Monday, October 24, 2016

Following The Cubs' Blueprint

Photo Credit: Jon Durr, USA Today Sports
Only two short seasons the Cubs were in the midst of five straight seasons of 87 losses or more. This included a 101-loss season in 2012. Flash-forward to the present day and the Cubs have been rebuilt and are four wins away from their first World Series title in over 100 years.

Minnesota is in a similar spot to the Chicago teams from 2010-14. Can the Twins mount a similar turnaround in the years to come? How can Derek Falvey, the Twins new chief of baseball operations, follow the Chicago blueprint?

Find Pitching
One simple message is plastered across the conference room wall for Chicago's baseball operations staff... "FIND PITCHING." Three-fifths of the Cubs rotation was signed as free agents. NLCS co-MVP Jon Lester signed a six-year, $155 million in December 2014. Jason Hammel signed a two-year deal ($32 million)in the same off-season as Lester and John Lackey joined the rotation this past off-season.

Two of Chicago's best starting pitchers joined the team in very favorable trades. Jake Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young winner, was acquired for catcher Steve Clevenger and right-handed pitcher Scott Feldman. Kyle Hendricks, the hero of the NLCS clinching game, came to Chicago for right-handed pitcher Ryan Dempster. A change of scenery and new coaches helped both of these pitchers develop into front of the rotation arms.

Minnesota's recent search for pitching has left plenty to desire. Ricky Nolasco signed a four-year, $49 million deal before the 2014 season. During his three years in Minnesota, he posted a 5.44 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP while being worth a -0.3 WAR. Phil Hughes looked great in his first season in Minnesota so the Twins signed him to a long-term deal. He struggled in 2015 before missing most of 2016 with an injury. Ervin Santana, another free-agent signing, was the team's best pitcher this season but there weren't many options.

Falvey and the team he assembles are going to have a mission and that mission will be to find pitching.

Youth Movement
When a team is playing poorly, it's easy to say let the young prospects play. This isn't always the best strategy as there are plenty of ups-and-downs and sometimes patience can be the key. The Cubs have a young core including Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Javier Baez. Some patience has been required along the way.

Baez, the NLCS co-MVP, spent most of 2014 and 2015 going back and forth between the minor leagues and the big league roster. Bryant lead the National League in strikeouts a year ago and he will likely win the 2016 NL MVP award. Russell has yet to hit over .242 in a season but raised his OPS from .696 last year to .738 this season. Patience seems to have paid off.

Epstein has even referenced Kansas City's approach with young players to build a World Series roster. Players like Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer took years to develop into solid everyday players. "You experience a lot of valleys along the way, whether it's being demoted or having a difficult month or year," Epstein told Sporting News. "In the end, they were rewarded for their patience."

Minnesota will need to follow a similar strategy with their young core. Miguel Sano finished third in the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year voting before struggling through parts of 2016. Byron Buxton has been demoted multiple times before a strong final month of the season. Jose Berrios has dominated Triple-A but his MLB starts have been disappointing.

Twins fans have waited for this young core to show promising signs. However, fans will need to continue to show patience.

Managerial Switch
When the Twins let Terry Ryan go, ownership made it clear that Paul Molitor would be the Twins manager entering the 2017 season. Molitor surprised many during his rookie managerial season by leading the Twins to the cusp of the playoffs. This ended a streak of four straight 90 loss seasons. Things got worse in 2016 as the Twins lost a team record 103 games which was the worst record in baseball.

Since Epstein joined the Cubs in 2011, Chicago has employed three different managers. Dale Sveum averaged over 98 losses per season. Rick Renteria posted a more respectable 73-89 record but he was only given one season to turn the team around. Joe Maddon, considered by many to be one of baseball's best managers, took the reigns last season. In both seasons, he's had the Cubs in the NLCS with an average of 100 wins per season.

Molitor might be the right man for the job but Falvey could want his own man at the helm. Even if Molitor survives the coming season, it's hard to know what the future will hold. Changing managers worked in Chicago but Maddon isn't going to come knocking in Minnesota.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the blueprint for changing things in Minnesota. Epstein has worked his magic with multiple organizations and his ideas have spread throughout baseball. What do the Twins need to do? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Minnesota's Revolving Door Continues At Shortstop

Photo Credit: Linwood Ferguson, Captive Photons
Shortstop has been a revolving door for the Twins organization for more than the last decade. Since the Christian Guzman era ended in 2004, there has only been one time the Twins have used the same shortstop on Opening Day in back-to-back seasons. That player was Pedro Florimon and he wasn't really a long-term solution to the Twins' problems.

Is there finally an end in sight to the Twins long-term shortstop woes?

Eduardo Escobar, Danny Santana, Pedro Florimon, Jamey Carroll, Alexi Casilla, JJ Hardy, Nick Punto, Adam Everett, Jason Bartlett, and Juan Castro have all taken their turn as Minnesota's Opening Day starter. New Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey will try to end this disastrous trend in the years to come. 
Falvey has watched his current team's shortstop, Francisco Lindor, enjoy a coming out party during the 2016 MLB Postseason. Lindor has put the Indians in position to make their first World Series since 1997. Lindor was a top-10 pick back in 2011 and the Twins hope their own top-10 pick will be able to develop in a similar fashion.

Nick Gordon was the fifth overall pick in 2014. This fall the Twins sent him to the Arizona Fall League and the 20-year old shortstop wasted little time making his mark. Baseball American named Gordon as the number one prospect on their AFL Hot Sheet. In the first week of play, he went 6-for-9 with two RBI, a walk, and two steals. BA called him "a smooth-swinging shortstop" and went on to say he "has surprising strength with gap power."

If Gordon is going to end the revolving door, he is still multiple years away from being an everyday play at the MLB level. He spend all of this season in the Florida State League which means he will likely start 2017 in Chattanooga. Some of the Twins' top prospects have made the jump from Double-A to the big leagues but Gordon still has some flaws. 

There have been questions about his defensive ability in the past. He posted a career worst .952 fielding percentage this season while committing 24 errors. Gordon has shown some good signs in the AFL including impressing ESPN's Keith Law by saving an error and completing a double play. The mixed reports on his defensive ability will continue to follow him.

Offensively, he has hit 23 doubles in each of the last two seasons but he's never hit more than three home runs. He has shown the ability to get on base as his OBP has been over .333 in every professional season. He did all of this while being considerably young for each league. This past season, he only had two at-bats against a pitcher that was younger than himself. 

While the Twins continue to wait for Gordon to develop, there will be other players given the opportunity to show they can handle shortstop. Jorge Polanco started 45 games at shortstop in 2016 and he could be in line to be the team's Opening Day starter. Eduardo Escobar is still arbitration eligible and he's played over 70 games at shortstop in each of the last three seasons. 

Major League Baseball is in the midst of a young shortstop revolution. Players like Lindor, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and Xander Bogaerts are showing unbelievable talent at one of baseball's toughest positions. Gordon might not be in the same class as these players but he could still develop into a solid MLB contributor for years to come. 

Will Gordon finally stop the dizzying trend of revolving shortstops? I guess we will all have to wait to find out together.

How plays the most games at shortstop in 2017? When will Gordon take over the shortstop position in Minnesota? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Out With The Old

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
Veteran players can be the key to a winning team. Their experience can be valuable during season's most imperative moments. However, the Twins are a long ways away from being relevant in the American League. This might mean it is time to clean house of veteran bats that are taking playing time away from younger players.

On Monday, Nick ran through some of his ideas about how to revamp the Twins pitching staff. One of those ways could be to jettison some veteran players that have been part of Minnesota's culture of losing. 

Derek Falvey, Minnesota's new chief baseball officer, will be at the helm for plenty of changes in the years to come. The following names might be just a few of the players he will be looking to deal as he takes the reigns this off-season.

Trevor Plouffe
Over the last couple of seasons, Miguel Sano's emergence has meant that Plouffe's name has swirled around the rumor mill. Plouffe is coming off one of his worst MLB seasons and he still has one more year of arbitration eligibility. He was limited to under 115 games for the first time since 2011 as he battled through a groin injury, a cracked rib, a strained intercostal, and a strained oblique. It might be best for Plouffe to prove he is healthy in the first half of 2017 and then he could be dealt closer to the trade deadline. This would mean Sano and Plouffe would have to split time at third base and designated hitter.

Brian Dozier
Dozier is coming off a record breaking season where he set the American League record for home runs by a second baseman. His trade value is the highest it will likely ever be in his career. Dozier will turn 30 next May and the Twins have him under contract for an average of $7.5 million per season. With multiple years of team control and a team friendly contract, there could be multiple suitors looking for a veteran bat. I've been critical of Dozier's defense in the past but other team's might be able to look past his flaws because of his monster power numbers from a middle infield position.

Joe Mauer
When Mauer signed his eight-year deal to stay in Minnesota, no one had any idea that he wouldn't play catcher after the 2013 season. There are now two years remaining on his contract and there have been few flashes of the Mauer of old. On August 16 of this season, Mauer was hitting .284/.384/.417 before injuring his right quadriceps in that game. While playing through the injury, he strained his other quad and ended up batting .146/.255/.244 the rest of the way. No team is going to willingly take Mauer unless the Twins eat most of the contract. He's not getting any younger as he turns 34-years old near the beginning of next season. Mauer probably can't be moved at this point but it might start coming to the point where he's taking at-bats away from younger players.

Ervin Santana 
Twins Daily recently named Santana as the Twins' "Pitcher of the Year." When the team has the worst pitching staff in the American League, this isn't a huge honor but there were flashes of brilliance from Santana in 2016. His best stretch of pitching was in the middle of the season and this lead to plenty of trade rumors. From June 19 through August 21 (11 starts), he posted a 1.79 ERA with two complte games and one complete game shutout. Minnesota's biggest weakness is starting pitching so it's tough to imagine the team dealing away Santana unless they are getting some young pitching in return. He is signed through the 2018 season and it seems likely that he won't finish his current contract in a Twins uniform.

There's a very good chance that none of the players mentioned above will be on the next winning team in Minnesota. Dozier and Santana seem like likely options to be traded while Plouffe and Mauer's value might be too low this winter. Even if all of these players are on the Opening Day roster, it's time to start moving out with the old and in with the new.

Who will be on the roster when spring rolls around next year? Could any of these players bring back a decent prospect or two in return? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Twins Daily Awards 2016: Pitcher Of The Year

It's no secret that Minnesota's pitching was bad this season. They tied with Arizona for the worst ERA in baseball. Since the Twins last made the playoffs in 2010, every pitching staff has posted an ERA of 4.07 or higher. The only year the staff managed an ERA below 4.55 was the 2015 club. Pitching continues to be a giant hole for the Twins. 

The Twins Daily writers including minor league writers, voted for their top three pitcher of the year candidates. Three points were given for first place votes, two points for second place votes, and one point for third place votes. All seven ballots and point totals can be found below. In the end, Ervin Santana was the unanimous choice for the Twins Pitcher of the Year. 


Here is a quick reminder of our previous 2016 Twins Daily award winners:
Most Improved- Brian Dozier
Rookie of the Year- Max Kepler

Ervin Santana had something to prove during the 2016 season. This came a year after being suspended for 80 games on the heels of a big off-season free agent deal. When he returned from suspension, he allowed four runs or more in six of his first ten games (6.05 ERA) including 11 home runs. He would settle in from there posting a 1.62 ERA and a 5-2 record over his last seven starts.

Santana was able to build off of this strong finish in 2015 as the 2016 season began. Through his first seven starts, he had an ERA under 3.15 and a 32 to 14 strikeout to walk ratio. Even with these numbers, the Twins compiled a 1-6 record. Over his next five starts, he allowed five runs or more in all but one of those games. His season ERA topped out at 5.10 and he had a rough 1-7 record. 

From June 19 through August 21 (11 starts), Santana saw his best stretch of the year and it's likely one of the main reasons he won this award. Across 75.1 innings pitched he limited opponents to 15 earned runs (1.79 ERA). Batter hit .202/.241/.285 against him. This stretch also included two complete games and one complete game shutout against Oakland. 

"I haven't had many decisions in a year-and-a-half of letting a guy go out there to get a shutout," Twins manager Paul Molitor said about his late-inning decision to keep Santana rolling. "But, he was dominant." 

Santana's dominance cooled down as the season winded to a close. In September, he averaged less than six innings per appearance while opponents got on base over 32% of the time against him. He struck out more than a batter an inning (36 SO in 34 IP) and posted a solid 2.65 ERA. However, there was only one start where he was given more than three runs of support and that was his final win of the year. 

While Santana was a lone bright spot in a struggling rotation, there were some other bullpen arms that compiled solid numbers. Minnesota went into the season thinking a back-end trio of Glen Perkins, Trevor May, and Kevin Jepsen would be the key to winning games. Perkins missed almost the entire season, May tried to play through an injury, and Jepsen pitched terribly. This allowed other players to claim a role.

Brandon Kintzler signed with the Twins in December from the Brewers organization. With the trio mentioned above, he likely was uncertain of his role in Minnesota. He wouldn't earn his first save until the beginning of June but he went on quite a stretch after taking over the job. Over his next 19 appearances, he allowed three earned runs (1.50 ERA) as opponents got on base less than 28% of the time. There were some rough appearances over the last month but he set career highs in saves and games finished.

Other bullpen arms like Ryan Pressly and Fernando Abad were offered opportunities to prove they belonged at the big league level. Pressly set a career high in SO/9 and tossed over 75 innings for only the second time in his career. Abad signed on a minor league deal before the season. He posted a 2.65 ERA with a 1.21 WHIP before being dealt to the Red Sox at the trade deadline for RHP Pat Light. 

In a poor that included plenty of poor pitching, Santana and part of the bullpen put together strong stretches. There was plenty of talk of trading Santana around this year's trade deadline. It will be interesting to see if the new regime keeps Santana around or uses him as a trade chip to build for the future. 


THE BALLOTS
In an attempt to be transparent, here are the votes from our Twins Daily writers:
  • Seth Stohs – 1.) Ervin Santana, 2.) Brandon Kintzler, 3.) Ryan Pressly/Taylor Rogers 
  • Parker Hageman – 1.) Ervin Santana, 2.) Brandon Kintzler, 3.) Fernando Abad
  • Nick Nelson – 1.) Ervin Santana, 2.) Brandon Kintzler, 3.) Ryan Pressly
  • Jeremy Nygaard – 1.) Ervin Santana, 2.) Brandon Kintzler, 3.) Ryan Pressly
  • Cody Christie – 1.) Ervin Santana, 2.) Brandon Kintzler, 3.) Fernando Abad
  • Steve Lien – 1.) Ervin Santana, 2.) Brandon Kintzler, 3.) Ryan Pressly
  • Eric Pleiss – 1.) Ervin Santana, 2.) Ricky Nolasco, 3.) Buddy Boshers
POINTS
Ervin Santana- 21
Brandon Kintzler- 12
Ryan Pressly- 3.5
Ricky Nolasco- 2
Fernando Abad- 2
Buddy Boshers- 1
Taylor Rogers- 0.5

Feel free to discuss. How would your ballot look?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Twins Daily Awards 2016: Rookie Of The Year

Over the next week, we will be handing out the Twins Daily Minnesota Twins Awards. Today, the second award is announced in our series of “Of The Year” awards. Even in a terrible season, there were some positive signs from the young players on the Twins roster. 

The Twins Daily writers including minor league writers, voted for their top three rookie of the year candidates. Voting for these awards was completed with over a week left in the season so things could have definitely changed with some strong performances down the stretch. In the end, Max Kepler was the unanimous choice for the Twins Rookie of the Year. 


Here is a quick reminder of our previous 2016 Twins Daily award winners:
Most Improved- Brian Dozier
Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
Max Kepler got a brief taste of the big leagues at the end of 2015 after a monster minor league campaign. With only seven at-bats above the Double-A level, it made sense to have Kepler start the year in Rochester. Minnesota was also experimenting with Miguel Sano, last year's Twins' Rookie of the Year, in a corner outfield spot so there wasn't a place for him to get consistent at-bats.

Kepler spent most of April and May in the Rochester line-up where he hit .282/.367/.455 with 11 extra-base hits in 30 games. At the beginning of June, the Twins recalled Kepler and he'd spend the rest of the season in the big leagues. There were still a few growing pains in June as he posted a 26 to 9 strikeout to walk ratio with nine doubles and three home runs. He found his power stroke in July as he cranked eight home runs on his way to posting a .898 OPS for the month. He got on base over 32% of the time in every month from June through August. 

Kepler best stretch might have come when he was named co-American League Player of the Week for the week from August 1-August 7. He began that week with a three-homer, six-RBI outing against the Indians. He finished the week hitting .370/.471/.815 with four home runs and 11 RBI. "I'm not a home run hitter, so it's rare," Kepler said. "I'm trying to put the ball in play and hit it hard. I'm thankful for the backspin I was blessed with."

Not everything was a blessing for Kepler this season. While Buxton was on a tear in September, Kepler struggled through the final month by hitting .207/.255/.283 with five extra-base hits. A mild neck strain kept him out of the line-up for a handful of games. There were also some issues with Kepler's defense throughout the season. He lead the AL in errors committed as a right-fielder. FanGraphs ranks him as the second worst defensive right-fielder out of players who qualified in 2016.

If the season had been a couple weeks longer, this award might have belonged to Byron Buxton. During the season's final month, he batted .287/.357/.653 (1.011) with nine home runs, six doubles, and two triples. Even with the hot month, he still only hit .225/.284/.430 for the year with a 118 to 23 strikeout to walk ratio. FanGraphs' defensive ranking placed him fifth in the AL among center fielders with over 750 innings. This was two spots ahead of perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout.

Taylor Rogers and Jorge Polanco also showed some of their long-term value to the club. Rogers was one of four Twins pitchers to post an ERA under 4.00. He showed decent control by tying his lowest BB/9 mark of his career while setting a career high mark in SO/9 for a full season league. Polanco played 50+ games over the season's final two months and hit .286/.330/.419 with 18 extra-base hits. He will likely open next year as the team's starting shortstop if he can continue to hit at that pace while improving his defense. 

Even with his struggles, Kepler surprised a lot of people in 2016 and showed that his break-out 2015 campaign was not a fluke. He played in a career high 143 games after never playing more than 120 games in minor league season. There are still areas of improvement but he has the chance to be an above average major league player for most of the next decade. 


THE BALLOTS

In an attempt to be transparent, here are the votes from our Twins Daily writers:
  • Seth Stohs – 1.) Max Kepler, 2.) Jorge Polanco, 3.) Taylor Rogers
  • Parker Hageman – 1.) Max Kepler, 2.) Bryon Buxton, 3.) Taylor Rogers
  • Nick Nelson – 1.) Max Kepler, 2.) Bryon Buxton, 3.) Taylor Rogers
  • Jeremy Nygaard – 1.) Max Kepler, 2.) Jorge Polanco, 3.) Byron Buxton
  • Cody Christie – 1.) Max Kepler, 2.) Bryon Buxton, 3.) Taylor Rogers
  • Steve Lien – 1.) Max Kepler, 2.) Jorge Polanco, 3.) Taylor Rogers
  • Eric Pleiss – 1.) Max Kepler, 2.) Buddy Boshers, 3.) Byron Buxton
POINTS
Max Kepler- 21
Byron Buxton- 8
Taylor Rogers- 6
Jorge Polanco- 5
Buddy Boshers- 2

Feel free to discuss. How would your ballot look?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Picking AL and NL MVPs

Photo Credit: Troy Taormina, USA Today Sports
One league has a pretty clear cut choice as the regular season comes to a close. The other league's MVP race is a little more open ended which can lead to quite the debate. Should the MVP go to the league's best player even if he's on a bad team? Or should the MVP be on a team that was in contention for the entire year?

In the middle of his recent hot streak, I wrote about Brian Dozier's chance at the AL's top honor. There's little chance the MVP would come from a team with over 100 losses but he could end up getting some top-10 votes. Selecting the top spot in the American League certainly comes with it's own array of challenges.

American League MVP Race
For the second time in his young career, Mike Trout has surpassed 10 WAR according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs has Trout a tick under 10 with a 9.4 WAR. Both of these totals are a full win higher than his next closest competitor, Mookie Betts.

Betts versus Trout is going to be the hot button topic in the MVP race. Trout led all of baseball in runs, walks, OBP, and OPS + while playing terrific defense in center field. The Angels PR Department tweeted out a list of Trout's accomplishments this season and it's pretty remarkable. Betts led all of baseball in at-bats and total bases while playing defense that might have been better than Trout.

The Angels haven't been within five games of first place since the middle of May. Betts and the Red Sox have been near the top of the AL East for most of the season. Since September 7, Boston has lead the East. Over the last month of the season while being in the middle of the pennant race, Betts has hit .310/.373/.389 with seven extra-base hits.

Should the voting members of the BBWAA pick A very good player on a 90-win team? Or should the best player in baseball over the last couple years get his second MVP award? Betts might have the narrative that voters tend to favor but Trout has been better than Betts so my vote goes to him.

Who should win? Trout
Who will win? Betts
Complete Ballot: 1. Trout, 2. Betts, 3. Josh Donaldson, 4. Jose Altuve, 5. Manny Machado, 6. Robinson Cano, 7. Adrian Beltre, 8. Dozier, 9. Francisco Lindor, 10. Corey Kluber

National League MVP Race
While the AL race might be close, the National League race could be a unanimous choice. The Chicago Cubs were the best team in baseball for most of the season. They won over 100 games and cruised to a division title in what had been one of the toughest divisions in recent years. Kris Bryant has been the best player in the league and he should easily win his first MVP.

Bryant has been impressive during his second full-season. He lead the NL in runs while raising all of his offensive numbers. In 2015, he led the league with 199 strikeouts but he cut that number back to 154 this year. He's also been used at multiple defensive positions including third base, first base, shortstop, and all three outfield positions.

Corey Seager and Daniel Murphy will have a good battle for the NL's runner-up spot. Both players had very good seasons on team that easily won their divisions. Seager's impressive rookie campaign could be the sign of future MVP awards. Murphy might be the missing link for a Nationals club that has struggled with finding post-season success.

Who should win? Bryant
Who will win? Bryant
Complete Ballot: 1. Bryant, 2. Seager, 3. Murphy, 4. Anthony Rizzo, 5. Freddie Freeman, 6. Max Scherzer, 7. Nolan Arenado, 8. Brandon Crawford, 9. Justin Turner, 10. Noah Syndergaard

How would you ballot look for each league? Leave a COMMENT and start this discussion.