Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Twins Top Stories of 2015

The champagne is on ice and it's almost time for the ball to drop in Times Square. 2015 will move over to make way for 2016 and it will be time for resolutions and the hope of a new year.

The Twins offered plenty of hope to their fan base in 2015. After four straight seasons with at least 92 losses, many major media sources expected the Twins to again finish near the bottom of the AL Central. Thankfully, they were wrong and the Twins surprised many by staying in the playoff hunt until the final week of the season.

Here is a look at five of the top stories that surrounded Minnesota in 2015.
Molitor Takes the Reigns
The Twins don't like change when it comes to their manager. The last two managers in Minnesota, Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire, combined to manage from 1986-2014. Paul Molitor invigorated the Twins clubhouse on the way to an 83-79 record. He did all of this despite the Twins have no one in the top 10 in the American League in batting average, home runs, RBI, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, strikeouts, or ERA. Because of all of this, Molitor finished third in the balloting for the American League Manager of the Year Award.

Twins In Playoff Hunt
When a team has lost over 90 games for four consecutive seasons, it's refreshing to have a club back in the playoff hunt. Minnesota wasn't eliminated from postseason contention until the second-to-last day of the season. The club used a historic May record of 20-7 to finish the month in first place. It was the first time the organization won at least 20 games in a month since 1991. With 83 wins, the club finished with an above .500 record for only the second time in the Target Field era.

Hunter Plays Final Season Back Home
Not all fans were excited about the Twins giving over $10 million to an aging Torii Hunter last offseason but the Twins wanted to add his veteran leadership to what would turn out to be a young clubhouse. By most accounts, Hunter played better than expected and finished the year with 22 home runs and 81 RBI. Shortly after the season ended, Hunter announced that he would be retiring to spend more time with his wife and family. He played 12 of his 19 seasons in a Twins uniform.

Perkins, Dozier Named All-Stars
Even though the Twins were one of the top teams in the AL during the first half of the season, it looked like the club was only going to have one representative at the Midsummer Classic. Glen Perkins didn't blow a save in the first half of the season and he was an easy choice for his third consecutive All-Star Game. Brian Dozier had to fight his way into the game as he was included on the Final Vote candidate. He wouldn't get in through this method but he'd be named as an injury replacement to cap off a week where he finished one of the most dramatic wins in recent Twins history. Both players impact the All-Star Game as Dozier hit a home run and Perkins closed out the win for the AL.

Top Prospects Debut
Big names prospects like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton earn legendary status before ever seeing a big league pitch. Sano lived up to the hype as he collected 18 home runs, 17 doubles, and 52 RBIs in 80 games on his way to being named the team's MVP. Buxton's debut didn't come with as much flare as Sano but he's still considered one of the top prospects in the game. Eddie Rosario made an impact as he attained double digits in home runs, doubles, triples, stolen bases, and outfield assists. Tyler Duffey made a big impact on the mound winning five games to help keep the team in the hunt. Max Kepler was given a September call-up after being named the Southern League MVP and helping the Lookouts to win the league's championship.

Baseball is a game of hope and the Twins offered their fan base plenty of hope in 2015. It would seem the team is trending in the right direction for 2016 with a more experienced manager, a young core, and a chance to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2010. 

Raise a glass to toast 2015 and let's keep hope alive for an even better 2016 in Twins Territory.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Dozier's Defensive Dielmma

Brian Dozier was able to call himself an All-Star for the first time in 2015. He's gained national attention after competing in the 2014 Home Run Derby and after hitting a home run to help the American League win the 2015 All-Star Game. He's slowly become one of the Twins most valuable players as he has entrenched himself near the top of the team's line-up.

His value to the organization has been clear in recent years. He's ranked in the team's top three for rWAR from 2013-2015 and he led the team in that category in 2014. Dozier has also led the team in home runs in each year during that stretch.

For Twins fans, it's easy to get excited about his play. His presence in the line-up has been a jolt the team has needed at different portions of the season. However, offense is only one part of the game and his defensive game has been in decline.

As Dozier started his rise to stardom in the Twins line-up, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) started to use a defensive index to help decide portions of the Rawlings Gold Gloves.

According to the SABR website: "The SABR Defensive Index 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. The three metrics representing batted ball data include Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Info Solutions, Ultimate Zone Rating developed by noted sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman, and Runs Effectively Defended built by SABR Defensive Committee member Chris Dial. The two metrics included in the SDI originating from play-by-play data are Defensive Regression Analysis, created by committee member Michael Humphreys, and Total Zone Rating."

2013 Season
By the end of the 2013 season, Dozier ranked as the third best second baseman in the American League according to the SABR Defensive Index (SDI). Dustin Pedroia won the Gold Glove and compiled an 11.6 SDI. Dozier's 5.5 SDI was 1.4 points behind Ian Kinsler for second place. There were only seven second basemen that scored in positive territory on the SDI.

In 734 chances at second, he was charged with six errors for a .992 fielding percentage, a career best mark. This was seven points higher than the league average for second basemen. However, defense goes deeper than fielding percentage. His defensive runs saved above average (Rdrs) was nine, another career high. Some other Sabermetric Fielding numbers weren't as kind to him. His Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average (Rtot) was -2.

2013 was his best defensive season as a big leaguer and it was Dozier's first full season playing second base so this was quite the remarkable feat.

2014 Season
Dozier dropped down the SDI rankings in 2014 as Pedroia won his second consecutive AL Gold Glove. Ian Kinsler actually ranked higher than Pedroia in the final SDI rankings and Howie Kendrick rounded out the top three. Dozier slipped all the way to eighth place in the American League with a -0.7 SDI, the sixth worse mark out of qualifying second basemen.

During his second season at second base, Dozier showed some regression as he was charged with 15 errors in 751 chances. His .980 fielding percentage was four points lower than the league average. Dozier's Rdrs dropped 9 runs and his Rtot dipped nine 10 runs from -2 to -12.

Although his defense wasn't at the bottom of the league, there was a clear decline from the positive numbers he compiled in 2013. He would need to make some changes going into 2015 because he was trending in the wrong direction.

2015 Season
For the first time in the SDI era, a second baseman not in the top two was awarded the Gold Glove. Jose Altuve's 4.6 SDI ranking was less than half of the league leader Ian Kinsler (10.7 SDI) but Altuve was still awarded the top defensive award. Dozier continued his decline into the bottom of the league as he finished with a -6.1 SDI and only ranked ahead of two qualified players, Robinson Cano and Johnny Giavotella.

Dozier's fielding percentage went back up to .990 (8 errors in 767 chances) while the league average was a .983 fielding percentage. However some of his other numbers compared differently when looking at his previous seasons. His Rdrs was negative for the first time as he posted a -5 mark but his Rtot was slightly better at -8.

There is some hope for Dozier. At the end of the 2014 season, Altuve was the lowest ranking second baseman according to SDI with a -10.2. This mark was 2.5 points lower than competition. In one season, Altuve improved by 14.8 SDI points and was rewarded with the Gold Glove.

Dozier makes some tremendously athletic plays but some of this results from him not being able to get to balls that are near the edge of his range. The best second basemen made the routine plays look easy and can stretch their range to meet a specific play.

If Dozier wants to be considered one of the best second basemen in the game, his defense is his biggest weakness. He has the opportunity to improve and solving this defensive dilemma could help the club to continue trending in the right direction.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Twas the Night Before Twins Christmas

Tis the season... well it's not baseball season but fans can still be in the baseball mood. Back in 2010, I wrote a version of this poem that had become a little outdated after half a decade. The Twins had a different manager and GM at the time and the team's biggest offseason move was bringing in Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

So here is an update version to help us survive this holiday season. May your holiday be filled with plenty of blessings (and maybe a free agent signing by the Twins).

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through Target Field
Not a worker was stirring, for every door had been sealed;

The stockings were hung by the dugout with care,
In hopes that a free agent soon would be there;

Every fan was nestled all snug in their beds, 
While visions of championships danced in their heads;

And Terry Ryan in his 'kerchief, and Molitor in a cap,
Seem to be spending the offseason on a long winter's nap;

David Price had signed and still no deals had been made,
On many fans minds this problem heavily weighed;

When out on the field there arose such a clatter,
Ryan sprang from the bed to see what was the matter;

 A star from Korea with a bat that could bash,
Left fans hoping that his contract wouldn't be too brash;

Target Field lay under the new fallen snow,
While the rest of the offseason moves seemed to come slow;

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
Thoughts of new pitcher would let the fans cheer;

Molitor wants a new team with power in their swings,
With hopes that it will result in multiple rings.

Hunter retired after much fortune and fame,
A title in the Central will be hard to reclaim;

The team is young and expectations are high,
2015 was great but now it's time to say goodbye ;

There are roster quandaries as youth starts to take hold,
For Twins Territory, the losing was getting old;

With the new year, changes will come,
It is still hard not to feel glum;

A star pitcher would make the fans clamor,
Or a bullpen pitcher who can drop the hammer;

The wish list is long for fans this holiday season,
Trying to overcome the Royals is definitely the reason;

Fans want a plan so they can be merry,
Because making no moves seems all too scary;

A Christmas signing wrapped in a bow,
Could make up for this excess of snow.

Back to sleep I will go with the hope of a good dream,
For the Twins will continue to be our baseball team;

There is still plenty of offseason to make things right,
Until then "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Building the Twins 2018 Line-Up

The final touches are being put on the 2016 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook and fans can look for ordering details shortly after the new year. In the aftermath of writing profiles on every prospect in the Twins system, it's hard not to get excited about the direction the team is heading in 2016 and beyond.

Predicting the future can be a tough task when it comes to prospects especially when trying to decipher who will part of the next playoff team in Minnesota. There are a plethora of high-end prospects ready to make an everyday impact but the crystal ball can be a little murky when gazing into the future. 

Let's do our best to try and have our own lightsaber Force vision of the future. When the Twins are ready to make consistent playoff runs, what will the line-up look like in 2018?
Catcher: This position is one of the hardest to get a read on as we look into the future. The Twins have a group of young catchers moving through the system. Mitch Garver, Brian Navarreto, and Alex Swim could all play well enough to get some big league playing time. For now, it seems like Stuart Turner will be the team's likely option at backstop. The Twins have been aggressive with him during his time in the organization and he could make his big league debut this season. He has an experienced approach at the plate but his offense isn't his calling card. Turner is a defensive first catcher but that could be enough to give him the starting job by 2018.
2018 Prediction: Stuart Turner, Back-Up Plan: Mitch Garver

First Base: It's crazy to think Joe Mauer's contract will come to an end at some point but that's exactly what will happen after the 2018 season. Mauer can be a free agent as he will be in his mid-30s at the time with the potential to still have some baseball in front of him. It's hard to know if that future will be in Minnesota but there doesn't seem to be a situation where he won't be part of the line-up in 2018. There will be other options on the roster. Newly signed Korean slugger Byung Ho Park has experience at first and he could be getting more playing time at first in the next few years. As Miguel Sano continues to grow into his body, it wouldn't be surprising to see him end up playing at first as well. 
2018 Prediction: Joe Mauer, Back-Up Plan: Byung Ho Park

Second Base: Brian Dozier is coming off an All-Star season but he's struggled offensively in the second half of 2014 and 2015. Minnesota just signed him to a deal through 2018 and he will be 31 years old by the end of that deal. This makes it pretty easy to hypothesize that Dozier will still be there by 2018. The Twins do have other infielders making their way through the system. Jorge Polanco has ranked high on Twins prospect lists and he's had a brief taste of the big leagues. There are some questions about his defensive abilities at shortstop so a switch to second base might be just what the doctor ordered. If Polanco continues to show promise, the Twins might be willing to deal Dozier before his contract expires.
2018 Prediction: Brian Dozier, Back-Up Plan: Jorge Polanco 

Third Base: The Twins have seen Trevor Plouffe evolve into a very good player at third base. The former first round pick will be a free agent before the 2018 season so it seems likely that the organization will part ways with him. This could mean a shift for Miguel Sano back to the hot corner. There is talk from the Twins of Sano playing some outfield this season and that might be the only way to get all of their sluggers in the line-up at the same point. Sano will be entering his fourth big league season and he could still have something to prove if he hasn't played a ton of third base up to this point in his career. While someone like Polanco could switch from shortstop to third, the other options at third might be someone like Trey Cabbage. 
2018 Prediction: Miguel Sano, Back-Up Plan: Jorge Polanco

Shortstop: Shortstop has been a black hole in the Twins organization. The Twins have added multiple players like Nick Gordon and Wander Javier over the last couple seasons to try and turn a weakness into a strength. Javier signed for a ton of money but he won't be ready by 2018. This means the Twins future shortstop could be left in the hands of Nick Gordon. He has the potential to be an All-Star and a top-of-the-order hitter. The Twins have been aggressive with him so far in his professional career so it wouldn't be a surprise for him to spend the 2018 season as the club's primary shortstop. Engelb Vielma is another top-20 prospect that has all of the defensive skills to stick at the position. If Gordon isn't ready in '18, look for Vielma to fit the role. 
2018 Prediction: Nick Gordon, Back-Up Plan: Engelb Vielma

Right Field: Minnesota's 2018 outfield could be littered with talent. Top prospects like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario will all need homes especially if they establish themselves as everyday players. All three of these players have shown the ability to play center field so two of them will have to get pushed to the corners and combine for a solid defensive grouping. Kepler seems like the logical choice for right field since he could grow into his body more and he's played the position in the minor leagues. After being named the team's minor league player of the year, hopes will be high for Kepler but he has the chance to be an All-Star. A back-up plan could be slugging outfield Adam Brett Walker especially if he keeps mashing home runs.
2018 Prediction: Max Kepler, Back-Up Plan: Adam Brett Walker

Left Field: With Kepler occupying right field, Eddie Rosario gets the reigns to left field. Rosario is coming off a very good rookie campaign where he showed some positive signs at the plate. If he can continue to develop offensively, he could nestle snugly into a everyday player that fits nicely into the second half of the line-up. Walker would be another back-up option for this position as he has played both corner outfield positions during the last two seasons. A middle of the order with Sano, Park, and Walker could be a murder's row for opposing pitchers in the American League.
2018 Prediction: Eddie Rosario, Back-Up Plan: Adam Brett Walker

Center Field: The land once occupied by the likes of Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter seems close to becoming the land of Byron Buxton. Baseball's top rated prospect for much of the last two seasons should be a regular by the time the 2018 season roles around. He has all the skills to be a five-tool player and he could be on his way to multiple All-Star appearances and potential MVP awards. There is still a lot left for him to prove but most of the baseball world seems confident that Mr. Buxton will be able to put it all together to be a well above-average player. 
2018 Prediction: Byron Buxton, Back-Up Plan: Max Kepler

Designated Hitter: When Minnesota signed Park this offseason, they made sure to refer to him as a designated hitter. Twins general manager Terry Ryan made reference to his ability to play first base but the Twins have another player entrenched at first base so this means Park will have to get playing time at another spot. There are also plenty of other names on this list that could fill into a DH role by 2018. Mauer might be aging too much to play first base or a combination of Sano and Walker could definitely add some power to the DH role. As long as Park adjusts well to baseball in the States, it seems like the DH role is his to lose. 
2018 Prediction: Byung Ho Park, Back-Up Plan: Mauer/Sano/Walker

What would your 2018 line-up look like? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.