Fixing the Twins Isn’t That Complicated

So this season has certainly de-escalated quickly, hasn’t it Twins fans?

Ask any group of Twins fans what went wrong and you’ll get a wide variety of responses. Of course, there’s no shortage of I-told-you-so’s going around out there, either. Haters gonna hate and nothing makes haters happier than when things go badly and they can loudly proclaim how smart they were to hate in the first place.

FacepalmThe thing is, I don’t think anyone is (or at least they shouldn’t be) shocked by what’s happening with the Twins. Was an 8-20 start “expected”? No, not by most of us. But I’m more disappointed than surprised and I would imagine that I’m not alone in feeling that way.

General Manager Terry Ryan clearly made the decision during the offseason that 2016 was going to be the year he would push the first wave of young potential stars into the big league fray. He wasn’t interested in adding any free agent that might block a significant young talent. His only big move was the addition of Korean slugger Byung Ho Park and that particular move is looking very good.

To appreciate why Ryan was relatively passive during the offseason, you have to start with the understanding that, all along, 2016 was going to be another season in the longer rebuilding process. I think most of us recognized that.

It would be the first full season of big league ball for Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Tyler Duffey.

It would, hopefully, be a near-full season of Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios.

Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

We would also likely see significant Major League playing time for several more building blocks for what, at some point, could be the next great Twins team. That group might include Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Alex Meyer and perhaps several other highly touted bullpen arms.

That’s a lot of youth and it’s probably unrealistic to expect all of those guys to perform well enough to propel the club into serious contention for a postseason spot.

Still, the Twins came real close to nabbing a wild card spot last year, so was it really unrealistic to expect them to improve the following season? Maybe, maybe not.

It’s not unrealistic to believe it’s POSSIBLE to improve on their prior season’s results, but you could argue that it was unrealistic to EXPECT so many young players to step up in one season, without any of them finding themselves overmatched, at least temporarily, by Major League competition.

Many of the challenges we foresaw occurring this season have become reality.

The Twins strike out a lot. Only the Astros and Blue Jays hitters have K’d more than the Twins so far in 2016. We knew this would happen and there was no shortage of warnings uttered before the season that it could be disastrous.

Miguel Sano has been a bad outfielder. We knew he wouldn’t win any gold gloves out there, but I’m not sure he’s been any worse than anyone would have expected. He’s actually shown some of his athleticism at times, even while also clearly not being confident that he can field the position well.

The hope was that Byron Buxton’s presence in center field would somewhat minimize the damage done while Sano learns right field on the fly. Then Buxton failed to get on track with the bat and had to be sat down and, eventually, demoted.

That problem was exacerbated by Eddie Rosario’s significant regression at the plate. While Oswaldo Arcia’s bat has perhaps made up for Rosario’s poor start, that also left the Twins with the prospect of having Arcia and Sano constitute two-thirds of the defensive outfield. That’s not optimal, by any means.

Yet, to me, if the worst problems this team had were on the offensive side, I wouldn’t be too worried.

They aren’t ripping through opposing pitchers, but there’s enough good stuff going on (Joe Mauer, Byung Ho Park, Sano, Arcia and surprising production from Eduardo Nunez and Danny Santana) that there would be time to get guys like Dozier, Buxton and Rosario on track (or replaced) and still have a very nice season.

Alas, the bats aren’t the worst problems.

Kyle Gibson
Kyle Gibson

The worst problems are exactly where they have been for years – on the pitchers’ mound.

We were uneasy about the bullpen going in. Maybe – MAYBE – Glen Perkins, Kevin Jepsen and Trevor May would hold down the back end of the bullpen, but starting the season with essentially the same mediocre (or worse) middle and long relief from a year ago was scary.

Then Perkins went on the Disabled List and Jepsen has been ineffective. Newcomer Fernando Abad and Michael Tonkin have looked good, but they’ve seemed to largely be used in situations where the Twins have already fallen behind, virtually wasting their effectiveness.

Ryan Pressly and Casey Fien have been awful and Ryan O’Rourke, since being promoted, hasn’t fared any better.

I’ve read comments that the starting pitching has been better than some expected. I don’t understand that at all.

Yes, we’re all very pleasantly surprised that Ricky Nolasco has made the decision to hand him the fifth rotation spot look extremely wise and Ervin Santana hasn’t been awful most of the time, but outside of that, I just don’t see why anyone thinks the starting pitching has been anything but a train wreck.

Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson have been awful and Tommy Milone has been bad enough that he was the guy who eventually lost his rotation spot.

There’s some potential for improvement, perhaps. Jose Berrios has shown the filthy stuff he has in his two starts and, if he’s given time to settle into a routine, he could quickly become an effective big league starting pitcher. Tyler Duffey will never be confused with Berrios in terms of his stuff or velocity, but Duffey still looks better than at least 60% of the guys who opened the season in the Twins’ rotation.

The conclusion I’ve drawn from this is that “fixing” the Twins right now isn’t that complicated – or at least it doesn’t have to be.

I wouldn’t touch the offense right now. Let things play out a while and do what you have to do to get guys like Buxton, Kepler and Polanco raking in Rochester so they’re ready to come back up in a month or two and stick.

If you insist on making some kind of change, fine. Bring up catcher Juan Centeno from Rochester. At this point, I wouldn’t even care whether it was John Ryan Murphy or Kurt Suzuki that you replaced. Neither of them should figure in the long term plans for the Twins, anyway, and it might be time to promote either Stuart Turner or Mitch Garver from Chattanooga up to Rochester so they can both get regular innings behind the plate.

While you don’t want to read too much into one month of work, I don’t think there’s much risk in replacing Pressly, Fien and O’Rourke in the bullpen. I’d see what J.T. Chargois and Buddy Boshers have to offer.

J.T. Chargois
J.T. Chargois

My rotation, for now, would be Nolasco, Santana, Hughes, Berrios and Duffey. The stint on the DL that Gibson is doing gives the Twins some time to get good looks at Berrios and Duffey. I like continuing to see Meyer start at Rochester, until he proves once and for all that he’s best suited for bullpen work.

If Hughes doesn’t get it together, the Twins will need to figure out what “injury” he has and let him work through that while on the DL for a while, too.

The limited roster changes I’ve described would be a good start, but it shouldn’t be the end of the transition.

If the club is still wallowing toward the bottom of the standings a month from now (which seems almost certain at this point), it will be time to start dealing away those players who have some market value and likely aren’t part of the next generation of competitive Twins teams.

There’s no longer a reason to try to blend young players into a veteran clubhouse. Frankly, many of the young players coming up have won at Elizabethton, Cedar Rapids, Ft. Myers and Chattanooga over the past four years and they’re probably more equipped to create a “winning clubhouse atmosphere” at Target Field than the Twins’ veterans are.

I am not going to hold out much hope that the Twins will recover from their disastrous start to fight their way back into contention for even a wild card spot, but that doesn’t mean the season is over or that there shouldn’t/couldn’t be something well worth watching over the rest of the season.

It may not always be pretty and there will certainly be plenty for the haters to hate on, but it doesn’t have to be boring or meaningless – unless the front office allows it to become so.

Ballplayers as Commodities

It was a minor story this week. Minnesota Twins (and former Cedar Rapids Kernels) pitcher Tyler Duffey was one of a handful of Major League ballplayers that have come to agreements with a firm by the name of Fantex to “sell” a share of their future earnings in return for an immediate sum of money.

You can read the AP story here and, for a description of how the investments in the players actually works, you can click this link to a year-old Fortune article.

baseballMoneyThe concept of exchanging an immediate known sum of money for some future undetermined, yet theoretically predictable, amounts is hardly new. Commercials for companies willing to “buy” your annuity payments are not infrequent. You can even find organizations willing to buy your life insurance policies and essentially gamble that you’ll die soon enough that they’ll make more money on the policy than they pay you for it.

Fantex also is making similar investments in a few professional golfers. That’s really nothing new, either. A lot of aspiring golf professionals get their early funding to travel around the country competing in tournaments from others who are willing to buy a share of their future winnings.

But this is a new thing for baseball. You don’t find anyone doing any direct investment in ballplayers (outside of Latin America, anyway).

Before we go further with this, let’s be clear about one thing. This kind of financial instrument is likely one of the more speculative (read: risky) you’re likely to find. Seldom would the cliché “buyer beware” be more applicable than to investing with Fantex on a venture like this. That said, it’s interesting to look at how such an initiative, should it become commonplace, could effect the financial underpinnings of the game.

Duffey and the other players involved have agreed to relinquish a percentage (generally about 10%) of their future on-field and off-field income to Fantex in return for a substantial immediate payment. (Duffey’s $2.23 million is the lowest among the ballplayers).

Duffey was a fifth round draft pick by the Twins in 2012 and reportedly received a signing bonus of about $267,000. Minor league salaries are notoriously low. For example, Duffey would have been getting something in the neighborhood of $1100 per month during his days with the Kernels in 2013.

Tyler Duffey
Tyler Duffey

While on the Twins’ Major League roster, he’s making $525,000 this season, which is slightly above the big league minimum salary. He won’t be eligible for salary arbitration for at least another three years, which means that, in the interim, the Twins are unlikely to offer him contracts much higher than what he’s currently making.

With the way MLB teams currently operate, if Duffey were to perform very well for the Twins in the next year or two, it is likely that their front office would offer him a multi-year contract that would cover at least much of his arbitration-eligible years and possibly extend into his free-agency era. This gives the player some insurance against injury and/or poor performance and, in turn, the team controls their salary costs for an extended period.

More often than not, these agreements are viewed as “team friendly” and not only save the club money, in the long run, but improve the players’ value on the trade market.

A lot of players in Duffey’s situation readily accept those deals (unless their agent is Scot Boras, who routinely recommends that his clients bet on themselves and go through the arbitration and free-agency process as soon as possible).

It’s easy to understand why a player would take the deal. Sure, you may cost yourself some money down the road, but you get security and you are still probably assured of seeing more money than anyone in your family has ever seen. And, after all, what other choice do you have if you do value some level of financial security?

None. Until now.

Even after his agent and the government get their share, Duffey is likely to pocket $1 million from his deal with Fantex, if it goes through (If Fantex can’t raise the $2.23 million to pay Duffey from investors, the deal is cancelled). That’s likely going to give his agent a much better negotiating posture if and when the Twins decide they want to talk about an extension. Duffey would no longer be solely reliant on the Twins for financial security.

If this concept takes hold and becomes wide-spread, the whole process by which teams deal with their middle-to-lower tier of players could be affected. Currently, teams balance their payrolls between those they have to overpay (relative to their actual performance) by millions of dollars either on the free agent market or to preclude them from leaving to test free agency and those who they can underpay because they’re still making close to the league minimum or they’re still playing under extensions they signed early in their careers.

If a concept such as Fantex gives players another option for attaining some level of financial security without having to agree to give up (or at least postpone) their big future paydays, that could have a challenging effect on clubs’ payroll management.

Officially, MLB has stated that these arrangements do not violate any MLB rules and the MLB Players Association has an agreement with Fantex that allows them to approach players. It will be interesting, however, to see if the subject finds its way onto the negotiating table this year as the two sides try to hammer out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In the meantime, if you’re a believer in the future of Tyler Duffey as a big league pitcher, you may have a new – more substantive – way to express that confidence.

It’s too bad we couldn’t come up with a way to spread this concept into the minor leagues. I doubt we’d have to look too far to find some guys in Cedar Rapids or Fort Myers who would be happy to offer a couple percent of their future earnings in return for enough money to afford a pizza once in a while.

Things Will Get Better

I had planned to wait to write something about the Minnesota Twins’ ugly start to the 2016 until there was something – anything – positive to write about, but I finally decided that leaving things that open-ended could mean a very long hiatus from blogging.

The Twins have completed their third three-game series of the season and they have yet to record a win, currently sitting with an 0-9 record. On top of that, the team’s top young prospect, Byron Buxton, was been pulled from today’s game after getting hit on the hand by a pitch.

whatmeworryOf course, it’s also not good that the team’s closer, Glen Perkins, is on the shelf, having been placed on the Disabled List with a strain in his throwing shoulder. Then again, one could argue that a winless team has little need of a closer, anyway.

It would be nice to be able to say that the Twins’ losing streak is due to such injuries, but it would also be very inaccurate.

If you had told me as Spring Training closed that the Twins would be winless this late in the season, I’d have probably shook my head and assumed that my fears about the potential ineffectiveness of their pitching staff probably had been realized quicker than expected. That, too, would have been inaccurate.

As a group, the starting rotation is performing fine – in fact probably better than even the more optimistic of us had any reason to expect. The relief corps has been about what I expected, which is to say it’s been inconsistent, at best. Still, the bullpen is not primarily responsible for the goose egg the Twins have continued to carry in the Win column.

It has all been about the offense – or, rather, the lack thereof.

It would be unkind to say that Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Byung Ho Park, Eddie Rosario, Kurt Suzuki, Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have all sucked at the plate. Unkind, yes, but it would not be erroneous. Through the first nine games, none of those seven starters are hitting even .200.

I don’t care what you feel about the relative validity of Batting Average as an indicator of offensive productivity, failing to reach the Mendoza line means you aren’t doing your job with a bat in your hands and the Twins have seven regulars in their batting order who are wallowing in that level of ineptitude right now.

Joe Mauer and Eduardo Escobar are raking, with each of them hitting north of .350 and with an OPS above .900. Alas, those efforts, as encouraging as they may be, are being totally wasted.

No team has ever lost so many games to begin a season and still recovered to qualify for the postseason.

Given all of that, it’s not surprising that Twins Territory is not a particularly happy place these days. Everybody is looking for someone to blame and there are plenty of candidates to choose from. Those seven hitters (if you feel generous enough to call them that) mentioned above certainly share some responsibility.

Likewise, whenever a team is losing, the Manager and General Manager will take some heat and both Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan are getting their share. That’s expected and not altogether unwarranted. After all, they assembled this roster.

You could say that last season’s stronger-than-expected finish raised our expectations to a level that makes this kind of inept start is impossible for fans to tolerate. But, really, if the Twins had lost over 90 games again last season, would any of us be more tolerant of a team going this long without notching their first win? I doubt it.

Losing sucks. It just does. And when your guys are striking out at rates that could obliterate a number of team and league records if the trends continue, it’s not too difficult to zero in the problem.

The question, though, is what do you do about that problem? As almost always, finding answers is far from easy.

One thing the Twins can’t do is panic. There will be plenty of that from among the fan base, but the players, coaches, manager and GM can’t do it.  That doesn’t mean you don’t make some adjustments, of course.

Back away from the panic button
Back away from the panic button

We’ve already seen a pair of rookies summoned from Rochester. Pitcher Taylor Rogers and outfielder Max Kepler have been brought in to replace Perkins and Danny Santana, respectively, until they can recover from the injuries that put them each on the Disabled List.

Kepler is a promising talent and Rogers has potential to be an effective bullpen arm, but they will not, by themselves, get the Twins turned around. Those two are simply getting early opportunities to impress and make cases for why someone else should be sent down, rather than them, when Perkins and Santana are ready to return.

If the Twins had started the season on a winning streak and had half of their lineup putting up an OPS north of .900 like, say, the Baltimore Orioles, we’d all be enjoying the season much more than we are now, but most of us would also be urging restraint of too much enthusiasm because it would be highly unlikely that those sorts of numbers could be maintained for long.

It stands to reason, then, that we should also remind ourselves that it is highly unlikely that seven-ninths of the Twins’ lineup will continue to fail to hit their weight – not all of them anyway.

I get as frustrated as any fan watching the games and, in particular, watching the flat out awful at-bats that we’re seeing from Twins batters. But I keep reminding myself that, at least for me, this presents a win-win situation for me.

Despite the awful start, this Twins season is going to go one of two ways and I know I’ll find things to enjoy watching as the season goes on, regardless of which fork in the road their season follows.

If the early season ineptness reverses course, there’s still plenty of talent (and plenty of time left in the season) to drive the club back into contention for at least a wild card spot. The starting pitching has been plenty competitive and we’re seeing an early indication that the predictions of the demise of Joe Mauer may have been premature.

If the Twins continue to flounder and show no signs of competitiveness over the next couple of months, there will be no reason for GM Ryan not to clean house and give the organization’s talented young players the better part of a full season to get accustomed to facing Major League competition.

If I’m watching Adam Walker, Jorge Polanco, Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey, Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, Alex Meyer along with current young Twins like Buxton, Sano, May and Kepler, I’m sure I won’t be seeing a ton of victories, but I’ll be having a good time watching them mature at the big league level.

I expected the Twins to compete for a playoff spot in 2016 and I’m not yet writing off that possibility, but I also know that the next golden age of Twins baseball is probably a couple of years away. Young future stars need to go through trials by fire to prepare themselves for that era and there are a couple of ways to accomplish that.

Ideally, a limited number of prospects are shuffled into the roster every year and they learn to win by playing with legitimate MLB-level ballplayers. But if that fails, the other way is to just throw them all in together and let them learn by getting their butts kicked pretty regularly as they learn what it takes to be a big league ballplayer.

The first method is more fun to watch because it comes with more wins. But if that fails, we simply need to remind ourselves that the long term goal is the same, either way – prepare to win a World Series before the end of this decade.

Of course, I may need to continue to remind myself of that frequently – like, about 162 times this season, at the current pace. But don’t worry, that pace won’t continue. The Twins will win, eventually, and things will get better.

-Steve

Twins Moving to Cedar Rapids

For some time, now, I have been trying to find ways to spend my “retirement” years involved with professional baseball. I’ve finally found the answer and decided that April 1 was the perfect time to release the announcement.

I have come to an agreement to purchase the Minnesota Twins from the Pohlad family and yes, I will be moving the club to Cedar Rapids. (I mean, it was either that or I had to move to Minnesota and, no offense, but I’ve lived there already. Pass.)

New Twins owner - me.
New Twins owner – me.

I’ve always wanted to own a Major League team and, like pretty much every Twins fan (or at least all of them who have access to the internet), I have always believed I could run the team better than anyone who actually was responsible for doing so.

As part of the agreement, the Twins’ Class A affiliation will be in Minneapolis, giving Target Field a tenant for at least as long as the original agreement required when taxpayers paid for construction.

Twins President (for now), Dave St. Peter, was pleased with this development.

“I’ve often said in the past that it would be nice to be able to watch the Twins’ young minor league talent play in the Twin Cities,” St. Peter said. “This agreement brings that dream to reality.”

I have scheduled a meeting with Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett to discuss how we can best go about adding an additional 35,000 seats to Veterans Memorial Stadium. I see no insurmountable issues there, as long as the city is willing to cough up the money for the renovations.

As for staff decisions, all positions will be posted at corridorcareers.com. All current Twins employees from St. Peter to every usher and beer vendor, will be invited to apply for their current positions (or any other job they might think they’d be good at). I learned in my experience in the professional world that is is the way progressive companies do things these days.

There is one exception to this policy. General Manager Terry Ryan will be retained.

I’ve made this decision for two reasons. First, I genuinely respect Mr. Ryan and, though I don’t always agree with his decisions, I believe he is very good at his job. Even if I didn’t feel that way about the GM, I’d keep him anyway, just because I know how much it’s going to piss off Twins bloggers/fans/commenters/know-it-alls all over Twins Territory.

There will be some pretty noticeable changes, however. For example, because of my fondness for the Iowa Hawkeyes, much of my wardrobe is black and gold. After paying for the Twins, I’m not going to also go out and buy a new wardrobe. The Twins’ colors will instead become black and gold.

Finally, while I will not be lifting the MLB.tv blackout policy from covering the entire state of Iowa, at least that blackout policy will finally make some sense.

I look forward to meeting all of the new Twins fans when the team opens the 2017 in Cedar Rapids. I hope those of you in the Twin Cities enjoy your final season of watching the Twins and I’m sure you will enjoy watching Midwest League games in the future.

-Steve

Ricky Nolasco? Really?

Entering the spring, there appeared to be eight pitchers contending for the five rotation spots on the Twins’ Opening Day roster. I thought that constituted more depth than at any time in the past several years.

Absent injuries (or, as we learned last season, lengthy suspensions for PED use), Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes were going to be starting games in their Twins uniforms. Tyler Duffey, to me, had showed enough in 2015 that he shouldn’t be too concerned about his roster spot.

That left one rotation spot up for grabs between Tommy Milone (the lone lefty in the group), Trevor May, Jose Berrios and Nolasco.

With those four options, how did we end up with Ricky Nolasco opening the season as the Twins’ fifth starter?

Ricky Nolasco (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ricky Nolasco (Photo: SD Buhr)

May was told early in March that he’d be opening the season in the bullpen, ending his participation in the rotation sweepstakes.

Berrios was informed that he isn’t ready for prime time and will open his season at Triple-A Rochester.

Milone had a good spring, assuring that the Twins will have one southpaw in their rotation, but instead of claiming the final starting spot, he essentially claimed the fourth spot and bumped Duffey down into a one-on-one face-off with Nolasco for the final spot.

As Edward Thoma writes in a very good piece over at his Baseball Outsider blog, the situation with Duffey is troubling on several levels.

Let’s be clear about one thing – Duffey didn’t pitch particularly well this spring. That’s something he readily admitted himself when interviewed following his demotion to Rochester this week. Nolasco hasn’t been terrific, either, but he has had somewhat better stats than Duffey (though much of Nolasco’s work was against minor league hitters on the back fields of the Twins’ complex).

But, as Thoma reminds us in his post, Duffey wasn’t told, entering spring training, that he needed to have better statistics than the other contenders to earn a rotation spot. In fact, he was told to work on his change up, which he did. That work didn’t go particularly well as he and his developing change up got knocked around quite a bit.

If Duffey had been told he needed to put up better stats than Ricky Nolasco to go north with the Twins, last year’s experience would suggest to us that he’d have had little trouble besting Nolasco simply by using his existing repertoire of two fastballs and two breaking balls.

Tyler Duffey (Photo: SD Buhr)
Tyler Duffey (Photo: SD Buhr)

However, the change up is pitching coach Neil Allen’s baby. Since being hired to Molitor’s staff, the one thing written about Allen more than anything else is his devotion to the change up. Since Duffey used his change up all of about 2% of the time during his 2015 time with the Twins, it’s not surprising that Allen would be pushing him to improve that pitch.

But Duffey, without a change up, wasn’t a borderline fifth starter for the Twins at the end of 2015. He was arguably the most effective starting pitcher they had.

Would an effective change up be helpful to Duffey? Certainly. But even without one, he was pretty damn good last summer. Certainly better than almost anyone would reasonably expect Nolasco to be at this point.

Did Duffey’s focus on his change up this spring, in lieu of spending the time sharpening his existing pitches to prepare for the season, cost him a rotation spot that was his to lose entering spring camp? If so, did he really lose his spot or did a Neil Allen obsession with the pitch cost Duffey that spot and, by extension, cost the Twins games Nolasco eventually loses that Duffey, sans change up, would have won?

Allen’s predecessor as Twins pitching coach, Rick Anderson, became famous – or, more accurately, infamous – for implementing a system-wide “pitch to contact” philosophy that de-emphasized strike outs. That philosophy was adopted at every level of the Twins’ system and it was rare (to say the least) to see pitching prospects who did not embrace that philosophy rise to the big league level with the Twins.

We will never know how different the Twins’ fortunes might have been had they put more emphasis on missing bats throughout the organization during Anderson’s term with the Twins. What we do know is that, during the latter years of Anderson’s era, while he was enforcing his obsession, other teams were developing pitchers with better velocity and winning more games than Anderson’s staffs of comparative soft-tossers were.

I’m hoping we are not witnessing something similar with regard to Allen and his love for the change up, but if Duffey’s spring is any indication, it’s something we should keep an eye on.

Just as it was perfectly fine for Anderson to expound on the advantages of developing sufficient command and control to find spots where hitters are most likely to make weak contact, it’s also perfectly fine for Allen to preach the benefits of a good change up.

The problem comes when those sermons become absolute dogma that is forced upon every pitcher in the organization to the point where it is made clear they have no future in the organization without following it.

Heading into spring training, we are always told over and over again that we shouldn’t read too much into spring stats. Pitchers are often focusing on particular pitches, which hitters figure out pretty quickly during a spring game, so we shouldn’t get too excited about, or too down on, particular players based simply on stat lines.

That’s fine.

So, if we throw out the stats, explain to me again why Tyler Duffey and Jose Berrios are going to be wearing jerseys with Red Wings on the chest in April, while Ricky Nolasco is taking the mound for the Twins every fifth game.

I can’t think of any reasons for that, other than that Duffey was told he needed to spend his spring focused on developing a change up, which he arguably has demonstrated he did not need to effectively retire Major League hitters, and that the Twins can retain control over Berrios for an extra year if he spends a couple of months in Rochester to open the season.

OK, that’s not really true. I can think of about 25 million other reasons. But I hope that the Twins have reached the point where money isn’t the primary factor behind roster decisions.

The only thing that should matter to the Twins is, “who can get out big league hitters better?”

I’m sorry, but there is no way I can look at the group of May, Berrios, Duffey and Nolasco and be convinced that the best option for the Twins’ fifth rotation spot is Ricky Nolasco.

Whether the reason Nolasco is in this rotation is because the front office didn’t improve their bullpen enough to allow May to move into the rotation or because they want to keep Berrios’ big league service clock from starting until June or because Duffey was told to focus his spring on a pitch he doesn’t need or because the Twins don’t want to throw the $25 million they still owe Nolasco down the toilet, the result is that the Twins are likely to lose more games in 2016 than they would have with one of the other three pitchers opening in the rotation instead of Nolasco.

The Twins may have pulled themselves out of the ranks of the irrelevant in 2015, but they won’t be contenders again until the first and only factor determining the make-up of their roster is winning baseball games and the last I knew, games won or lost in April count exactly the same as those in June, July, August and September.

-Steve

Spring Training Photos, the Finale

Today was my last day hanging around the Twins spring training site. Tuesday is a beach day and we hit the road to head back to Iowa on Wednesday morning.

Today was a bittersweet day at the complex as several minor leaguers were given their release early in the morning, including several former Kernels that we’ve gotten to know over the past couple of seasons. I wish them all the best of luck in whatever comes next in their lives, whether with baseball or otherwise.

I spent my afternoon on the minor league side of the complex, once again watching the future Kernels and future Miracle take on their Red Sox counterparts, followed by a stop for some local craft brews to take home and dinner near the Fort Myers Beach pier.

That’s enough writing. Here are a few final photos from this year’s trip.

Eddie Del Rosario
Eddie Del Rosario
Bryant Hayman
Bryant Hayman
Daniel Kihle
Daniel Kihle
Logan Lombana
Logan Lombana
AJ Murray
AJ Murray
Brian Olson
Brian Olson

 

Spring Training Photos, Part Deux

Today will likely be my final day at the Twins’ spring training complex for this season and even that will fall into the “weather permitting” category.

I’m sure those of you who woke up to sub-freezing temperatures this morning won’t be feeling sorry for us down here, but the forecast for today is temperatures just in the 60s and winds strong enough to make the “wind chill” feel several degrees cooler than that.

Still, the plan is to try to catch one more afternoon of minor league baseball so I’ll endeavor to carry on through the day.

Tomorrow is the last full day of the trip to Florida before packing up to start the drive home on Wednesday and it seems like a day in the upper 70s means one last day hanging out on and near the beach would be appropriate.

Before I head to the ballpark today, I thought I would post one more set of photos from the last couple of days, which included time both on the minor league side and also within Hammond Stadium watching the Twins fall to a team of Evil Empire wannabes on Sunday afternoon.

First a few players looking to spend time in a Kernels uniform either this year or, possibly, the next. Some have already spent a little time in Cedar Rapids, while others would be getting their first taste of full season minor league ball.

Potential Kernels 3B Travis Blankenhorn
Travis Blankenhorn
Manuel Guzman
Manuel Guzman
Kuo Hua Lo
Kuo Hua Lo
Amaurys Minier
Amaurys Minier
Miles Nordgren
Miles Nordgren
Jermaine Polacios
Jermaine Polacios
Fernando Romero
Fernando Romero
Lamonte Wade
Lamonte Wade
Zander Wiel
Zander Wiel
Trey Cabbage
Trey Cabbage
Ruar Verkerk
Ruar Verkerk
Luis Arraez
Luis Arraez
Nelson Molina
Nelson Molina

Now, a few old friends who have already passed through Cedar Rapids on their way up the Twins’ organizational ladder.

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios
Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton
Chad Christensen
Chad Christensen
Mitch Garver (I have no idea what he and the umpire were looking at, but I'm sure it was interesting)
Mitch Garver (I have no idea what he and the umpire were looking at, but I’m sure it was interesting)
Randy LeBlanc
Randy LeBlanc
Alex Real
Alex Real
Let's not forget, Twins likely Opening Day starting pitcher Ervin Santana was a Kernel as he worked his way up in the Angels organization.
Let’s not forget, Twins likely Opening Day starting pitcher Ervin Santana was a Kernel as he worked his way up in the Angels organization.

The 2016 Kernels field staff

Left to right, pitching coach JP Martinez, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and manager Jake Mauer
Left to right, pitching coach JP Martinez, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and manager Jake Mauer

Finally, a few current Twins who did not have the privilege of spending time in a Kernels jersey on their way up to the big leagues model their new red jerseys.

Brian Dozier
Brian Dozier
Eduardo Escobar
Eduardo Escobar
Joe Mauer
Joe Mauer
John Ryan Murphy
John Ryan Murphy
Eddie Rosario
Eddie Rosario
Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

 

Twins Spring Training Through the Lens

I’ve been down in Fort Myers, Florida, for five days now, so I decided it was time to post an update on my activities here this week.

A week ago, we spent the first night on the road in Nashville and took in the Grand Ole Opry. I’m not a big country music fan, but you don’t need to be to enjoy the Opry show.

We arrived in Fort Myers Monday afternoon and, checking into our Fort Myers Beach apartment and having a great dinner at the Salty Crab (formerly Nemo’s) on the beach.

I was on the Twins’ campus Tuesday morning to take in the minor leaguers’ morning workouts. I stuck around for an afternoon of intrasquad games on the minor league fields.

Wednesday afternoon, it was the AA and AAA Twins squads taking on their Oriole counterparts in the afternoon and the Twins hosting the Red Sox in the evening.

I had the opportunity to interview Cedar Rapids native Ryan Sweeney on Wednesday to discuss how his attempt to win an outfield role with the Twins is going. You can read that article over at MetroSportsReport.com by clicking here.

(As an aside, that article will likely be my last work for MSR. Unfortunately, the owner of that site, Jim Ecker, has decided to close up shop at MSR. I have helped MSR cover the Cedar Rapids Kernels for the past three seasons and will always be thankful to Jim for giving me the opportunity to write for his site.)

Thursday, I caught the two Class A squads facing off with the Rays’ A level players in the afternoon followed by a trip up to Sarasota where the Twins traveled to play the Orioles.

Friday was a non-baseball day, with a couple of hours spent turning my flesh red on Fort Myers Beach before heading to Ron Dao’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar to watch the Hawkeyes hoops team claim an overtime win over Temple in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

I’m about to head back over to the Twins’ camp this afternoon (Saturday) to watch the Class A teams again. Sunday will see the Yankees invading Hammond Stadium to take on the Twins in the afternoon.

With all of that as background, here’s just a few of the hundreds of pictures I’ve already taken. Enjoy.

ST16b
Minor leaguers getting their morning stretches in
Tom Kelly giving instructions to a group of Class A first basemen, as Doug Mientkiewicz and Tommy Watkins listen in, as well.
Tom Kelly giving instructions to a group of Class A first basemen, as Doug Mientkiewicz and Tommy Watkins listen in, as well.
Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios
Cam Booser
Cam Booser
JT Chargois
JT Chargois
Andro Cutura
Andro Cutura
New Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman
New Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman
New Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
New Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
Jermaine Palacios
Jermaine Palacios
Mike Strong
Mike Strong
Lamonte Wade
Lamonte Wade
Ryan Sweeney waits out a Red Sox pitching change
Ryan Sweeney waits out a Red Sox pitching change
Trey Cabbage
Trey Cabbage
Sam Clay
Sam Clay
Phil Hughes getting some work in a minor league game
Phil Hughes getting some work in a minor league game
Jorge Polanco
Jorge Polanco
Taylor Rogers
Taylor Rogers
Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

 

Did the Minnesota Twins Tank?

What is baseball going to do about teams tanking?

That question, framed in one manner or another, is being posed incessantly by baseball media’s talking heads as Major League Baseball prepares to kick off the 2016 season.

tanking2There’s no question that teams like the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs have emerged from prolonged periods of ineptitude to become not only competitive, but, in the case of the Cubs, the odds-on preseason favorite to win the 2016 World Series.

The focus of most discussions seems to be on trying to differentiate between “tanking” – that is, intentionally designing your Major League roster in such a way that it will be all but impossible to lose fewer than 90 games (and likely considerably more) – and “rebuilding,” which is simply attempting to do whatever is deemed necessary, within the rules of the game, to improve talent levels to the point where your team can realistically compete for a championship.

It is, seemingly, a distinction without a difference. Yet, “rebuilding” is almost always viewed as simply a necessary process teams having a bad season or two must undergo, while “tanking” is portrayed as a serious threat to the competitive balance of Major League Baseball.

Tanking, I suppose, is arguably just one method at a general manager’s disposal to accomplish a rebuild. If so, it is quite possibly the most effective method available to teams that are considered middle or small market organizations, without the necessary financial resources to fill every critical roster gap with a top-tier free agent.

While the Astros, Nationals and Cubs have been raised as examples of teams that have tanked their way back into competitiveness, the Oakland Athletics are often cited as an organization that takes a more noble tact. As ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote recently, “Oakland has never taken (the tanking) route since general manager Billy Beane took over the franchise. The Athletics just don’t quit.”

Here’s something else that the Oakland Athletics have never done under Beane’s leadership over the past two decades: win a World Series.

That’s a trait that the A’s share with Theo Epstein’s Cubs, Jeff Luhnow’s Astros and Mike Rizzo’s Nationals, though those GMs took over their respective teams far more recently than Beane took over the helm in Oakland.

It’s also an aspect that each of those teams share with the Minnesota Twins.

If it seems like forever for Twins fans since their team held up a championship trophy at the end of the 1991 season, there’s some small solace to be taken from the fact that Minnesota’s 1991’s success is more recent than anything the other four organizations have experienced.

The Athletics last won it all in the 1989 “Earthquake Series,” and the Cubs last took home the hardware in 1908. Astros fans have never celebrated a World Series title in the club’s fifty-plus years of existence, nor have Nationals fans (even those that can claim allegiance going back to the club’s days as the Montreal Expos).

There seems to be no doubt that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros tanked their way back in to baseball relevance. They fielded teams that were designed to lose so many games that they would consistently benefit from high draft picks and inflated international spending allowances.

Oakland, however, was really never bad enough to fall below middle-of-the-pack status for more than a year at a time. Beane couldn’t retain his big-money stars, so he often traded them for something of current MLB-level value before they would be lost to free agency. His now-famous “moneyball” strategies sought to unearth players with enough hidden value to allow his team to at least be competitive almost every season.

Who did it right? Baseball purists may claim that tanking is ethically wrong and others will claim Beane’s approach does little but perpetuate mediocrity.

However, based on what arguably is the most important criteria, World Series Championships won, it would be difficult to declare one strategy more successful than the other. Then again, the Nationals, Cubs and Astros are all projected to fare much better than the Athletics in 2016, so maybe this will be the year that tanking’s advantage becomes apparent.

But what about the Twins? What exactly was their strategy?

Regardless of what they were thinking at any particular point in time, there’s no question that the Twins have benefited from the high draft positioning that resulted from four consecutive seasons of winning 70 or fewer games (a benefit that could be negated considerably in the future if the anti-tanking crowd gets some of the rule changes they propose).

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton

Miguel Sano was signed out of the Dominican Republic toward the end of the team’s run of qualifying for six postseasons within nine years, but both their top hitting prospect (Byron Buxton) and top pitching prospect (Jose Berrios) were available to be selected by the Twins because their 99 losses in 2011 allowed them to pick in the second position in the 2012 amateur draft. Buxton was chosen with the second overall pick and Berrios with the first pick of the supplemental first round.

Over the following several years, the Twins added a number of highly touted young players due to consistently picking at the top end of the draft. Kohl Stewart, Nick Gordon and Tyler Jay, the team’s first round picks over the following three years, all sit comfortably among the top rated prospects in the Twins organization and each has been ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game at one time or another.

Of course, the Twins also held picks at the top of each successive round of those drafts, enabling them to select from among the cream of the non-elite crop of young players, as well. The fact that the Twins continue to have one of the top rated minor league organizations is due, in no small part, to their draft position over the past four drafts.

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

In the end, whether by design or otherwise, the Twins have positioned themselves much the same way that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros have. By losing a lot of games for several consecutive seasons, they have amassed considerable young baseball talent, much of which is now positioned to arrive and contribute at the Major League level.

Yet you seldom, if ever, see the Twins mentioned in articles bemoaning (or praising) the practice of tanking.

Of course, you also won’t see writers praising the Twins as an organization that has consistently found ways to rebuild on the fly – remaining competitive, as the Athletics have, even after star players move on via trade or free agency.

The result is that General Manager Terry Ryan and the Twins front office get neither the credit (blame?) for being at the forefront of the tanking strategy that Epstein, Luhnow and Rizzo embody, nor the commendations that Beane continues to get for trying to rebuild while continuing to put a teams on the field that are at least close to being worth the price of a Major League ticket to watch.

So did the Twins really tank, and just do a better job of camouflaging it than other teams did, or was Ryan trying to employ the stay-competitive strategy that Beane did, and simply wasn’t as effective at identifying and acquiring new talent as his counterpart in Oakland was?

It would be a stretch to say that the Twins were tanking in 2011. They were coming off of an American League Central title season and most of the core players from that team were returning. There’s little doubt that then-GM Bill Smith thought he was creating a roster to contend again that season.

Then came the Tsuyoshi Nishioka disaster and very limited game time from Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span in 2011. The result was a 99-loss team.

Another result was that 2011 also saw the return to Ryan to the GM’s office after the season.

Arguably, Ryan followed the Beane approach in his first partial postseason back on the job as General Manager. While his evaluation process was certainly more scout-based and less analytics-based than Beane’s, his addition of players like Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit indicated he was trying to add veterans with value, as Beane does, rather than tear the club down and build it back up from scratch.

Whatever he was trying to do, it didn’t work. 2012 was, once again, a disaster on the field. This led to a consistent, “there isn’t any shortcut,” line of quotes out of Ryan the following offseason.

It also led to the trading of two thirds of the Twins’ starting outfield, Denard Span and Ben Revere, for three pitchers, only one of which had any big league experience at all. Was that indicative of Ryan having decided to go the tanking route?

Even if so, you would never have gotten the GM to admit it then, and probably couldn’t drag it out of him now.

Target Field was still relatively new and so were the taxes being imposed in Hennepin County to pay for it. Joe Mauer, though coming off a challenging season, was still in the early stages of an eight-year mega-million contract. It would have been professional suicide for anyone in the Twins front office to come right out and declare an intent to tank.

Can you imagine Ryan telling the media, “We looked at the draft class we were able to put together after losing 99 games in 2011 and, given that we had so many things go wrong in 2012, we should expect to select a similarly strong class this year. We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose more than 90 games a while longer, as well, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”

Given some of the comments that Twins owner Jim Pohlad has made the past couple of offseasons about being tired of losing, I’m not sure Ryan would have dared to express those thoughts to Pohlad, even in private.

Then again, maybe he did tell Pohlad that. In fact, maybe he told all of us that he was planning to engage that kind of strategy.

Ryan is a man of few words. He doesn’t believe in giving his competitors a free look into his thinking on any subject related to his strategy for roster building. He’ll answer fan and media questions, but often you need to read between the lines a little bit to decipher exactly what he’s saying.

I wonder if it’s possible that he actually did say, “We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose 95 games a year for a while longer, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”

It’s just that, when he said it, all we heard was, “there isn’t any shortcut.”

Truth be told, I don’t believe the Twins intentionally tanked during any part of the past four years. After all, moves like spending several million dollars on the 2014 in-season signing of Kendrys Morales would not be consistent with intentionally trying to lose as many games as possible.

I think Ryan was simply trying to balance current competitiveness with future success. In other words, he was showing the ethical nobility of Beane’s approach, while realizing the same results as those teams who were intentionally assembling losing rosters.

In the end, all that matters is the results and the Twins have a significant number of talented young players about to arrive in the big leagues.

That said, it will be interesting to keep an eye on what anti-tanking steps MLB and/or the Players Union propose be built into the new Collective Bargaining Agreement next year. Specifically, what effect would those proposals have had on, not only teams that made no attempt to disguise their tanking strategies, but also the Twins.

-JC

Park Set as Twins’ Opening Day DH – Or Is He?

The pitchers and catchers for the Minnesota Twins have finally reported to Spring Training and position players are already filtering into the Fort Myers camp in advance of their mandatory reporting day later this week. The Twins will open their season in Baltimore on April 4, but from all that’s being written about the Twins, it appears there are only minor questions about the composition of the Opening Day roster and even less question about the Opening Day lineup.

Manager Paul Molitor has stated that Kurt Suzuki will open the season as his club’s starting catcher.

Joe Mauer will be the first baseman.

Brian Dozier will hold down second base.

Trevor Plouffe will man the hot corner at third base.

Eduardo Escobar has earned the right to call the shortstop spot his own.

Eddie Rosario will be the Twins’ left fielder and Miguel Sano will man the opposite corner in right field.

Centerfield is Byron Buxton’s to lose. Yes, there’s a chance the club will decide Buxton needs a month or so in Rochester to fine tune his approach at the plate, giving an opportunity for Danny Santana, Ryan Sweeney, Darin Mastroianni or Joe Benson to serve as a short-term placeholder for Buxton.

And then there’s the designator hitter position, which will belong to Byung Ho Park, the Korean slugger that represents the primary (some would say only) significant free agent addition added to the Twins this offseason.

Most of that makes perfect sense to me. I think Buxton should go north with the club in April as the centerfielder, but if he doesn’t, I’ll understand the decision (probably) and I’ve actually been on-board with the decision to give Sano an outfielder’s glove and see what he can do with it. I felt that way even before the Twins got Park’s autograph on a contract.

But here’s something I don’t quite understand. Why is virtually everyone so certain that Park will immediately adapt to Major League pitching well enough to be penciled into the middle of the Twins’ batting order right from the start of the new season?

Certainly, I’m not alone in feeling that either Oswaldo Arcia or Kennys Vargas is likely to demonstrate in March that he is better prepared to generate runs for the Twins on Opening Day than newcomer Park might be. Why do many prognosticators seem so certain that Park will be an effective big league hitter on Opening Day while being less convinced that Buxton will?

Oswaldo Arcia
Oswaldo Arcia (Photo by SD Buhr)

I want to see Park succeed as much as any Twins fan but maybe I’m suffering from residual Nishioka flashbacks, because I’m simply not convinced that a player that struck out a lot against Korean Baseball Organization pitching will have immediate success against Major Leaguers.

Does the KBO compare favorably to American AA or AAA levels? Maybe. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it does. If Park had struck out 303 times at any minor league level over the past two combined seasons, would we be writing his name in ink into the Twins’ Opening Day lineup now?

If you forced me to bet an amount of money that it would genuinely hurt me to lose, I would bet that Park’s first regular season professional baseball uniform will have “Red Wings” (or even “Lookouts”) emblazoned across the front of it – and I would not consider that to necessarily mean his acquisition was a mistake. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone if it takes Park a few weeks or more to earn a spot in the Twins’ lineup.

Arcia and Vargas both must be coming to Fort Myers aware that their respective futures with the Twins are hanging in the balance. I expect that one of them is more likely to be found in Molitor’s first lineup card of the season than Park is.

Finally, what happens if the Sano experiment doesn’t develop the way that the Twins hope it will? That would immediately make Sano the likely Day 1 designated hitter and force the Twins into a Plan B for right field. That would be a Plan B that the front office has not admitted even exists yet.

In that eventuality, again Arcia becomes a likely candidate for reinsertion into the club’s plans as the right fielder.

Park has a better than fair chance of finding his way up to Target Field with the Twins at some point during the 2016 season, but I’m not at all convinced he’ll start the season with the big club.

Here’s my pre-camp projection for the Twins’ Opening Day starting lineup:

1. Buxton CF
2. Dozier 2B
3. Mauer 1B
4. Sano RF/DH
5. Arcia DH/RF
6. Plouffe 3B
7. Rosario LF
8. Escobar SS
9. Suzuki C
SP Santana

Typically, we have to be cautious about reading too much into strong spring training offensive performances. There are too many at-bats against less-than-MLB-level pitchers, especially during the first couple of weeks of spring training games, to get a true reading of just how well prepared a hot hitter might be for a Major League regular’s role.

But there are a number of position players who can’t afford to give poor showings during the first few weeks of spring training games and Park, Arcia and Vargas would be among those whose chances could be damaged by early struggles at the plate.

Sweeney, Mastroianni and Benson similarly need good starts if they want to be viewed as contenders for the stop-gap centerfielder, should the Twins decide Buxton needs some early seasoning in Rochester.

Park, if he doesn’t make the Opening Day lineup, could see an early promotion, as could Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco, depending on their performances and those of the players that they might be looking to replace.

The Twins’ lineup is perhaps more settled going into spring training than it has been in most years, but there is some amount of intrigue that will make it worthwhile to pay attention to the box scores coming out of Fort Myers in March.

-JC