than 50% of the time and was the same standing they were in for 2019. Defensive positioning is just one call out that can reflect a progressive way of playing the game. The reality is that there’s more than one way to squeeze out opportunity in the win column.

 

Take a look at the Tampa Bay Rays for example. They’ve long been considered *the* organization when it comes to deploying competitive advantages through analytical assessments. With the 28th highest payroll in baseball this year, they played to an American League best record and represent the league as the 2nd best team in the sport.

 

Defensive positioning isn’t the way in which Tampa found themselves locking down a competitive advantage in 2020. They shifted just 33% of the time, 19th overall in the game. They didn’t bludgeon their way to being an offensive juggernaut. Hitting just 80 dingers they were only 14th in baseball, but the 9.4 fWAR compiled led to a top 10 offense within the game. The Rays made sure to value outs. In over 4,000 plate appearances this year not once did they sacrifice bunt.

 

Where Tampa put things together in 2020 was on the mound. That’s an interesting revelation because they don’t have a Clayton Kershaw or Gerrit Cole. The Rays made an incredible swap (and partly thanks to Pittsburgh’s poor talent evaluation) in turning Chris Archer into the Tyler Glasnow package. Beyond the man with the hair and Blake Snell though, the Rays rotational is relatively nondescript. Their bullpen, however, is another story.

 

In 2020 the Rays owned the best bullpen in baseball generating a combined 3.6 fWAR. By now you’d hope the names are more widely known, but from Castillo to Anderson, and Fairbanks to Curtiss, it’s a unit made of lockdown arms. What Tampa has done is rely on their own ability to develop arms rather than pay or reach for answers. Aaron Slegers and John Curtiss were castoffs from other organizations, Anderson was targeted in trade as was Fairbanks, and Castillo was internally groomed.

 

What happens in Tampa Bay remains reliant upon open communication and buy-in from everyone involved. Being able to suggest that length from a starter isn’t as necessary as quality. Having the opportunity to deploy any arm at any time or doing away with traditional norms tied to specific roles, those are all instances that numbers back but can’t convey.

 

By understanding how to gain a statistical advantage and then being able to deploy it is where the next stage of the game is taking us. Right now, we’re still too stuck on analytics being some catch-all descriptor, and there’s still a vocal old-guard looking to tear down progression. In all ventures however, the goal is progress. We’re seeing that in this sport, and the World Series will highlight it. This isn’t about a top and bottom spending team. It’s about two organizations that best utilized all of the talent they had at their disposal.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Finding the Twins Next Utility Man

 


Going into this offseason the Minnesota Twins are going to need a replacement for a couple of backup infielders. Both Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza are free agents, and I’d expect the Twins to move on from both. They served key roles on the active roster however, so seeking out a replacement will be necessary.


Marwin was signed under the premise that his 2017 was repeatable, and had they know it was a trash idea, Minnesota likely would’ve looked elsewhere. Adrianza was a glove first guy that performed up to that distinction when getting run with the Twins. In finding an alternative, Rocco Baldelli will need a player that can be an asset when filling in.

 

The reality is that Minnesota has some serious issues when things go awry on the dirt, and we saw that with both Josh Donaldson and Luis Arraez in 2020. Having a backup plan there is a must going into a new season. Marwin and Ehire posted a .606 and .557 OPS respectively, so aside from occupying space, them being in the game was a serious negative.

 

I don’t know that I’m hung up on any one person for their replacements, but there’s definitely a profile I’d like to see. Marwin brought an outfield ability to the utility role, but that should be less necessary with the readiness of Alex Kirilloff and the combined emergence of Jake Cave and LaMonte Wade Jr. To me, the Minnesota utility man has to be able to play both second and third base while also owning a productive bat.


Traditionally second base hasn’t been a position of immense offensive production, but that’s shifted in recent years. There are some truly exceptional offensive two-baggers in the game and carrying that profile to a position that needs to contribute offensively at the hot corner, is a very good thing. I don’t want to live in a world where the Twins are sans Donaldson or Arraez for consistent stretches, but they need to be better prepared if they are.


So, what are some names to consider? This is actually a decent free agent class if you’re shopping in the middle. It’s not especially noteworthy at the top however, and that could create some additional competition around the mean. Regardless, there’s some names I’d be more than happy to see wearing baby blue at Target Field.


Jurickson Profar 

The former top prospect will be 28 in 2021. He has arguably the most positional flexibility of anyone in the group and that presents a lot to like. He posted a .793 OPS with the Rangers in 2018 and was at .771 this season for the Padres. He’s hardly been the elite prospect that he was billed, but there’s legit power and on-base skills here when he’s going good. If the Twins see a way to unlock another level in what should be his prime, a solid commitment wouldn’t be shocking.

Tommy La Stella

Traded to the Athletics during the 2020 season, La Stella enters the open market coming off a second straight strong season. His .819 OPS followed an .832 mark as a first time All Star in 2019. He’s primarily played second base but has 84 starts at the hot corner as well. The power potential isn’t a huge draw here, but he did launch 16 dingers in 80 games during 2019.

Jose Iglesias

A number of years ago Iglesias struck me as an ideal candidate to be the Twins shortstop. He’s a strong defender there and it’s been the only role he’s played since 2015. It remains to be seen whether the downgrade in role is one he’d agree to, but there’s also a good option to spell Jorge Polanco when needed. The .956 OPS in 39 games with the Orioles this year is a definite outlier however, and Minnesota would need to be convinced they’re getting above the .700 career mark. He’s probably a boost on Ehire while being Marwin or worse.

Asdrubal Cabrera

This one would definitely be just a one-year deal as he’ll be 35 in 2021. Cabrera has been around for a while, having just completed his 14th year in the majors. He won a ring with the Washington Nationals a season ago and took over as the primary second basemen from former Twins great Brian Dozier. Cabrera is more second basemen than he is third but can play both roles. What I like here is that the offensive floor is pretty safe. He’s probably not going to post much lower than a .750 OPS and you’ve got a chance for him to scratch near .800. There’s power, there’s some walks, there’s something to like.

Jedd Gyorko

I’m not going to write him up as the Brewers have an affordable team option and it’d make little sense for them not to use it coming off the season he just had.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Twins Must Figure Out Corner Prospects

 


The Minnesota Twins signed two long term extensions for current big leaguers back in 2019. One of them was given to German left fielder, Max Kepler. He’s unlikely to be going anywhere, but the same can’t be said for right fielder Eddie Rosario. With just one open outfield spot, the organization has at least three corner talents to generate a plan for.

 

Now able to call the 2020 Major League Baseball year, last season, it comes with the reality that top prospect Alex Kirilloff made his debut. Surprisingly, he did so in the final game of the year, an elimination tilt against the Houston Astros during the Wild Card round of the Postseason. In making that debut however, it was the second appearance from one of Minnesota’s premier corner outfield talents.

 

Brent Rooker beat Kirilloff to the big leagues. Prior to a season ending injury, Rooker impressed during his first seven major league contests. He posted a hearty .960 OPS and three of his six hits were of the extra base variety (with one leaving the yard). As was the case during his minor league days however, he did post an empty walk tally with a 5/0 K/BB ratio. It’s not that Rooker can’t be an OBP guy, but there’s a lot of swing and miss to his profile as well.

 

Rounding out the trio of talented options is Trevor Larnach. Another first round selection, the former Oregon State Beaver is knocking on the door in his own right. He too isn’t considered a centerfield candidate, but he’s also the least like to move to first base or designated hitter. The bat power is elite, and Baseball Prospectus had him as a top 50 prospect heading into 2020. He owns an .853 professional OPS and was at .842 in just over 40 Double-A games during 2019. Despite the lack of minor league season, his abilities are advanced, and he should be an option early in 2021.

 

What Minnesota does to handle this trio could be one of the most important decisions in their immediate future. It already appears as if Alex Kirilloff has seen his last days in a minor league uniform, and Brent Rooker did nothing to warrant a step back either. Kirilloff could open as Minnesota’s left fielder to kick off 2021, and Rooker’s role expands if Nelson Cruz is not retained. How Larnach fits will be interesting to see, but you can bet he’s ready to kick that door in.

 

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will likely always need to have a strong backup plan for if and when Byron Buxton’s aggressive style lands him on the shelf. Until that happens though, none of these guys are players solely needing to come up and sit. LaMonte Wade Jr. and Jake Cave are both great backup options, but neither is the horse you want to tie a buggy too. The Twins have a group of corner guys ready to take over, and how they deploy them all is a narrative worth watching.

 

Rooker, Larnach, and Kirilloff couldn’t have less similar backgrounds being separated by accomplishments at the collegiate and high school level. They’ve all turned heads on a pro field though, and you can bet than Minnesota will be looking to make that a constant reality at Target Field for many years to come.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Decision Making Time on Eddie Rosario

 


If the Twins number one decision this winter is whether or not to re-sign Nelson Cruz, the second most important may be what to do with left fielder Eddie Rosario. The home-grown prospect is due for a raise in arbitration and at a project $9 million or so, it’s down to crunch time.

 

Eddie Rosario’s all but established as a big-league veteran by now, but it’s also well known what his production profile looks like. He’s a free swinger that has the ability to do damage while leaving a significant amount of opportunity on the table. He’s a poor on-base hitter, and defensively he’s rarely completely checked in.

 

After admitting to his shortcomings publicly this offseason, Rosario committed to making strides defensively and showing better plate discipline. In the shortened season that was, it resulted in a 16-point increase to OBP (.316) and a 9 run DRS swing (+3). Given the muted amount of games and innings, the defensive mark was on pace to generate a career best DRS tally with a UZR to follow suit. He also posted five outfield assists in just 51 games. Still people attempt to run on his arm.

 

So, that’s the good news. The bad news is that his totals resulted in just a .257/.316/.476 slash line with a 2.9 fWAR/162. That’s not to suggest Rosario is a bad player by any means, but a 2.9 fWAR would’ve been just the 25th (of a total 53) best mark among qualified outfielders in 2019. For Rosario, that also would’ve represented the second highest tally of his career.

 

What Minnesota must decide is where they project Rosario going forward, and what they logically see from the alternative options. At 29-years-old it’s entirely fair to argue that this is where the Puerto Rican enters his prime. Unfortunately, that more often translates to enhanced production based upon current trends rather than an ultimate change in approach. In other words, the lack of strike zone command isn’t going to suddenly get better because of his peak physical stature. Entering the final year of arbitration, there certainly could be added motivation as he looks for that first big contract.

 

On the alternative options front the Twins likely need to look no further than their internal assets. Alex Kirilloff made his Major League debut in game two of the American League Wild Card series against the Houston Astros. If I were a betting man, and I am, seeing Kirilloff return to the minors in 2021 seems unlikely. He’s a natural corner outfielder and appears ready to assume that role immediately. Although the arm doesn’t profile the same, Kirilloff is a vastly better hitting prospect with both plus on-base and power skills. Brent Rooker needs a role, although is less certain with a deeper floor, and top fellow prospect Trevor Larnach is near-ready as well. Add in LaMonte Wade and Jake Cave being capable options and you’ve got yourself a stable.

 

I don’t see Minnesota getting a ton for Rosario in trade. He’s under team control for just one more season, and teams (as would be the case for the Twins) likely aren’t lining up to pay a career .788 OPS guy over $9 million. Non-tendering Rosario would seem like a misstep but only given the uncertainty as to where that financial commitment goes. If the Twins can allocate those funds to another player filling a separate need, then so be it. You’d have a hard time spinning a non-tender as positive if the money goes unspent, however.

 

Last offseason seemed like a prime opportunity to trade Rosario. He was coming off of MVP votes and posted his third straight season with an OPS at .800 or above. When that didn’t happen, the future became a bit murkier. It’s hard to lean one way or another without having the other part of the decision-making process in hand as well, but this is a storyline to watch over the winter.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Cheering Twins on from Afar this Postseason

 


Wednesday was about as ugly as it gets. After giving away the game to Houston on Tuesday, Minnesota watched their Postseason hopes go up in flames, for an 18th consecutive loss. Now out of the end-of-season-tournament, how can we put a Twins spin on the great baseball action still left?

 

If you missed what the San Diego Padres did yesterday afternoon and into the evening, that’s really too bad. It’s performances like those that define October baseball. The Twins are out of it, and so are countless other teams. In fact, the entirety of the AL Central is now eliminated. That doesn’t mean there aren’t avenues to pull for guys that once made an impact in a Minnesota uniform.

 

Ryan Pressly – Houston Astros

 

This one is tough personally because Ryan and his wife Kat are people I’ve gotten to know. They are both awesome individuals, and Ryan evolving into one of the game’s best relievers has been fun to see. Watching him take his abilities to a whole new level in embracing different techniques in Houston was also exciting. The downside is that he’s teammates with Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Jose Altuve. I can get past them having just beaten the Twins, and I can even move on from the fact that those guys cheated so substantially. What rubs me the wrong way is that the trio remains brazen, unapologetic, and completely aloof when it comes to their public perception. Ryan, go shove, but the rest of the Astros can shove it.

 

Liam Hendriks and Robbie Grossman – Oakland Athletics

 

Hendriks is hardly a secret anymore. He’s been one of baseball’s best relievers for a number of years, and some new hardware should be coming his way for the performance in 2020. Recently fresh off defeating the Chicago White Sox, there’s plenty to like about that outcome as well. Grossman went from a disaster year defensively with the Twins to a complete turnaround and one of the better glue guys in baseball. He’s not a household name, and while he’s always going to be an OBP-guru, he’ll never rack up the accolades. Both are extremely easy to root for, however. Go Athletics!

 

Aaron Hicks – New York Yankees

 

It’ll be a cold day in hell before I every cheer for the Yankees in a baseball game. That said, former top prospect Aaron Hicks remains among my favorite to follow around the game. He’s been great with New York when healthy, and although it crushed the Twins, the diving catch he made to steal a game winning hit from Max Kepler last summer was nothing short of amazing. Go Aaron, boo Yankees.

 

Nick Anderson – Tampa Bay Rays

 

A first-class organization is always easy to pull for, and the Rays are in the driver’s seat this season as a one seed. Nick Anderson is someone I touch on constantly through Twitter as it still irks me that Derek Falvey let this one get away. The former Twins prospect was tearing up Triple-A and was never given a chance to even flash his stuff at the big-league level. Instead he’s gone on to become one of the nastiest relievers in all of baseball. He’s a Minnesota native, and would’ve looked great in the Twins baby blues. Hopefully, he’s part of a Rays squad that downs the Evil Empire.

 

Brandon Kintzler – Miami Marlins

 

What a season it has been for this team. They needed to basically reconstruct an entire roster just days into an already weird year, and then made the Postseason despite being expected to perform as somewhat of a bottom feeder. Kintzler closed out games for the Twins a couple of years ago and is now doing the same for Miami. He was under-appreciated here and always seemed like a good due. Certainly not going to blow the ball by anyone, but he can serve up ground balls with the best of them. This is a Cinderella story I can get behind.

 

Brusdar Graterol – Los Angeles Dodgers

 

Kenta Maeda came over to the Twins and performed like an absolute ace. There’s nothing wrong with both teams benefitting from a good trade, and it seems like that’s what at play here. Minnesota’s former top pitching prospect closed out a series win following Clayton Kershaw last night. He throws 100 and is always smiling. The Bazooka is a level-headed kid that’s going to see plenty more success. The Dodgers are the favorites, and with good reason. If you want to get behind a near sure thing, this is your team.