Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Key Twins Quarter-Mark Questions

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson, USA Today Sports
It's hard to believe but baseball has already passed the quarter-mark of the season. What might be even harder for Twins fans to believe is that Minnesota finds themselves in contention. This is a welcome surprise after a tough to watch 2016 season.

There will be some questions facing the Twins in the weeks ahead as there will be plenty of tough decisions left to be made. The future of the franchise could tilt with the first overall pick. However, that player likely won't be making his Target Field debut in 2017.

So what other questions will the new front office have to answer?

Were the 2016 Twins a fluke?
Things certainly couldn't have gone much worse for the Twins in 2016. Following a 2015 seasons where Minnesota was in contention until the final weekend, the wheels came off. Young players like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios struggled to make adjustments at baseball's highest level. Even with those players struggling, the Twins' pitching was their most noticeable flaw. Only Arizona could match the Twins' 5.09 team ERA and Minnesota had the third worst WAR total from their pitchers.

The 2017 version of the Twins look much more comparable to the 2015 squad. Sano has been a dominant force at the plate. Buxton might be the best defensive center fielder in baseball. Ervin Santana might be developing into an ace. Even Berrios has looked like a completely new pitcher. It's hard to know if it will last but it's been a fun ride so far.

What can the Twins do to improve their bullpen?
Brandon Kintzler has been effective so far by converting 11 of his first 12 save opportunities. The Twins were able to pick up the win in his only blown save of the season but it still seems like the team is playing with fire. Besides Kintzler, Tyler Duffey and Matt Belisle have tossed the most innings. Only veteran Craig Breslow and Tyler Duffey have ERA's under 3.00.

Rochester doesn't exactly have a plethora of top-tier relief pitching options. At the end of the last two seasons, Trevor Hildenberger has been named the Twins Daily Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year.  He has a 3.07 ERA and a 16 to 6 strikeout to walk ratio in 12 appearances. Other 40-man options include Buddy Boshers, Drew Rucinski, and Nick Tepesch but none of these guys are breaking down the door to the big leagues.

Can the Twins contend in an wide-open AL Central?
Many national sports outlets expected Cleveland, the defending AL Central champs, to run away with the division. Cleveland's best pitcher, Corey Kluber, is on the disabled list and they've played below .500 at home. The rest of the division also has plenty of questions. Chicago is in the midst of a rebuild. Kansas City's offense has struggled to start the year. Detroit seems to have pitching struggles every year.

The Twins have started 15-11 in the division which has been bolstered by a 7-1 record versus the Royals. Minnesota has 2-4 record against the Tigers and the Indians. If the Twins want to contend in the division, the club will need to improve against the team's in the division.

Are there any prospects fans can expect to see?
With things going well in Minnesota, it's hard to know when the team will need to dig into the minors for some extra help. An injury to an everyday player or a slumping bat could signal the start to any of these player's big league career. Zach Granite was the organization's minor league player of the year and he is already at Triple-A. It's quite possible for Granite to follow in Brian Dozier's footsteps.

Infielders Engelb Vielma and Nick Gordon have a chance to debut this season as well. Vielma was recently promoted to Rochester and he is the best defensive infielder in the organization. Gordon, a former first round pick, is off to a hot start with his bat which could lead to a September call-up.

Will the Twins be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?
With a new front office and a team surprisingly in contention, July could become an interesting month. No one expected the Twins to contend but the new regime will need to add some pieces if they are serious about making a playoff run. There are holes in the bullpen and the team has been rotating through starters in the rotation. Falvey and Levine shouldn't mortgage the farm but some extra pieces will be needed for the stretch run.

What questions do you think the Twins need to answer in the weeks ahead? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Will Hunter Greene Haunt The Twins?

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
MLB's 2017 Draft is a little over two weeks away. Minnesota has known they have the first overall pick since last fall and the new regime will be doing their due-diligence as draft day approaches. With Derek Falvey and Thad Levine overseeing their first draft, there is a lot of pressure for the club to make the right pick.

The Twins have narrowed their list to a handful of players but it seems more likely that the club will be picking from a trio that includes college players Brenden McKay and Kyle Wright or two-way high school player Hunter Greene. McKay and Wright might be the safer picks because of their collegiate experience. Greene could be a once in a generation player on the mound.

At this point, it seems more likely for the Twins to select one of the safer college options. This leaves Greene, a player Sports Illustrated called the "star baseball needs," still on the board. Will passing on Greene haunt the Twins in the years to come?

Taking A Chance
There has never been a right-handed high school pitcher taken with the first overall pick. Greene could become the first but there are so many factors that come into developing a high school arm. He is a raw product whose edges would need to be refined over the next 4-5 seasons in the Twins farm system.

Organizationally, the Twins haven't had the best track record when it comes to developing pitchers. Kohl Stewart and Tyler Jay have both been taken with high first round picks since 2013. Jay was supposed to develop into a top flight starter but the Twins have already moved him to the bullpen. Stewart has shown flashes of being strong but his ERA is north of 5.00 at Double-A.

One of the reasons Falvey was hired by the Twins was to revamp the pitching staff. "He made it his, probably his passion, to understand pitching and the delivery," Indians manager Terry Francona told the Star Tribune. "We go to him a lot with questions. If he doesn't have the answer, he'll go find it."

When asked if there was a temptation of taking Greene, Falvey said, "We want to line it up and take the best player that has the best possibility to affect us long term, and sometimes that will be a high school player and sometimes it will be a college player." Falvey could want the challenge of developing Greene or he might have seen enough of him this spring to know that taking a chance isn't the right move.

West Coast Kid
Greene has grown up and played almost exclusively on the West Coast. With the Padres sitting with the number three pick, rumors have been swirling about Greene wanting to stay close to home. Baseball America reported, "The rumors of he and his family attempting to maneuver his way to the No. 3 pick with the Padres are a poorly kept secret."

Baseball America also stated, "The Padres' throwing program is more in line with Greene's program." Every young kid is going to want play near his friends and family. The weather in southern California would be a little more pleasant than the upper Mid-West. He'd also be part of a National League organization where he'd still have the opportunity to bat on a regular basis.

If Greene's family really doesn't want him playing in Minnesota, they could pressure the Twins with some high demands that might persuade the club into taking a college option.

Weighing The Cost
Because the Twins have the first pick and other high picks, they have the largest bonus pool in the draft. The Twins' top draft slot is set at $7,770,700 which is roughly $1.25 million less than what the Philles were slotted for with the top pick in last year's draft.

Baseball switched over to the current slotting rules five years ago. Dansby Swanson has been the only top pick to receive the highest signing bonus. In 2012, the Twins gave out the highest bonus to Byron Buxton after the Astros worked a deal with Carlos Correa. Houston was able to use the savings to take Lance McCullers and Rio Ruiz with some of their other early picks.

Since he is a high school player, Greene is going to want the highest bonus in the draft. Minnesota could do something similar to what Houston did in 2012. By signing McKay or Wright to a smaller bonus than Greene, the Twins could use that savings to go over slot on the 35th and 37th picks. However, the Twins might believe Greene is the best available player and take him no matter the cost.

What are your feelings as the draft moves closer? Is Greene going to haunt the Twins? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Twins Minor League Report (5/21): Blankenhorn Blasts, Gordon Keeps Rolling

Photo Credit: Seth Stohs, Twins Daily (Travis Blankenhorn)
Losing games isn't any fun for anyone. Three out of four of the Twins affiliates held leads on Sunday but none of them were able to pull out the win. Even in the midst of all the losing there were some strong performances. Multiple big name prospects had good days at the plate and some relief arms were thrust into the spotlight.

While losing isn't fun for anyone, a lot of the minor leagues is about developing players. Who performed well in the middle of all the losing? You'll have to read on to find out.

Rochester 4, Scranton/WB 5 (11 Innings)
Box Score

After trailing 3-0 after two innings, Rochester plated four runs in the top of the third to take a 4-3 lead. All of the team's damage came with two outs in the frame. Daniel Palka singled and Zach Granite came all the way around for first to score. Back-to-back home runs from Byungho Park and Tommy Field capped a big Red Wings inning but the team would be shutout for the rest of the day. 
Every hitter in the line-up besides JR Murphy collected at least one hit. Field finished the day 3-for-5. 

Nik Turley saw three early runs score against him but he settled in nicely to make it through five inning. Overall, he allowed three earned runs on three hits with three strikeouts and two walks. Alan Busenitz pitched two scoreless frames with a pair of strikeouts. Kevin Chapman started the eighth by allowing a double which was followed by a passed ball. Drew Rucinski came in with a man on third and no outs. He would make it through 1.2 innings by only allowing the inherited runner to score. 

Both of the outs Buddy Boshers collected were by strikeout. Michael Tonkin collected the final out of the 10th and the first out of the 11th before he ran into trouble. Yankees top prospect Clint Frazier walked before a single moved him all the way to third. The game would end on an interesting play as Frazier scored on a sacrifice bunt. 

Chattanooga 4, Biloxi 5 (10 Innings)

Box Score
Much like Rochester, Chattanooga jumped out to an early lead before watching the opposition collect a walk-off win. Nick Gordon lead-off the game with a double and a wild pitch moved him to third. Ryan Strausborger brought in Gordon with a single as the Lookouts had an early 1-0 lead.

In the top of the fifth inning, things got a little wild for Biloxi. Jose Gonzalez and Ryan Walker started the inning with a single and a walk. While Gordon was batting, there were two wild pitches which allowed Gonzalez to score. Gordon eventually walked and than he stole second base. LaMonte Wade plated both runners with a two-out double as Chattanooga was staked to a 4-0 lead. Nick Gordon finished the game 2-for-4 with two doubles, two runs, and and walk.

Matt Tracy had a no-hitter entering the fifth inning but he allowed a walk and a single to start the frame. He had a shutout into the sixth before back-to-back singles put a runner in scoring position with no outs. Biloxi only scored one in the inning to cut the lead to 4-1. Tracy ran out of steam in the seventh as he charged with three more hits and three runs to see the team's lead evaporate.

With two outs in the seventh, Nick Burdi allowed the big hit, a two-run single. Both of these runs were charged to Tracy. Burdi pitched a scoreless eighth inning but a timely double-play stopped more runs from being scored. Raul Fernandez took the loss as he allowed three singles and a hit by pitch in the 10th.

Fort Myers 5, Bradenton 6
Box Score 
Fort Myers looked to sweep the series with Bradenton on Sunday but the Marauders stormed back from an early 5-1 deficit. After Bradenton scored in the first, Fort Myers answered back with back-to-back homers in the bottom of the inning. It was the second homer of the year for Bradley Strong and the third for Chris Paul. Fort Myers went on a hit parade in the second as they used four singles and a walk to push across three runs.

Cody Stashak ran into some trouble in the third and fourth frames as he saw the Miracle lead evaporate. He pitched four innings by allowing five earned runs on eight hits. Anthony McIver pitched two scoreless innings with a strikeout. Williams Ramirez was perfect in his inning of work and struck out a pair. Alex Muren took the loss as a fielding error by Rafael Valera allowed a run to score in the eighth.

Strong and Paul each reached base three times. Zander Wiel had a multi-hit game including his 13th double. Max Murphy was the only Miracle batter to be held without a hit. Fort Myers had three leadoff doubles in inning four through seven but the runners never made it past third. The team went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left nine men on base.

Cedar Rapids 7, Wisconsin 12
Box Score
Cedar Rapids found themselves in a 12-2 hole before trying to mount a comeback. Tyler Beardsley got knocked around for nine earned runs on 12 hits, a career high, including two home runs. Zach Tillery didn't stop the bleeding much as he was charged with three runs after allowing five walks and one hit. Hector Lujan, Alex Robinson, and Logan Lombana combined for 3.2 scoreless innings to end the game. Lujan struck out two and didn't allow a hit (1.2 IP).

Travis Blankenhorn crushed a two run blast in the fifth following a Jaylin Davis double. Lewin Diaz cranked his sixth home run, a solo shot, in the sixth. The Kernels used four straight hits and a sacrifice fly to pull within five runs but that's where the comeback ended.

Blankenhorn finished the day 2-for-4 with two extra-base hits, three RBI, and two runs scored. Davis had a multi-hit game and scored twice. Davis reached base three times with his homer and a pair of walks.

Pitcher of the Day – Nik Turley, Rochester Red Wings (5 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 3 K, 2 BB)
Hitter of the Day – 
Travis Blankenhorn, Cedar Rapids Kernels (2-for-4, HR, 2B, 3 RBI, 2 R)

Rochester - Scheduled Off Day
Chattanooga @ Biloxi (6:35 CST) - TBD
Fort Myers @ Dunedin (5:30 CST) - RHP David Fischer (2-2, 3.58 ERA)

Cedar Rapids @ Clinton (6:35 CST)- RHP Sean Poppen (2-1, 2.38 ERA)

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Is Ervin Santana An Ace?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
Teams are always looking for the one pitcher who can be their rock. The pitcher who always ends a team's losing streak. The pitcher who will pitch late into a game. The pitcher who lets the bullpen take the night off. The pitcher who is in contention for the Cy Young Award.

The Ace...

Unfortunately, there aren't exactly a plethora of aces lying around for teams to scoop up. It's been many years since the Twins have been able to call someone their ace. Johan Santana comes to mind but he hasn't put on a Twins jersey in close to a decade. In fact since Santana left, only two pitchers have led the Twins in WAR, Scott Baker and Kyle Gibson.

A spirited debate was circling Twitter over the weekend. Should Ervin Santana be considered an ace? He's off to a tremendous start but does he fit the criteria for being an ace.

What Is An Ace?
Sporting News compiled a few different theories when it comes to identifying an ace. Theory one was the best starting pitcher on each team. Santana clearly fits into this category as he leads the Twins staff in virtually every statistic. This theory has some holes as there are clearly teams who don't have an ace pitcher and their best starter shouldn't be considered an ace.

Theory two states that an ace should be the top 30 starters in the league. Santana would fail into this category again as his fast start has him near the top of the league in multiple categories. However, 30 aces seems like a lot especially when combining with both leagues to get to 60 pitchers. There aren't 60 aces across the baseball world.

Theory three says an ace should be better than a number one starter and theory four states that an ace should be higher than a chosen statistical threshold. Santana could meet both of those criteria this year but he clearly doesn't have the history to fit into the mold of an ace pitcher.

Santana's History
Santana has one lone All-Star selection in his career. That same season he finished sixth in the Cy Young voting and it was his only year he has received a vote. He only has one season where he has finished in the top-10 in WAR for pitchers. There have been two seasons where he finished in the top-10 for ERA and three seasons where he was in the top-10 for WHIP. He's done some good things during his career but his resume doesn't exactly scream ace.

While this season, he is on pace to finish the year near the top of the leader-board. Last week, I wrote about how it seems more likely for Santana to come back down to earth in the weeks ahead. His only hiccup has been against the Red Sox last Sunday. Based on his history, it seems like regression is on the horizon for the Santana instead of the Twins planning a Cy Young press conference for the off-season.

The Curious Case of Rick Porcello
Last season, Rick Porcello came out of nowhere to win the AL Cy Young. He'd hardly shown up on any major leader-board through out his career. He'd never been an All-Star. In fact, he'd only posted a positive WAR in three of his first seven seasons. At the end of the season, he was awarded one of baseball's highest honors but there are very few people who would call Porcello an ace even with last year's hardware over his mantel.

Porcello seems to have morphed back into his true self this season. His ERA is north of 4.00 and he leads all of baseball in losses and hits allowed. His WHIP has moved back over 1.33 which is much closer to his career mark than the 1.01 WHIP he compiled in 2016. Baseball is a weird game and pitchers can have great seasons but that shouldn't qualify them as an ace.

Less Is More
While the theories discussed above show some ways to select baseball's aces, there are still plenty of flaws. If I am creating a list of aces in baseball, the list isn't going to be very long. To me, it needs to be a player who has shown consistency for multiple seasons while being a top pitcher in all of baseball.

Here are the pitchers I would consider aces from both leagues (in alphabetical order):
Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, David Price, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander

There are only ten players on my list of aces. Ervin Santana is nowhere near making the cut. He could end up having a Porcello-like season and be in contention for the Cy Young but that wouldn't change my mind about it. He's not an ace.

Do you think Ervin Santana is an ace? Who would make your list of current aces in baseball? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Twins Minor League Report (5/14): Chattanooga Flying Solo

Photo Credit: Seth Stohs, Twins Daily
Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there. The baseball world helps to celebrate the weekend by powering their uniforms and bats in pink. Not only can players honor their mothers but they can also help raise money for breast cancer awareness as many of the items will be auctioned off for charity.

It was a muted Mother's Day in the Twins farm system as only two teams were scheduled to play. After a rain-out for Rochester, the Lookouts were the lone team to play. Who would make their mom proud? Read on to find out...

Rochester --, Pawtucket -- (Postponed)

Rain and wet grounds meant the Red Wings' game was postponed on Sunday. Rochester was looking to sweep the four-game series after being swept by Lehigh Valley earlier in the week.The game will be made up as part of a doubleheader on Saturday, June 17 starting at 3:35 pm CST. Sunday marked the eighth time Rochester has been postponed this season. 

The Red Wings are currently tied with the Buffalo Bisons for second place in the International League North. Lehigh Valley sits atop the division and they are currently three games ahead of Rochester and Buffalo. 

Chattanooga 5, Birmingham 4

Box Score
Chattanooga was getting no-hit into the sixth inning but their bats would finally come alive over the course of the final frames. Lookouts' right hander Paul Clemens matched zeros with the Barons as he didn't allow a run in his five innings of work. However, Birmingham would strike first with a solo home run in the top of the sixth.

The Lookouts wasted little time answering back as Ryan Walker ended the no-hitter and the shutout with one swing of the bat. He led off the bottom of the sixth with a long ball to tie the game at 1-1. Chattanooga wasn't done as the strung together a walk and three straight singles to push the lead to 3-1. 

The game continued to be back and forth with Birmingham scoring two in the top of the seventh to tie the game. Walker got things going again in the seventh. He and Nick Gordon singled to start the frame. Engelb Vielma bunted them over before LaMonte Wade connected for a clutch two-run single that turned out to be the the tie-breaking hit. 

Raul Fernandez allowed four earned runs over 2.2 innings in relief of Clemens. It was still enough to "earn" his first victory of the year. John Curtiss was asked to get an out in eighth before collecting the final three outs in the ninth. He didn't allow a run and struck out two on the way to his sixth save. 

Following an off-day on Sunday, the Miracle will start a six-game homestand as they look to dig out of a recent slump. Fort Myers has lost four of their last five contests and they have only won one series in the month of May. This week will go along way into deciding if the Miracle can contend for a first half playoff spot. This up-coming homestand includes series versus the first place teams in the FSL South and North Divisions, Clearwater and Bradenton. Currently, the Miracle are in fourth place in the FSL South as they trail Bradenton by seven games.

Cedar Rapids entered Sunday with a 20-15 record as they sit near the top of the MWL Western Division. They are percentage points behind Kane County for the overall top spot but they have played two more games than the Cougars. Over the last week, the Kernels went 4-3. Over the next three days they will play four games against Peoria to make-up for a rainout at the end of last month. The Chiefs are nine games under .500 and sit seven games back of the Kernels. Next weekend, Cedar Rapids has a big series at Wisconsin, the second-place team in the MWL Western Division.

Pitcher of the Day – Paul Clemens, Chattanooga Lookouts (5 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 3 K)
Hitter of the Day – Ryan Walker, Chattanooga Lookouts (2-for-3, 2 R, HR, RBI)

Rochester vs. Lehigh Valley (6:05 CST)- LHP David Hurlbut (2-2, 1.59 ERA)
Chattanooga vs. Birmingham (6:15 CST) - TBD
Fort Myers vs. Clearwater (5:35 CST) - RHP Cody Stashak (0-3, 3.94 ERA)

Cedar Rapids vs. Peoria (5:30 CST)- RHP Eduardo Del Rosario (2-2, 3.95 ERA)
Cedar Rapids vs. Peoria (Game 2- Makeup of 4/29)- TBD

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