Monday, February 20, 2017

Twins Blunder Polanco's Development

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
Shortstop has been a revolving door for the Twins for the greater part of the last two decades. Minnesota is set to enter the 2017 season with Jorge Polanco as the newest member of the Opening Day shortstop club. As I wrote about last week, the spot is Polanco's to lose.

However, the Twins blundered with Polanco's development during the 2016 season.

Throughout his professional career, Polanco has played over 3300 innings at shortstop. Unfortunately, he didn't play an inning at short to start the 2016 season. Before being called up in July to take over the Twins shortstop role, he started 64 games at second base and two games at third base.

Twins manager Paul Molitor was asked about Polanco's handling during the 2016 campaign. He told the Star Tribune, "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."

To be clear, this shouldn't be something Molitor has to worry about or apologize for in the press. His job is to run the major league squad on a daily basis. There would be reports coming from the minor league level but a directive for positioning of players would need to come from the front office.

As the Twins were getting close to calling-up Polanco, the team was also in the midst of firing general manager Terry Ryan. It was also nearing the trade deadline where the Twins would make multiple moves. Polanco's positioning at Rochester might have got lost in the shuffle but this still shouldn't be an excuse for it falling through the cracks.

Polanco isn't a perfect shortstop. There are questions about his arm at the position and if he has the range to make all of the necessary plays. In over 400 MLB innings last year, he committed 11 errors in 189 chances (.942 FLD%). This fielding percentage was 10 points higher than his professional average.

Some of his defensive flaws at shortstop came out in some of the other defensive metrics. Defensive runs saved (DRS) had him at -8 runs below average. Ultimate zone rating (UZR) was even lower as it put him at -10.9 runs below average. These numbers will obviously need to improve for him to stick at shortstop throughout the coming season.

There are benefits of having infielders that are versatile. However, it also helps for players to get as much experience as possible at the position that could be their ticket to the big leagues. Polanco was in his age-22 season and he lost half a year of development at shortstop.

Polanco's 2016 season might have included an organizational gaffe but spring is a time to turn the page. The Twins might have blundered but he will get every opportunity to prove he can stick at shortstop.

Who's to blame in the Polanco blunder? Should Molitor have been monitoring more of the minor leagues? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Five Position Player Headlines

Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports
Man, does it feel good to finally have real baseball news coming out of Florida. At the beginning of the week, Glen Perkins threw off the mound for the first time on his way back from injury. Phil Hughes might turn his removed rib into jewelry.  I also ran through multiple headlines fans could follow as pitchers and catchers reported to Fort Myers. 

Many position players are already in camp but their official reporting date will be this weekend. Here are some headlines to keep an eye on in the weeks ahead.

Sano Starts At Third
Minnesota's attempt to use Miguel Sano in the outfield was a disaster. His offensive numbers also took a dip after tremendous rookie campaign. Sano will start this season as the team's Opening Day third baseman. As a prospect, there were questions about his defensive skills at the hot corner. With Trevor Plouffe no longer on the roster, Sano should get every opportunity to prove he can handle playing on both sides of the ball. It will be interesting to see if he starts to get any reps at first base since Joe Mauer's contract expires after the 2018 season.

Dozier Tries To Replicate
After a huge offensive season, Brian Dozier will try and prove that 2016 was not a fluke. He's been a very streaky hitter throughout his career. Let's not forget that last season he was barely hitting over .200 with five home runs through the season's first two months. I've been critical of Dozier's defense for the better part of two seasons and it's getting late in his career to make some major improvements on that side of the ball. It seems unlikely for Dozier to crank out another 40 home runs but he still can show some improvements by avoiding long offensive slumps and playing better defense.

Young Outfield Pieces
The Twins could enter the year with Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario as their starting outfield. This is a very young outfield core that is lacking in the experience department. Buxton showed some positive improvements in the last month of 2016. Kepler had an up and down rookie year as the league adjusted to him. Much like Sano, Rosario came back to the pack in his sophomore season. If these players can reach their full potential, this group might be the key to leading the Twins back to the playoffs.

Battling For DH and First Base
With Byung-Ho Park clearing waivers last week, this might leave the door open for other players to make the Opening Day roster. Joe Mauer will likely be penciled in to first base or DH for most of the season, Kennys Vargas is an intriguing option after he hit double-digit home runs for the first time at the MLB level. It also sounds like the Twins are interesting in adding a veteran bat and the list includes former fan favorite Justin Morneau. Other players will likely get some at-bats in the DH spot as the Twins try to figure out their best offensive and defensive alignments.

Polanco's Spot To Lose
Minnesota's revolving door at shortstop will likely continue in 2017. All indications are that Jorge Polanco will be given the opportunity to start at shortstop. This would leave Eduardo Escobar as a utility player off the bench. Escobar would be familiar with this role. In each of the last three seasons, he has played the most games at shortstop but there was only one season where he was the team's Opening Day starter (2016). It seems likely for Polanco and Escobar to both get plenty of opportunities this year. However, Minnesota needs to decide if Polanco can handle shortstop as the team waits for other prospects, like Nick Gordon, to develop.

What position player headlines will you be watching this spring? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Monday, February 13, 2017

TD Top Prospects: #9 Travis Blankenhorn

The first wave of top Twins prospects has already reached Target Field. This has allowed for more recent draft picks to find their way into the Twins top prospect list. Many of the players might not be of the same caliber as Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano but they all have the potential to be everyday players as the Twins fight to get back to their winning ways. 

Age: 20 (DOB: 8/3/96)

2016 Stats (RK/Low-A): .293/.348/.502 (.850), 12 doubles, three triples, 10 home runs
ETA: 2020
2016 Ranking: NR
National Top 100 Rankings 
BA: NR | MLB: NR | ESPN: NR

What's To Like


Blankenhorn has been at least a year and a half younger than the competition at every level. Even with this age difference, he showed an advanced approach at the plate. As a left-handed hitter, he has a good approach and can take the ball to the opposite field with authority. 


After hitting under .245 during his professional debut, he raised his average by almost 50 points. He posted a .900 OPS during his 34 games this season in Elizabethton. Even after that good start, he was able to raise his OBP from .342 to .356 in Cedar Rapids. He reached base safely in 13 of his first 15 Low-A games while batting .348/.403/.530 (.933). 


Blankenhorn destroyed right-handed pitching this season with a .990 OPS. He also came up big in some high pressure situations. With two outs and runners in scoring position, he got on base over 40% of the time and compiled a .543 slugging percentage. 


When the Twins drafted him, Twins scouting director Deron Johnson said, "He's a really good athlete. He's a strong, powerful kid. We really like his swing and think he has a chance for power. He profiles in any corner."


Since joining the Twins organization, he has shown some defensive flexibility. He played shortstop in high school and was drafted as a third baseman. During the 2015 season, he made the majority of his appearances at third base while also appearing in games at first base, shortstop, and left field. Last season, he started 38 games with 35 starts coming at second base. 


Overall, he is a hard worker. This strong work ethic should help him to continue to improve and move closer to Target Field. 


What's Left To Work On


Blakenhorn has just over 300 professional innings at second base. If the Twins intend to keep him there long-term, he is going to have to work on many skills at this position. His instincts will improve with more playing time and this should help him to add to his range. 


Left-handed pitchers controlled Blankenhorn for most of the season. In 74 plate appearances, he hit .209/.274/.239 (.513 OPS) with a 19 to 6 strikeout to walk ratio. He averaged more than one strikeout a game so it will be crucial for him to continue to work on his pitch recognition. As he transitions to full-season leagues, the pitching will continue to improve. 


There are hopes that he will continue to develop more power. He will be younger than the competition so continual adjustments will be critical as he advances. The big jump in his batting average this year was a good sign but his on-base percentage didn't take a similar jump. He's also struck out in over 22% of his professional at-bats. 


His 2016 season also ended on a sour note. Blankenhorn ended the year by hitting 3-for-25 with nine strikeouts and two walks. Following some positive strides throughout the season, this wasn't the best ending to a breakout season. 


What's Next

Blankenhorn will be entering his age-20 season in 2017. After a late-season promotion to Cedar Rapids, it seems likely for him to start the coming season in the middle of the Kernels' infield. He's played at two levels in each of his first two professional seasons so he could potentially be promoted to High-A by season's end. 


During Instructs this year, he was able to continue to work on his defensive game at second base and third base. Earlier this off-season, he told Twins Daily that he was "just trying to become the most versatile player" he could be. He went on to say that he continues to work with the coaches on putting together good at-bats. 


He is still an unpolished product but Blankenhorn made many important strides in 2016. His work ethic and baseball ability could make him a regular fixture in the Twins line-up for years to come. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Five Pitcher And Catcher Headlines

Photo Credit: Jonathan Dyer, USA Today Sports 
Twins pitchers and catchers report at the beginning of this week. With the Twins coming off the worst record in franchise history, there are plenty of decisions that need to be settled this spring. Here are five pitcher and catcher headlines to watch this spring:

Can Castro Make An Immediate Impact?
Minnesota's biggest off-season move was signing catcher Jason Castro after parting ways with Kurt Suzuki. Castro comes to the Twins with a reputation for being a strong defensive catcher. Minnesota's pitching was lackluster in 2016 and the new front office hopes Castro can make an immediate impact on the staff. Castro will get his first chance to work with Twins pitchers this spring. It might take a good chunk of the season to notice the "Castro Effect" but a shift should start in the weeks ahead.

May Moves Back To Starting
Even before the new regime took over, it sounded like May would be moving back into a starting role. This plan became even more evident at TwinsFest as the new front office and May talked about the transition back into the rotation. When the Twins were in the 2010 Wild Card race, May pitched very well in relief. So well in fact, that the club left him there for 2016 as he dealt with an injury plagued season. Minnesota hopes that normal days off between starts will keep May healthy and help him to earn a starting spot for years to come.

Hughes And Perkins Coming Back From Injury
Phil Hughes and Glen Perkins were two of the most important pitchers on the 2015 squad. Perkins made his third straight All-Star Game and Hughes led a rotation that was in the playoff hunt until the season's final weekend. Hughes has been throwing bullpens and the hope is he enters spring with no limitations. Perkins experienced renewed discomfort in his throwing shoulder. With a set-back, it's likely that Perkins won't be ready for the season to start. Brandon Kintzler should open the year as the team's closer.

Berrios Back To the Minors
Minnesota's starting rotation looks crowded as the team heads to Fort Myers. Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson might be the only locks as camp opens. If the aforementioned Hughes is healthy, he would be the third rotation member. This leaves two spots for the likes of Hector Santiago, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, and Jose Berrios. Berrios has been dominant in his time in the minors and it seems likely for him to start the year in Rochester. This leaves him one injury away from making it back to the big leagues where he will hopefully find more success.

Crowded Bullpen
Because of some poor starting pitching over the last couple years, Minnesota's bullpen has been taxed. This leaves an opportunity for a few new faces to earn their place. Brandon Kintzler should enter the year as the team's closer. If May shifts back to starting, there will be a lot of open spots to fill. The Twins just signed Matt Belisle to join returning arms like J.T. Chargois, Buddy Boshers, Ryan O'Rourke, Ryan Pressly, Adalberto Mejia, Taylor Rogers, and Michael Tonkin. There isn't going to be room for all of these arms so the weeks ahead will decide who fills each role for the club.

What pitcher and catcher headlines will you follow in the weeks ahead? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.