Monday, April 24, 2017

Polanco Providing Poise

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson, USA Today Sports
Shortstop is becoming a position of strength across baseball. Names like Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Corey Seager are becoming household names. These budding infielders are leading the next generation of baseball stars. It is truly seems like the sky could be the limit for each of them.

The sky has not been the limit for the Twins when it comes to the shortstop position. In fact, the position has become a revolving door in recent years. While other organizations are building their franchise around a star shortstop, Minnesota has struggled to fill the void.

Even in midst of a young season, Jorge Polanco is providing poise at one of baseball's hardest positions.

Doubling Down On Defense
Polanco's biggest question marks as a prospect were on the defensive side of the ball. The Twins blundered a little with his development last season as he didn't play a single inning at shortstop in the minors. Twins manager Paul Molitor was asked about how the organization handled Polanco during spring. "I wish I had a better explanation for you. But I think myself, a lot of other people, realized  we didn't handle it the right way."

Even with this organizational blunder, Polanco seems to have overcome some of these defensive faults. According to FanGraphs, he currently leads the American League in defensive runs saved (3). The only player with a better DRS mark this season is the Cubs' Addison Russell. Polanco also ranks in the top-10 across baseball in RZR, UZR, and defensive WAR.

Looking For Lumber
Being a two-way player is what separates many of the young shortstops mentioned above. Polanco was never expected to be an elite hitter but he showed positive signs as a prospect. So far this season, he ranks third in the American League in shortstop WAR. He has the third fewest strikeouts and the fourth highest OBP. This puts him ahead of players like Carlos Correa, Troy Tulowitzki, and Elvis Andrus.

Much of Polanco's offensive success has come against left-handed pitching. He has hit .364/.391/.591 (.982 OPS) against southpaws with three extra-base hits in 22 at-bats. His OBP is almost 100 points lower against righties and this has come in 21 more plate appearances. He does have an impressive 6 to 5 strikeout to walk ratio versus right-handed hurlers.

Waiting In The Wings
The Twins have other young shortstop prospects waiting in the wings. Former first round pick Nick Gordon is off to a hot start at Double-A. Through 14 games, he is hitting .339/.397/.464 with four extra-base hits in 56 at-bats. After playing every game in 2016 at shortstop, Gordon has started four games at second base this season.

Gordon's time at shortstop is being challenged by Engelb Vielma. When it comes to shortstop, Vielma is widely considered the better defender. Vielma has started six games at shortstop and seven at second base. There have been questions about Vielma's offensive in the past but he is hitting .340/.365/.400 to start the year.

While shortstop might have been a weakness in recent years, the Twins look poised to stop their revolving door. Polanco is emerging as a very viable shortstop candidate. If he can't keep up his hot start, Gordon and Vielma are waiting for their own opportunity.

Who will be the Twins shortstop by 2018? What about 2020? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Twins Minor League Report (4/23): Kranson Cranks

Photo Credit: Seth Stohs
Minnesota had stuck with their Opening Day roster through the team's first 17 games. That changed on Sunday as first baseman Kennys Vargas and left-handed reliever Buddy Boshers were recalled from Rochester. To make room for them on the roster, the Twins placed right-hander Justin Haley on the disabled list and optioned left-hander Adalberto Mejia to Triple-A.

Rain was the main headline on Sunday. Both the Red Wings and the Lookouts were washed out including a double-header in Chattanooga. This left the Kernels and the Miracle to carry the load. Who would shine? Who would struggle?

RED WINGS REPORT
Rochester --, Charlotte --

Rochester and Charlotte were postponed on Sunday due to inclement weather. The game will be made-up as part of a doubleheader when the Knights play a three-game series in Rochester near the middle of July. Rochester has an off-day on Monday before starting a six-game homestand. With Sunday's game not being played, they went 2-3 on their six-game road trip. The Red Wings are tied for second place in the International League North as they trail first place Buffalo by 2.5 games. 

CHATTANOOGA CHATTER
Chattanooga --, Tennessee -- 

Chattanooga was scheduled to play a double-header on Sunday to make-up for Saturday night's postponed game. However, the weather didn't cooperate again as inclement weather, unplayable field conditions and an impending forecast got in the way. The Lookouts will make up these games as part of two double-headers, one on Monday and one on Tuesday. With an 8-7 record, the Lookouts are tied with three other teams for second place in the Southern League North. Each team trails Jackson by two games.

MIRACLE MATTERS 
Fort Myers 1, Dunedin 7
Box Score
Lachlan Wells ran into a buzz-saw that was the Dunedin offense. In three innings of work, he allowed five hits with four of those hits being home runs. He walked two and struck out three. Williams Ramirez took over in the fourth and pitched two shutout innings. He limited the Blue Jays to two hits. Anthony McIver pitched two frames and struck out two. Brady Anderson pitched the eighth and allowed one run, a solo home run.

There wasn't much excitement on the offensive side of the ball. Fort Myers went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. Chris Paul went 2-for-4 and Casey Scoggins reached base three times including a multi-hit game. Alex Perez scored the team's lone run.

With the loss, Fort Myers drops two games under .500 on the season (8-10 record). The Miracle had won four straight games before Sunday's loss. They currently sit two games out of first place in the Florida State League South.

KERNELS NUGGETS 
Cedar Rapids 11, Kane County 2 
Box Score
While the Miracle lacked some offensive pop there was plenty of action in the Kernels line-up. Mitchell Kranson went 4-for-5 including a solo home run and Jermaine Palacios drove in five runs as the Kernels routed the Cougars. Kanson finished a triple shy of the cycle. Cedar Rapids tied their season high with four home runs.

Besides Kranson and Palacios, Jaylin Davis and Caleb Hamilton each had a homer. Hamilton scored twice and drove in a pair as part of a multi-hit day. Aaron Whitefield went 2-for-4 with a triple and a run scored. Ariel Montesino and Lewin Diaz were the lone batters not to reach base for the Kernels.

Not to be outdone by the hitters, Clark Beeker put together a very strong performance on the mound. He pitched seven strong innings by allowing one earned run on eight hits with five strikeouts and no walks. It marked the first time in his career where he won back-to-back starts and it was his third straight quality start. Hector Lujan didn't allow a runner in the final two frames while striking out three.

TWINS DAILY PLAYERS OF THE DAY
Pitcher of the Day – Clark Beeker, Cedar Rapids Kernels

Hitter of the Day – Mitchell Kranson, Cedar Rapids Kernels

MONDAY’S PROBABLE STARTERS
Rochester - Scheduled Off-Day
Chattanooga vs. Tennessee (4:15 CST) - TBD

Chattanooga vs. Tennessee (Game 2) - TBD
Fort Myers - Scheduled Off-Day

Cedar Rapids vs. Burlington (6:35 CST) - RHP Tyler Beardsley (2-0, 0.82 ERA)

Please feel free to ask any questions and discuss Sunday’s games.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Santiago Starting To Turn Heads

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
As Nick wrote about earlier in the week, Ervin Santana has been a legitimate threat in the Twins rotation. Santana is off to a tremendous start to the season and it's easy to see why the Twins decided to hang on to the veteran right-handed hurler.

What might be more of a surprise than Santana's start is the outings put together by Hector Santiago. For those that have forgotten, Santiago and Alan Busenitz were the two players acquired from the Angels last season in exchange for Alex Meyer and Ricky Nolasco.

Santiago, the former 30th round pick by the White Sox, could be on the cusp of a breakout season.

Another All-Star First Half
Santiago has shown flashes of this type of pitching in the past. During the 2015 campaign, he got the season off to a great start and was named an American League All-Star. In the season's first half, he posted a 2.33 ERA with a 98 to 33 strikeout to walk ratio. In those 18 games, batters hit .213/.281/.356 against him.

Following his All-Star first half, things fell apart in the second half of the season. His ERA rose to 5.47 and his WHIP rose from 1.10 to 1.49. Batters OPS also rose by over 200 points. Minnesota is seeing glimpses of Santiago's All-Star abilities but there's no evidence of him being able to sustain this level for an entire season.

What's Up, Pitches?
Opponents have struggled this season with making consistent contact against Santiago's sinker. For his career, batters have hit .217 against him when he throws this pitch. So far this season, opponents have been limited to a .135 average with two extra-base hits. His velocity has dipped a little with this pitch but he seems to be using this pitch more effectively.

He has yet to surrender an extra-base hit with his secondary pitches but he throws these less than 40% of the time. When throwing his change-up, batters have been limited to a .200 average which is almost 60 points lower than his career mark. His cut fastball has yielded a .750 opponent's batting average, the highest of any pitch he throws.

The Jason Castro Factor
During the entire off-season, Twins fans heard rave reviews about Jason Castro and his ability to coax umpires into calling strikes. This might not have been more evident than on Sunday afternoon when "Castro had the best day of any backstop at getting his pitchers extra strikes."

For seven innings on Sunday, Santiago was the beneficiary of Castro's catching abilities. Fangraphs showed multiple pitches from Santiago that ended up being called strikes. Castro is clearly factoring into the Twins early season pitching.
It's been a small sample size and there is plenty of season still ahead. Santiago needs to prove that he can sustain these numbers over the course of an entire season. He's shown flashes of this type of pitching in the past but the league will adjust. Can he make the type of changes necessary to sustain this success?

Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Twins Minor League Report (4/16): Palka Power, Dueling Shutouts

Photo Credit: Seth Stohs, Twins Daily (Randy LeBlanc)
As Easter weekend comes to a close, many of the Twins minor league affiliates are starting to settle into an early season groove. With the weather continuing to warm up, pitchers and batters can be more comfortable and play up to their full potential.

Even though there were only three affiliates playing on Easter Sunday, there was still plenty of action. Big name players hit home run. There were also some strong pitching performances. Who stood out above the crowd? Read on to find out.

RED WINGS REPORT
Rochester 10, Syracuse 6 (Game 1- 7 Innings)
Box Score

Rochester exploded for multiple runs in three of the first four innings to out pace Syracuse in game one of the double-header. The Red Wings got things off to a good start by plating four runs in the first frame. Ben Paulsen had the big hit in the inning as his two-out double drove in three runs. Tommy Field cracked a two-run home run in the second inning to push the lead to 6-1. 

In the bottom of the fourth, Kennys Vargas helped to extend the lead by knocking a three-run shot, his second of the year. Every batter in the Red Wings line-up reached base and Matt Hague was the lone hitter not to record a hit but he drew a walk and scored a run. 

Jason Wheeler started and allowed three earned runs over five innings of work. He gave up seven hits while striking out four and walking two. Alan Busenitz walked three batters in the sixth frame as he allowed three earned runs to make the game closer than it needed to be. Trevor Hildenberger closed out the game with a perfect ninth including two strikeouts.

Rochester 6, Syracuse 7 (Game 2- 7 Innings)
Box Score

Syracuse got revenge in the second game as they jumped early on Aaron Slegers for four runs in the first inning. Slegers wouldn't make it out of the fourth inning as he allowed five runs on 11 hits. He struck out six batters and only gave up one walk. Buddy Boshers finished off the fourth for Slegers but the damage had already been done. 

Rochester did their best to claw back into the game. Daniel Palka drove in a run with a second inning double. Niko Goodrum continued the scoring with a sacrifice fly. Palka would add to the scoring with as he lead-off the fourth inning with a his third home run of the year. Palka finished the game 4-for-4 with two home runs, a double, three RBI, and four runs. 

Raul Fernandez run into some late inning trouble as he surrendered two home runs in his 1.2 innings of work. Alex Wimmers collected the last four outs without allowing a runner and striking out one. Former Twins closer Joe Nathan earned his second save even though he allowed Palka's second home run. 

CHATTANOOGA CHATTER
Chattanooga 1, Jacksonville 0

Box Score
In a tightly contested pitchers duel, the Lookouts were able to find a way to scratch out a win. Paul Clemens started for Chattanooga and pitched into the sixth frame. He scattered five hits and struck out four while walking one. After pitching 1.2 scoreless frames, Todd Van Steensel earned his first victory of the year. Mason Melotakis picked up his first save after tossing two perfect frames.

The hits were few and far between for both clubs. Jonathan Rodriguez picked up the games biggest hit as he smashed a solo home run with one out in the seventh. Engelb Vielma finished 1-for-4. Ryan Walker and Jose Gonzalez each picked up a hit. Levi Michael and Nick Gordon were the only Lookouts hitters that didn't strikeout in the game. 

With the win, Chattanooga won the rubber game of the three-game set with Jacksonville.  The Lookouts moved to 5-5 on the season. 

MIRACLE MATTERS 
Fort Myers 5, Daytona 0
Box Score
Randy LeBlanc was the story of this game. He tossed seven scoreless innings for the second straight start. He limited the Tortugas to three hits with four strikeouts and two walks. Nick Anderson completed the shutout with two innings of work. He allowed two base runners and struck out a pair of batters.

Daytona went on an error spree in this game to help Fort Myers separate themselves. The Tortugas combined for four errors which lead to three unearned runs. Zander Wiel drove in a pair of runs with his first home run of the year. Chris Paul and Brian Navarreto each knocked a double and Navarreto drove in a run.

After losing five straight games by one run, the Miracle have one two of their last three including a pair of shutouts. Fort Myers now sits with a 3-8 record on the season.

TWINS DAILY PLAYERS OF THE DAY
Pitcher of the Day – Randy LeBlanc, Fort Myers Miracle
Hitter of the Day – Daniel Palka, Rochester Red Wings


WEDNESDAY’S PROBABLE STARTERS
Rochester- Scheduled Off Day
Chattanooga vs. Biloxi (6:15 CST) - TBD
Fort Myers vs. Florida (5:35 CST) - LHP Lachlan Wells (0-1, 1.29 ERA) 

Cedar Rapids @ Peoria (6:30 CST) - RHP Clark Beeker

Please feel free to ask any questions and discuss Sunday’s games.

Monday, April 10, 2017

How Much Can Minnesota's Defense Improve?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
Minnesota's defense has shown some flaws in recent years. Putting Miguel Sano in the outfield was an unmitigated disaster. Other players like Danny Santana have been asked to play a different position than their natural position. Brian Dozier has also been below average at second base. With all of these issues, it's hard to know what to expect in 2017.

The new front office made minimal off-season roster moves. This leaves the Twins with a lot of familiar faces around the diamond. How much can Minnesota's defense improve?

Outfield
Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario have all played center field at some point during their professional careers. Buxton's five-star ability was on full display during the season's first week. According to MLB.com, Buxton made the first five star catch of the 2017 season with his Opening Day dive.

"Us outfielders have this thing where nothing falls but raindrops," Buxton said. "We take that to heart and want to be the best outfield out there. We're trying to be aggressive to every line drive and foul ball we can be. We know we'll have backup, so it allows us to play freely."

This young trio is trying to reverse a recent Minnesota outfield trend. Over the last five seasons, the Twins outfield have accounted for a -30 defensive runs saved mark, the third worst mark in baseball. With a pitching staff that gives up a lot of balls in play, it's critical for the defense behind them to be strong.

Infield
Joe Mauer was one of the lone Twins fielders to rank well as a defender in 2016. The entire rest of the infield projects to be below average. As I mentioned before, Dozier struggles on defense. He makes some great diving stops but that's usually the result of him not being able to get to a ball. These would be routine plays for a better defender.

Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco compose a left-side of the infield with plenty of questions. Sano's arm strength is very good but his large body size raises questions about his ability to get to balls. Questions about Polanco's defense at shortstop have followed him throughout his professional career. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see how these two rank as the innings begin to pile up.

Even if the outfield sees improved defense, it's hard to imagine the infield helping out the pitching staff on a regular basis. They have the ability to make routine plays but there will be plenty of holes on plays with a higher difficulty.

Catcher
Jason Castro was brought to Minnesota because of his defensive reputation. As I wrote about this spring, it's going to take the better part of the season to fully see what Castro is able to do with the pitching staff. No matter how much he is able to coax strikes from umpires, the pitchers still need to make pitches.

In regards to SABR's Defensive Index (SDI), former catcher Kurt Suzuki ranked second from the bottom in the American League. Castro still posted a negative SDI total but he ranked in the seventh in the AL. This was a steep drop-off from the 2015 season where he ranked second in the AL and he was a finalist for a Gold Glove.

If the Twins end up with a catcher that is somewhere between the 2015 and 2016 version of Castro, things will be working out very well for the club.

So what do you think? How much can Minnesota's defense improve? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.