Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Tide Turning for Twins Pair


It always had to be this way. This was the only plausible outcome. As the Twins look towards a resurgence, the talent had to rise to the occasion. For a pair of Minnesota mashers, it’s starting to happen.


Coming into the 2021 season Rocco Baldelli’s club had won two straight AL Central division titles while also having heightened expectations for the year ahead. There wasn’t supposed to be a slide, and the roster as constructed should’ve been among the best in baseball. The results haven’t followed that narrative, but there’s never been a doubt when it comes to what this team is capable of.


The reality for Minnesota is that regression struck for so many at roughly the same time. April was not a good month, and to be frank, May hasn’t been that great either. Combined with injuries and a slight covid scare, suggesting nothing has gone right would be putting it kindly. Now faced with a stretch of winnable games and opportunity for a turnaround, having a resurgence from a few guys at once would be nice.


Enter Miguel Sano and Mitch Garver.


Sano has long been a lightning rod of criticism for Twins fans. He’s a prolific power hitter that, at his best, remains an on-base and slugging machine. If he’s not hitting the fastball though, he’s a check swinging mess and the value tanks. After discussion surrounding a demotion cropped up, an eventual benching took place following the May 8 contest. We’ve seen this before with the Dominican, and he’s responded by righting the ship. Once again, that’s playing out before our eyes.


In 13 games since being put on the pine, Sano has reinvigorated his season. Across 51 plate appearances he has a .261/.333/.717 slash line to go with nine extra base hits, six of which have left the yard. The 16 strikeouts are still high, and you’d like to see more than four walks, but it’s apparent his process is back to a better place. Earlier this season Sano was leading the league in free passes, and it was a timing issue that had him failing to produce the bigger results. Now the timing is there, and while the discipline may have slid a bit, dreaming on a more perfect combination gives the Twins their middle of the order threat back.


Funny enough, a teammate of Sano’s also finds himself in a similar situation. Although Mitch Garver was never benched this season, he’s dealt with plenty of maladies along with an inability to crush the fastball as has become his calling card. With just a .644 OPS through April, a flipped script was necessary come May. Across 56 plate appearances this month Garver owns a .261/.393/.500 slash line with five extra base hits including three dingers. I think it’s a bit far-fetched to assume Mitch is the backstop with a near 1.000 OPS that he was in 2019, but anything north of .850 in that regard makes him among the best hitting catchers in baseball.


When Garver is right, he’s barreling the ball, but more importantly he’s working counts and taking walks. Garver has always excelled as a hitter due to his ability to be patient and find his pitch. The 43/13 K/BB is still out of whack, but in May it’s been an exceptional 16/10 K/BB and that will play all year long.


It’s hard to fathom a complete turnaround for Minnesota. The hole they dug themselves out of the gate has been immense. That said, if the expectation was for this team to be great coming into the year, all of those pieces are still in place. Getting guys back to a median level of expectations will bear fruit, and given the quality of competition within the division, a run is hardly unfathomable.


Mitch Garver and Miguel Sano have begun to turn their tide, now the Twins need others to continue following suit.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Has A Twins Team Flopped This Hard?


Back at the end of April I questioned whether or not the Twins were good. This team was expected to compete for the AL Central division, and there were real World Series aspirations. Now, owners of the worst record in baseball, it’s worth contemplating if any Twins team has flopped this badly.


We’re past the point of it being early, and there’s plenty of blame to go around, but much of it lands on the players in the dugout. Sure, Minnesota could go on a run and make it a relevant summer by playing some compelling baseball and battling back towards .500. The reality though, is that process will take months and there’s been nothing to suggest that development is coming.


Rocco Baldelli has pulled strings that haven’t worked, but he’s also watched a plethora of injuries dog his roster, and an overall ineffectiveness of talent be put on full display. The front office failed to put their best foot forward across the board, but even the alternatives are somewhat of a reason. This clubhouse was built on holdover and internal talent. Simply put, they haven’t been good enough.


The 2016 Twins were nothing short of a dumpster fire. That group lost 103 games and the house was cleaned. After a 2nd place finish in the division the year prior, a level of ineptitude that low probably wasn’t expected. They weren’t expected to be juggernauts however, and much of the groundwork was laid early on when the Paul Molitor club started the season 0-9. That Twins team recorded their 13th victory while already owning 34 losses. This group sits at 13-25, but it’s not hard to imagine a further slide with a difficult week ahead.


Since beginning the year 5-2, Minnesota has gone on a stretch culminating in an 8-23 record. They have hit poorly, pitched badly, and played defense embarrassingly. There have been very few bright spots to this group as a whole, and even where there have been, they likely have a blemish or two to their credit as well.


It’s May, so looking at who becomes trade bait and which assets you might ship off still seems a bit premature. If nothing else, the level of practicality in terms of other teams desire probably won’t get sorted out until there’s at least another month worth of a sample size. That said, it’s beyond high time that the guys in this clubhouse take this personally. I have no indication that there’s a character or clubhouse problem, but the nightly meltdowns have gotten to a point where the embarrassment is bordering on apathy. No one should feel bad for a group of underachievers, and neither should those currently going through it. Adversity has offered the opportunity to respond, and there’s more than enough talent for a relative turnaround.


No one saw this coming for the Twins, and the only ones able to course correct are those that are on the field. Take it personal. Make a stand. Do something to stop this incredibly poor level of play we’ve now seen for over a month.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Do the Twins Have Any Arms to Trust?


Once again, the 2021 Minnesota Twins game script played out in Chicago on Tuesday night. Despite a three-run blast by Yasmani Grandal, Kenta Maeda had settled in. Rocco Baldelli pulled him after the 5th inning, only for the bullpen to immediately cough up the lead. Starters, relievers, anyone? Is there anyone the Twins can trust?


Rocco Baldelli’s bullpen is hot garbage. The front office brought in Hansel Robles and Alex Colome this offseason. Both are decent signings, but there wasn’t much in the form of additional firepower. Robles had question marks as to whether he could regain previous form, and Colome was certainly a candidate for regression (although not this far). With holdovers like Tyler Duffey and Cody Stashak taking steps backwards, it’s become Taylor Rogers or bust.


We’re now over 30 games into the season and the same trends are continuing on a nightly basis. No bullpen in baseball, save for the Tigers, is on par with the Twins futility. Their strand rate is dead last, they’ve accounted for an MLB worst 12 losses, and their ERA is the fourth worst in the sport. Why then does the skipper continue turning to them more often than he has to?


Yes, numbers absolutely suggest that the more times a lineup sees a starter, the more likely you’re going to run into trouble. The problem for the Twins is that they’ve been so risk averse with their starters, that the onus of each additional out placed on the relief corps only heightens the likelihood of problems.


Going back through the 33 games played to this point, I highlighted 11 different starts that seemed questionable scenarios to lift the pitcher. Not once did the starter have more than 88 pitches thrown, multiple times they were under 80, and in none of those instances had they allowed more than three runs. Six of those situations included the bullpen being activated in the 6th inning, with another four of them being 7th inning activations. That means the worst unit in the league is being asked to get something between 9-12 outs or at least 33% of a total game, despite the starter being in a good spot.


It’s also understandable that Rocco Baldelli would be hesitant to run a starter out for another inning and face the problem of bringing in relief help with runners on. Remember, this group allows inherited runners to score at an alarming pace, so bringing someone in without a clean inning only ratchets the difficulty of their task. At some point though, there has to be a shift in philosophy when it comes to finding a way that works.


Minnesota has an awful bullpen and we’ve seen that reflected by in game results on a near nightly basis to this point. The starters aren’t world beaters by any means but letting a guy with 85 pitches in the 5th or 6th inning start the next half has to become more commonplace. You know the devil that is the relievers right now. We don’t really know the devil that is the starters quickly running into a wall. Allow that to also be broke before you try fixing something that hasn’t been there. It’s not April anymore, pitch counts reaching or exceeding 100 shouldn’t be a fear.


The season might not be salvageable for the Twins at this point but trying a different strategy would certainly be a welcomed sign as opposed to practicing the definition of insanity.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Twins Need to See Pillars Produce


Over the course of 2021 the Minnesota Twins have found more ways to lose in 32 games than most teams can accomplish over the course of a full season. If going into the year it was assumed this club would be good, a complete 180 this early doesn’t seem fair. The problem? Are these players actually good?


Here’s the deal, Rocco Baldelli’s bullpen has been bad. It’s among the worst in baseball across more than a handful of categories. He’s dealing with a group that the front office banked more on development than production, and regression has hit everyone not named Taylor Rogers. Despite a winning record in nine-inning games, this team gets crushed the minute relief help comes in.


Although the lineup has shown signs of life at times, the length of it is immediately called into question when looking at assumed producers. I think it was a fair assessment to assume 2020 Mitch Garver wasn’t right. Jorge Polanco dealt with an ankle injury, and Max Kepler clearly left something to be desired. Fast forward a year however, and that trio is as confusing as ever.


The backstop that broke out in 2019 probably was never going to resurface for the Twins. What Garver did that year was truly unreal, and for a late-blooming catcher, probably unrepeatable. It should’ve been assumed that Minnesota’s catching tandem could be among the best in baseball this season with how Ryan Jeffers looked in his 2020 debut. Garver hasn’t caught up to the fastball again though, and despite a .748 OPS, has just not really put it together yet.


Moving from shortstop to second base was going to be huge for Polanco defensively. A surgically repaired ankle also gave the Twins middle infielder a clean bill of health. He seems to be staying in on swings more than he did a year ago, but the results still leave plenty to be desired. Polanco’s .679 OPS is just north of his 2020 mark, and while he does have a 97 OPS+ on the season, a .236/.306 average and on-base percentage is not where the Twins can afford him to be. Extended in 2019, he really hasn’t been a good player since.


In the outfield there’s been more uncertainty than ever this season. Alex Kirilloff was left off the roster to start 2021, and Byron Buxton is now again on the shelf. Kepler has always been the mainstay from a health perspective, but his production has gone missing for the better part of the past two years. Just recently getting on the longball board this season, Kepler owns a disappointing .664 OPS through his first 22 games. The average is hovering near the Mendoza Line, and the .855 OPS from 2019 looks to be from an alternate universe.


The reality for Rocco is that the players he was counting on have by and large been there this season. In mass quantities however, they’ve fallen flat. It’s great that Byron Buxton looks like an MVP candidate, Josh Donaldson is a monster, and Nelson Cruz is ageless. Behind that though, it’s really hard to see anything that suggests this team is good anywhere but on paper. Assume producers need to start coming through, and it’s this trio that may be chief among them.


There’s still time for the 2021 Minnesota Twins to turn things around, but it’s getting late early, and it only gets darker if the light switch doesn’t flip for some guys very soon.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Kirilloff Injury Affords Opportunity to Twins


Yesterday the Minnesota Twins had to scratch Alex Kirilloff from the starting lineup when it was discovered he was dealing with wrist discomfort. It sounds as if a looming IL stint is around the corner, and that’s disappointing news for Rocco Baldelli’s hottest hitter. What happens from here could set the tone for the rest of the way.


Miguel Sano has been on the Injured List for Minnesota as he dealt with a leg injury and was working on timing prior to an activation. Kirilloff had been playing first base but could’ve slid back in to left field where Jake Cave has done little more than take up space this season. Now without Kirilloff in the mix, the front office has a decision to make.


The immediate answer would seem to be a veteran placeholder such as Keon Broxton. He looked the part in Spring Training and has had big league success previously. Success is relative however when you’re talking about a guy with a .685 OPS across just north of 1,000 plate appearances. Broxton is a plus defender and does have some pop in his bat, but he’s hardly a sustainable bet to push the bar for a failing Twins team.


Much like Kirilloff before him, if Minnesota wants to respond with the opportunity to make an impact, it’s time for the training wheels to come off top prospect Trevor Larnach. Now 24, the 2018 1st round pick is currently at Triple-A St. Paul. He only has two career games at that level, but the assumption should be that he would’ve spent considerable time there in 2020 had a season take place. The former Oregon State Beaver is a polished hitting prospect with an .850 career OPS in pro ball. He has an advanced approach at the plate and is hardly a strikeout machine despite being a power hitter.


Unlike Kirilloff, Larnach should be ticketed for a corner outfield spot. Whereas Alex is destined to play first base, and do it well, Larnach’s athleticism will keep him in the grass, and he should be able to provide average or better defense out there. Given the shortening length of Rocco Baldelli’s lineup at the big-league level, adding another bat like this that can start in the bottom half would give hope to a club floundering out of the gates.


It’s probably unfair to pin the expectations that were placed on Kirilloff directly to Larnach. That said, they’ve consistently ranked as eerily similar prospects to me, and I’d be far from shocked if the bat didn’t immediately translate for Trevor as well. Keon Broxton is a player in the same vein as Kyle Garlick or Jake Cave. They have utility but asking them to be a regular stretches their overall value. Putting Larnach into a spot where he can contribute at the highest level raises the overall water level, and who knows where things go from there.


He’d need a 40-man roster move, and this is probably sooner than the front office wanted to unleash him, but it’s time for Trevor Larnach to become a Major Leaguer.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Nightmare Ends this Week


Tomorrow, for the first time since 2019, we will have affiliated Minor League Baseball. The Minnesota Twins farm system is still stocked with strong prospects, and there’s been a good deal of change. We’ll finally get to see it unfold again.


Having the 2020 Minor League Baseball season be cancelled was arguably the most disappointing baseball decision from last year. While it’s understandable given the logistical hurdles during a global pandemic, not seeing development on a nightly basis was a tough pill to swallow. Minnesota had players working out in St. Paul at their alternate site, but sim games and manufactured action can only take guys so far.


Fast forward to where we are now, and the return of baseball on the farm couldn’t be more welcomed. Minnesota will do so without top prospect Royce Lewis on the diamond, and both top pitching prospects Jhoan Duran and Jordan Balazovic will begin the season on the IL. That said, there’s still a ton of development to take place and so much excitement around a system that has been substantially changed.


First and foremost, the locations are no longer what we are used to. Triple-A is now housed just down the road from Target Field as the Saint Paul Saints begin their long-awaited affiliation with the Twins. At Double-A, the Wichita Wind Surge will play their inaugural season, and for the Twins instead of the Miami Marlins as was intended in 2020. High-A has been relocated from Fort Myers to Cedar Rapids, and the Low-A Florida State League club is now dubbed the Mighty Mussels rather than the Miracle.


On the player specific side of things there’s plenty of names to watch. Trevor Larnach is the top position prospect at Triple-A, and Double-A Wichita will start quick rising Josh Winder on Opening Day. I still think reliever Ryan Mason is a name to watch as an option for the big-league club this year, and we’ll get to see the likes of Keoni Cavaco and Aaron Sabato as they continue their ascension towards the Major League roster.


As a contributor over at Twins Daily, I’ll once again have the Minor League report on Wednesday nights, and those will again become a daily mainstay to catch up on the action. This aspect of the game was severely missed a season ago and having it back couldn’t be more welcomed.