Monday, January 16, 2017

Forecasting Mauer's Remaining Years

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
When the Twins signed Joe Mauer to the largest contract in team history, fans were excited to see what the future could hold. He was coming off an MVP season where he rewrote the record books when it comes to offense from the catching position. Minnesota was annually in the playoff hunt and optimism was running high.

Flash-forward six seasons and that optimism has run out. Mauer is no longer behind the plate and Minnesota is in the midst of one of the franchise's worst stretches. So what can fans expect from Mauer with two years left on his monster deal?

Mauer will turn 34-years old during the first month of the coming season. He's slowly moving out of his prime and many Twins fans might argue that he's already past his prime. There are still two years remaining with Mauer in a Minnesota jersey and there's been glimmers of hope when it comes to the offensive side of the ball.

During last March/April, Mauer got off to a fast start as he hit .321/.453/.440 with seven extra-base hits and a 20 to 9 strikeout to walk ratio. By the end of April, he combined for five home runs and posted a .741 OPS. It looked like the season was off to a strong start.

The season's middle months didn't go so well and a quad injury bothered Mauer starting at the middle of August. He still ended that month hitting .337/.419/.533 with 13 extra-base hits. However, the injury continued to bother him into the season's final month. He posted a .111 batting average and a .468 OPS while being limited to 12 games during September/October.

There was good in 2016 like Mauer sharing co-American League Player of the Week honors with rookie teammate Max Kepler. There was bad like the month of June where he hit .223/.308/.287 with 22 strikeouts and 12 walks. There was ugly as he tried to fight through the final month of the season and posted the number mentioned above.

When Mauer's quad injury was originally reported, he was hitting .284/.384/417. Those are numbers most fans could handle especially since his defense at first base ranked among the best in the American League. So what version of Mauer will show up in 2017?

Over the last three season's Mauer has combined to bat .267 with a .733 OPS while averaging 40 extra-base hits per season. FanGraph's ZiPS 2017 Projections predict Mauer will hit .262/.350/.378 with nine home runs and 23 doubles. Injuries will tell the tale of Mauer's future. If Mauer has other nagging injuries, those numbers seem accurate. If he can stay healthier in 2017, I'd expect those numbers to be higher.

Mauer's final year under contract will be an interesting one. Is he going to want to continue to play? Does he want to finish his career in Minnesota? Do the Twins want to keep him around into his late-30's? Earlier this off-season, I projected the 2020 Twins line-up and it didn't include Mauer in the picture. In fact, another current member of the roster has taken over for him at first base.

Trying to make predictions can be a murky proposition especially in the baseball world. Mauer was one of the best hitters in the game before concussions and injuries took something away from him.

Even if these are his final two years in Minnesota, I am going to continue to appreciate every time he steps up to the plate. He's one of the best players in team history and he deserves fans respect especially if his Twins tenure is concluding.

What are your expectations for Mauer over the next two seasons? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Persuing Jose Bautista Seems Unconventional

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
While the Hot Stove has cooled down on any Brian Dozier rumblings, news out of the Twin Cities has the Twins interesting in adding other depth to their roster. MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger is reporting the Twins have touched base with multiple agents for position players and this includes former Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista.

A conflicting report from the Star Tribune's LaVelle E. Neal III says the speculation surrounding Bautista needs to cool down. He's "hearing the Twins aren't interested in him." 

Does signing a free agent slugger fit with the Twins' current direction?

For a rebuilding organization, it might seem like a bold strategy to add a veteran player. Last winter, reports had Bautista seeking a contract extension of over five years and $150 million. The 36-year old made multiple DL stints this year as he battled toe and knee issues. He played in 116 games but he saw a decline in his power and his defensive skills continue to be an issue.

This was the third time in the last five seasons where Bautista failed to play over 118 games. Back in 2011, he led all of baseball in slugging percentage (.608) and OPS (1.056). However, those totals have dropped in recent years as he batted .234/.366/.452 in 2016.

It seems more likely for Bautista to stay with an AL squad where he can spend some of his time as a designated hitter. Minnesota already has the likes of Miguel Sano, Joe Mauer, Kennys Vargas, and Byung-Ho Park to get at-bats at DH. Adding Bautista to this mix, could make this a little crowded.

Minnesota's current outfield projects to include Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Max Kepler. All of these players are young and there's no telling what kind of performance the team will coax from their young core. Bautista could provide some insurance in the corner outfield and a veteran voice in the locker room.

KSTP's Chris Long interviewed Derek Falvey about the possibility of adding Bautista to a rebuilding organization. "We'll continue to monitor all potential avenues for players, whether it's free or trades," he said. "I wouldn't shut the door on any player out there right now, even if it was slightly unconventional."

In recent years, players like Nelson Cruz and Dexter Fowler have been open to unconventional deals. Both of them signed one-year contract to increase their value before becoming a free agent again. It sounds like Bautista would be open to this idea but he'd want the one-year deal to be worth more than the $17.2 million qualifying offer he turned down.

Since he rejected Toronto's qualifying offer, Bautista also comes tied to a loss of a draft pick. Minnesota's first overall pick is protected but the Twins would be forced to surrender their next highest pick. That pick would be the fifth pick of the Competitive Balance Round between the first and second round. Under the old regime, Minnesota was willing to do this when signing Ervin Santana.

Conventional wisdom would have to think Bautista is searching for a big payday. After an unconventional path to the big leagues, it took him until late into his 20's and early 30's to establish himself as a consistent MLB regular. As an aging slugger, this could be one of his last opportunities to sign a multi-year free agent contract.

For Twins fans, Bautista has been a nemesis since Target Field opened. He's hit .349/.429/.895 with 14 home runs and five doubles in 21 games. His 1.324 OPS at Target Field is his highest mark at any ballpark where he's played more than five games.

It doesn't seem like Bautista would be a perfect fit in Minnesota even on a one-year deal. With a draft pick tied to him and Bautista continuing to age, it would certainly seem unconventional considering the Twins current state of affairs.

What are your thoughts on a potential Bautista signing? Do the Twins need more veteran players? Is he worth giving up a draft pick? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Minnesota's Defensive Woes Continue

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
It's no secret that Minnesota's pitching was poor last season. Twins' starters ranked last in ERA and K/9 with a -13.95 win probability added. However, there may be an even deeper problem at the heart of the Twins issues

Even with pitchers performing poorly, the Twins also had trouble on the defensive side of the ball. Miguel Sano struggled during his time in the outfield while other players played below average at their natural positions.

So what's at the heart of Minnesota's defensive woes?

Defensive metrics have come a long way over the last decade. With organizations and other private companies tracking every batted ball, the amount of information available to fans is at an all-time high.

The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has developed the SABR Defensive Index (SDI). According to SABR's website, the SDI "draws on and aggregates two types of existing defensive metrics: those derived from batted ball location-based data and those collected from play-by-play accounts."

Here's a look at how Twins' players stacked up in the final 2016 SDI rankings.

Pitcher: Ervin Santana
Final SDI Ranking: -0.7 (32nd in the AL)
Santana was the lone pitcher to accumulate enough innings to appear on the SDI rankings. Defensively, pitchers have very little reaction time and sometimes it is best for them to just stay out of the way. Santana only scored better than 12 pitchers that qualified for the SDI and he's the first of many Twins on this list to score in the negative range.

Catcher: Kurt Suzuki
Final SDI Ranking: -7.2 (12th in the AL)
Suzuki wasn't exactly known for his defensive prowess. He struggled to throw out runners along with other defensive aspects (pitch framing, etc.). The only AL catcher he scored better than was Dioner Navarro of the White Sox. Newly signed catcher Jason Castro had an SDI score of -0.7 which ranked him seventh in the American League.

First Base: Joe Mauer
Final SDI Ranking: 1.6 (4th in the AL)
Around the All-Star Game, Mauer only trailed Mitch Moreland in the AL SDI rankings for first base. By August, he would drop to fourth place and that's where he would finish the season. This was a vast improvement over the 2015 season where he posted a -0.1 SDI. Only three third baseman scored lower than him during that campaign. If he can continue to make strides, he might be able to sneak into next year's top three.

Second Base: Brian Dozier
Final SDI Ranking: -1.3 (6th in the AL)
I've been critical of Dozier's defense since last off-season but he began to make some improvements during the second half of 2016. At the mid-season mark, only Johnny Giavotella of the Angels ranked lower than Dozier with a -4.5 SDI. That came on the heels of finishing with a -6.1 SDI in 2015. Dozier improved his SDI by 3.2 points in the second half to finish sixth in the AL but he was 8.1 points behind a power four (Cano, Kipnis, Kinsler, Pedroia) at the top of the rankings.

Shortstop: Eduardo Nunez
Final SDI Ranking: -1.2 (9th in the AL)
Nunez wouldn't finish the year in a Twins uniform but he still compiled enough innings at shortstop to appear in the rankings. It's no secret that he was below average at shortstop but the Twins were able to deal him at the deadline. Now the Giants can use Nunez at other positions since Brandon Crawford is scheduled to be the everyday shortstop.

Left field: Eddie Rosario
Final SDI Ranking: -0.6 (5th in the AL)
During his minor league years, Rosario played all over the field including all three outfield positions and a season playing second base. With Rosario's skill set, I expected him to score better on the SDI. His quickness helps him to track down balls and his arm is fairly good. This is a far cry from the Delmon Young and Josh Willingham days. I wouldn't be surprised to see his ranking improve in 2017 if he is given the opportunity to be a full-time player.

Right field: Max Kepler
Final SDI Ranking: 1.4 (7th in the AL)
Kepler compiled the Twins' second highest SDI score as he only trailed Mauer by 0.2 points. The AL right field rankings had quote the duo at the top with Adam Eaton (21.4 SDI) and Mookie Betts (19.3 SDI). Kepler was one of nine AL right fielders to score positive in the SDI. He did all of this while only starting 100 games in right field including 97 complete games. Much like Rosario, I would expect his SDI total to increase in 2017 with more playing time.

Luckily, multiple players on this list won't be on Minnesota's roster for this coming season. Suzuki and Nunez are already gone and Dozier could be on his way out the door. This would leave the Twins with an entirely new middle infield for 2017. With the switch, there will hopefully be some defensive improvements.

Who's ranking surprised you? Who will have improved defensive seasons in 2017? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Running Down The Hall (Of Fame Ballot)

Photo Credit: Eric Bolte, USA Today Sports
The winds of change are blowing through the hallowed grounds of Cooperstown. Debate has swirled over which players, if any, from the steroids era should be elected. Mike Piazza was elected as part of the class of 2016 and there were steroid rumors surrounding him. Other top players from the steroid era, like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, have been forced to wait their turn.

Within the last few months, it was announced that former MLB commissioner Bud Selig will be enshrined in Cooperstown. This is the man that oversaw the growth of baseball to the level that it is today. He also allowed the steroid era to continue longer than it should have gone on. If the architect of the steroid era is being let into the Hall, other players will soon follow suit.

There needs to be a fine line drawn and each person is going to put that line in different spots. When baseball started testing/suspensions for steroids in 2005, players continued to break the rules. Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez broke the rules and won't be on this ballot or any future ballot.

Here are the ten names I would pencil in if I had a ballot:

Class of 2017
Jeff Bagwell: It was close last year but Bagwell's 71.6% of the vote fell just short of the 75% needed for induction. There are some that have questioned his candidacy because he was a power hitter in the midst of the steroids era. Bagwell is tied with Ty Cobb for the third most seasons with a .420+OBP, .540+SLG, and 15+ stolen bases. Only Ed Delahanty and Barry Bonds are higher on the list.

Tim Raines: Raines enters his tenth and final year on the ballot with a full head of steam. He finished last year with almost 70% of the vote and the ballots released so far this year show he should easily make it. He is one of the best lead-off hitters of all-time. He's fifth in stolen bases, 13th in stolen base percentage and 46th in win probability added.

Ivan Rodriguez: It took Mike Piazza, the best offensive catcher of all-time, four tries to be elected to the Hall. With Piazza breaking down the door, it looks like Ivan Rodriguez will get to follow on his coat-tails. The 14-time All-Star won the AL MVP in 1999 and was NLCS MVP in 2003. He's played more games at catcher than anyone in history and he has 13 Gold Gloves to show for all this time behind the plate.

Future Inductions
Vladimir Guerrero: Guerrero is an interesting case and I think voters will be more open to his election in the years to come. He was a career .318/.379/.553 hitter while ranking in the top five in the MVP voting four times including winning the 2004 AL MVP. His .318 average and 449 home runs have only been matched by Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, and Jimmie Foxx. That's some rare company.

Trevor Hoffman: For a few seasons, he held the all-time record for career saves before being passed by Mariano Rivera. Even as a relief pitcher, he finished second in the Cy Young voting twice and had two other top six finishes. He was the first pitcher to reach 500 saves and one of two players to have reached the 600 save mark. Relief pitchers have a tough time getting in but he was a trailblazer at the position.

May Never Get In (But Still On My Ballot)
Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling
Bonds and Clemens are two of the greatest players of all-time but the steroid cloud continues to haunt them. They are each making big jumps on the 2017 ballot so it will be interesting to see what will happen in the years to come. Martinez is one of the best designated hitters in history but the voters also seems to be holding his lack of defense against him.

Mussina has been one of the last names on my ballot in each of the last two seasons. He was a good pitcher for a very long time but it might not be enough to find a place in Cooperstown. Schilling is losing votes very quickly. His outspoken nature since he has retired have hurt his chances. He is still one of the best post-season pitchers in history so I would put him on my ballot strictly for his play on the field.

So who do you think gets in? Who else should have been on my ballot? Who should have been left off? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Twins Request Final Offers For Dozier

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
The Twins want some roster clarity as the calendar flips to 2017. According to a report from the Star Tribune's La Velle E. Neal III, "The club would like interested teams to step up with their best offer in the coming days, or they plan to prepare for the 2017 season with Dozier as their second baseman."

Trade rumors have been swirling around the Twins' face of the franchise after a monster season where he belted over 40 home runs. With two-years remaining on his contract at a team friendly price, there are multiple teams interested in acquiring the second baseman.

Here's a recap where things are when it comes to a Dozier deal.

The Dodgers continue to be the team most likely suited to acquire Dozier. Los Angeles has a surplus of pitching prospects and a desire to win now. Jose De Leon's name is the one that has been most associated with the Twins. The right-handed pitching prospect was a top-25 prospect entering last season while making his MLB debut at age-23.

According to Neal, the Dodgers have been pushing for a straight Dozier for De Leon trade. The Twins have wanted the addition of another top prospect like first baseman Cody Bellinger or right-handed pitcher Yadier Alvarez. Los Angeles hasn't budged in their offer.

Other teams rumored to be interested are the Giants, Cardinals, and Braves. If the Giants want to work a deal, they would likely need to bring in a third team because their farm system doesn't have as many high caliber prospects. They also have Joe Panik to play second base so Dozier could need to move to third base, a position he has little experience playing.

Chatter surrounding the Cardinals interest in Dozier peaked last week when KSTP's Darren Wolfson reported that the Cardinals are "very much in it." However, the Cardinals might be hesitant to include their top prospects like right-handed pitcher Alex Reyes or catcher Carson Kelly. Some believe the Cardinals reported interest in Dozier was a ploy from the organization to get more value squeezed out of the Dodgers.

Washington was aggressive this off-season by trading multiple prospects to the White Sox to acquire Adam Eaton. This might leave them little in the tank when it comes to dealing for Dozier. Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post said the Nationals "haven't made any serious inquiries on Twins' Dozier." She went on to say that there was "no natural fit there."

Atlanta has been working on their own rebuild so it doesn't seem likely that they would want to trade away top prospects for the remaining years on Dozier's contract. Dozier would help their current squad make strides in the right direction but their organization is built to win in the future, not in the present.

While the Dodger continue to seem to be the most likely fit, Los Angeles is going to have to up their offer for the Twins to take a deal. With multiple years remaining on his contract, the Twins could wait until the trade deadline and hope there are more teams willing to deal away their top talent. This would also require Dozier to continue to play the way he did in the second half.

Time might be running out on a Dozier deal.