There I Go, Turn the Page

Paul Molitor
Paul Molitor (Photo: SD Buhr)

Here I am
On the road again
There I am
Up on the stage
Here I go
Playin’ star(s) again
There I go
Turn the page

It has got to be lonely being Paul Molitor these days. About the only thing separating him from the tortured Bob Seger that penned “Turn the Page” back in 1972 is that he isn’t subjected to riding a bus somewhere east of Omaha with locals at truck stops making snide remarks about his long hair.

I’m not sure what he envisioned his life would be like as the manager of the Minnesota Twins when he signed on for the gig after Ron Gardenhire was let go following the 2014 season, but I’d bet every cent I have that he wasn’t expecting this. After all, his Twins are on pace to finish with one of the worst records in Major League Baseball history. Not Twins history, not franchise history, not American League history, but in all of MLB history.

This is taking place after a season, in 2015, that many people thought saw the Twins, under Molitor in his first season as a manager at any level, take a significant step forward in terms of competitiveness.

Sure, everyone knew there were candidates for regression on the club’s roster and nobody knew what to expect of their imported Korean designated hitter, but there were also players that we felt had reasonable chances to improve their performance levels over what we saw in 2015. Even the most pessimistic among us could not have reasonably expected this to happen.

But it has happened. The Twins are 15-37 as they return home to face the Tampa Bay Rays, themselves sitting at the bottom of the American League East standings at the moment.

There has been plenty written in the Twins community about what’s gone wrong and what should be done about it. Some of the suggestions have been reasonable, many have not.

You can’t trade players for whom there is no market and you can’t really flat out release most of them, either.

Most teams won’t fire their manager and/or their general manager during the first two months of the season, especially when that manager is only in his second season at the helm and the general manager has been around forever and is credited with rebuilding a farm system that is acknowledged to be among the best in the game.

Typically, you give the guys you left spring training with a couple of months to come around before you go about making significant changes. Your options are limited in April and May, anyway, because few teams are going to be interested in adding noteworthy pieces to their rosters that early, even if you are ready to turn the page sooner than that.

But we’re into June now and while most teams still won’t be prepared to make many deals at least until later in the month, it’s time to start initiating those discussions.

It is also time to start looking at what you want your roster to look like on Opening Day 2017. If there’s a silver lining to a miserable start like this, it’s that you don’t have to wait until spring training next March to start evaluating your options. You don’t even have to wait until the traditional “September call up” portion of the season. You’ve got a full four months to look at what you’ve got before you have to make decisions about which positions you will need to fill from outside your organization during the offseason.

The Twins are likely to lose over 100 games this season. It could be more. It could be a few less, but not a lot less.

It’s time to turn the page.

Listen, I like Trevor Plouffe. He has, in my view, turned himself into a more-than-adequate third baseman after nearly playing himself out of baseball at shortstop. He also hits enough that there’s nothing wrong with him being a regular in a Major League lineup.

I like Brian Dozier even more. He came to Cedar Rapids in January, 2013, with the first Twins Caravan after the Twins announced they would be affiliating with the local Kernels Class A team and did a great job on the dais. With the personality he showed that night, it came as no surprise to me that he eventually became a fan favorite in the Twin Cities. Like Plouffe, he turned out not to be the answer for the Twins at shortstop, but he transitioned to second base where he has done an excellent job.

When Joe Nathan departed, many of us were nervous about whether the Twins would find someone capable of holding down the closer role out of the bullpen. Enter Glen Perkins and the problem was solved.

Joe Mauer’s situation would command a full article itself, but his contract and no-trade rights make it a waste of time to even discuss his future with the team for the next couple of seasons.

These players, along with a few others perhaps, have had good rides as members of the Twins and they have earned every bit of fan loyalty they get. But the hard truth is that few, if any, of them are going to be part of the next run of winning seasons at Target Field.

Already this season, injuries have created opportunities to look at some young players. In most cases, those opportunities were wasted as players like Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler rode the pine during their time filling in for banged up regulars.

Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)
Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)

Maybe “playin’ stars again” was defensible early in the season when you were still trying to make something of your season, but no longer. It’s time to turn the page.

As Ted over at Off the Baggy pointed out this week, with Kepler being promoted again (this time to fill in for the injured Miguel Sano), it’s time to plug Kepler and the also-recently-recalled Byron Buxton into the lineup and let them run.

Sano’s hamstring will eventually heal and he’ll return. I find myself agreeing with Howard Sinker of the Star-Tribune who tweeted earlier this week, “Friends, I was less skeptical on it than most of you, but it’s time for the Sano-in-right field thing to end. Make something work, #MNTwins.”

I really had no issue with putting Sano in the outfield. He’s athletic enough that he should be able to play a passable right field and he has improved out there. But I’ve pulled a hamstring before and I know that, once you do that, it’s pretty easy to do it again. I don’t think putting him back out there when he comes back makes a lot of sense when it’s pretty obvious that it is not going to be his position long-term (and by long-term, we are probably now including 2017).

The Twins need to decide where they envision Sano fitting in. Wherever that is, whether it’s third base, first base or simply as their full-time designated hitter, I would just plug him in there when he gets back and move on to the next decision.

Bouncing Buxton, Kepler and Polanco up and down between Minneapolis and Rochester should end. Buxton is your center fielder, Kepler is in a corner and Polanco is in the middle of your infield somewhere.

I’ve seen others opine that Byung Ho Park should be sent down to Rochester, perhaps to make room for Sano when he comes back. I disagree, unless the Twins are prematurely giving up on him. He will hit AAA pitching, just as he hit Korean pro ball pitching. He needs to learn to hit MLB pitching and if the Twins plan on keeping him, he should stay in the Twins’ lineup until he proves that he can (or can’t).

I don’t know if Oswaldo Arcia will be in the Twins outfield for the next few years, but I know Danny Santana and Eduardo Nunez won’t, so Arcia should get more time out there with Buxton and Kepler (unless the Twins decide someone like Adam Bret Walker should get a long look).

The same situation exists behind the plate. Kurt Suzuki’s time with the Twins is nearing an end. I don’t know who will take over, but now is the time for the Twins to get extended looks at their internal candidates.

You could make similar cases for an overhaul of the pitching staff, but I’d be more patient with promoting the young pitchers, unless you get good offers for some of your existing staff members. I just see less urgency there.

Finally, there’s the Molitor question and that is tethered to the Terry Ryan question. Will either, or both, be back in 2017 and beyond?

Molitor will be entering the final year of his existing contract in 2017. Typically, no manager likes being a “lame duck” manager. He wants an extension in place before the start of the final year of his deal or he risks losing his clubhouse as players begin to tune his message out as they assume he won’t be around long.

Say what you will about the infamous Jim Pohlad patience with his front office, but I think Ryan would have a tough time convincing even Pohlad that Molitor should be rewarded for his work in 2016 with an extension.

Of course, that assumes that Ryan will even be around to make that pitch to Pohlad.

It’s almost impossible for me to envision Pohlad announcing publicly that he has dismissed Terry Ryan. It is not difficult at all, however, for me to envision an announcement that Terry Ryan has decided that, as the person responsible for assembling the roster, he is ultimately responsible for the results and that he is holding himself accountable and stepping down as GM of the Twins.

That public announcement would be identical, by the way, regardless of whether the decision truly is Ryan’s or whether Pohlad makes the decision that it’s time for a change. If you’re looking for public executions, you’re going to be disappointed.

If Ryan is contemplating that this may be his last season in the GM chair, he’s not likely to make a managerial change during the season. If he’s planning on being around a while longer, then yes, he could (and should) be considering whether there’s someone besides Molitor in the organization that he  now believes would be a better fit to manage the new group of young players coming up.

If indeed Ryan is replaced as the General Manager, it would be much more likely that Molitor also would be replaced following the end of this season. The new GM would want, and should get, his own man to run the team he assembles.

Whether these changes in management are made or not should depend solely on whether ownership envisions the current leadership being the right people to guide the team through the next era of competitiveness.

Regardless, it is time to begin turning the page. Some of the changes can wait as things play out over the rest of this season and the subsequent offseason, but seeing names like Buxton, Kepler and Polanco consistently in the Twins’ lineup should start now.

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

The Prospects of Top Prospects

I haven’t published a “Twins Top 15 Prospects List” this offseason, yet. There are plenty of other writers who do and many of them probably have better insight into who the top names should be than I do.

This should be the last year that Byron Buxton's name shows up on any "Top Prospect" list.
This should be the last year that Byron Buxton’s name shows up on any “Top Prospect” list.

I didn’t really make a conscious decision not to do a list this year. I just didn’t get around to it, until now.

So I’m going to provide my list today, but I’m not going to focus a lot on the players individually. Instead, I’m just going to share some thoughts on the Twins’ organizational depth, as a whole, and a few players that I’m anxious to follow in 2016, for a variety of reasons.

So, here’s my list, with the levels each player played at last season, as well as their ranking, in parens, from my personal rankings a year ago.

1. Byron Buxton OF – AA, AAA, MLB (2)
2. Jose Berrios SP – AA, AAA (4)
3. Max Kepler OF/1B – High A, AA, MLB (11)
4. Byung Ho Park 1B/DH – Korea (NR – late 2015 FA sign)
5. Tyler Jay SP/RP – High A (NR – 2015 draft)
6. Stephen Gonsalves SP – Low A, High A (12)
7. Nick Gordon SS – Low A (9)
8. Jorge Polanco 2B/SS – AA, AAA, MLB (6)
9. Engelb Vielma – SS High A (NR)
10. Taylor Rogers SP – AAA (NR)
11. Lewis Thorpe – SP Injured (NR)
12. Nick Burdi – RP High A, AA (10)
13. Jake Reed – RP High A, AA (NR)
14. Kohl Stewart – SP High A (8)
15. J.T. Chargois – RP High A. AA (NR)

As always, there are a few players that, in retrospect, I can’t believe there wasn’t room for on this list. For example, the Twins have three catching prospects that I’m certain would easily find themselves on the Top 15 list of a number of other organizations. Stewart Turner, Mitch Garver and Brian Navarreto all have legitimate shots to become MLB starting catchers. How many other teams have three catchers you can say that about that are rising up through the ranks in consecutive levels?

I don’t typically put many relief pitchers on my list, but the crew of outstanding young bullpen arms that has risen to the Major League threshold has forced me to include Burdi, Reed and Chargois. Even Jay and Rogers could end up pen arms, but their rankings are based on projections as starters, especially with regard to Jay. In fact, however, as I’ll explain below, this list doesn’t even include every young relief arm that has a legitimate chance to establish himself as a big leaguer this season.

This is all one way of saying that I think that all of the concern out there about the Twins not acquiring relief pitching on the free agent or trade market is going to turn out to be much ado about nothing. These guys are the real deal.

The case of Adam Brett Walker probably deserves an entire post of its own. He’s another guy that would easily be in the Top 15 of many, if not most, teams. He probably should be in this one, too, and certainly would be if there weren’t so many outstanding relief pitchers that are literally on the big league club’s doorstep. The strikeouts are a huge red flag, but I’m a Walker fan. I believe he will be a Major League ballplayer one day and probably a good one.

Generally, you probably won’t notice a lot of difference between my top 15 and anyone else’s, but there’s one name on the list that I think I’m higher on than most and that’s shortstop Engelb Vielma, who spent his 2015 entirely with the Fort Myers Miracle in the High A Florida State League.

A lot of conversations about the Twins’ shortstop position go something like this: “It’s great that Eduardo Escobar has established himself as a legitimate starting shortstop so he can hold down the position until Nick Gordon is ready.”

Occasionally, someone will point out that Jorge Polanco is ready to hit big league pitching right now and might be ready to claim the shortstop position soon. Others opine that Polanco will never have the arm to be a full time MLB shortstop.

Nick Gordon sits atop a deep list of middle infield prospects in the Twins organization.
Nick Gordon sits atop a deep list of middle infield prospects in the Twins organization.

Most shortstop discussions will go on for a long time before anyone brings up Vielma (if his name comes up at all). That’s understandable. He wasn’t a first round draft pick like Gordon or a $750,000 international free agent signing like Polanco. At 5′ 11″ and MAYBE 150 pounds (if he weighs in immediately after a good meal), you could be forgiven for mistaking Vielma for his team’s batboy – until you see him virtually inhale any ground ball hit remotely close to him and throw rockets to first base.

If baseball was an offense/defense platoon game, like football is, there’s a good chance Engelb Vielma would already be the Twins’ shortstop. He’s that good in the field. The question has always been, “will he hit?”

Well, guess what? He hit .268 in Cedar Rapids in 2014 and followed that up with a .270 clip in Fort Myers. Both Polanco and Gordon are projected to hit a bit better and both will generate more power, but if you ask me who is most likely to eventually succeed Escobar as the Twins’ starting shortstop, I’ll put my money on Vielma. If Gordon continues to progress, as well, Vielma will make a terrific utility infielder (or a valuable trade chip).

Much has been written about how deep the Twins’ minor league organization remains, despite the graduations of players like Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario in 2015 and the likely graduations of Buxton, Berrios and, perhaps, others in 2016. Indeed, half (or more) of my Top 15 this year could spend significant time with the Twins this season.

General Manager Terry Ryan made reference to the excitement of finally seeing some of these prospects graduate into being productive Twins during a Q&A session with fans during Twinsfest this past weekend. He was quick to add that he was aware that fans are tired of hearing about prospects.

One couldn’t help but notice the quiet, yet pronounced, nod in agreement from the man sitting to Ryan’s left on the stage – owner Jim Pohlad.

Pohlad has patiently watched his GM trade away fan favorites (and, according the owner, many of his own personal favorite players) and trusted that his patience will be rewarded as the club’s best prospects begin to arrive. This may be the year that his patience is rewarded.

In fact, it may be the first of many rewarding seasons, because the “graduating class” this season won’t necessarily be limited to the names on anyone’s top prospect list.

Alex Meyer’s name has fallen off this list, but he will almost certainly finally make his MLB debut, either in the Twins rotation or (more likely) in the bullpen.

Another bullpen option not listed is lefty Mason Melotakis. When we last saw him, he was throwing his mid-90s fastball past AA hitters in 2014. He had Tommy John surgery in October of that year and the Twins were so impressed with his recovery that they felt the need to add him to their 40-man roster this offseason, rather than risk losing him to another team in the Rule 5 draft. If he’s as good in March as the reports about him were in November, he could compete with the higher ranked relievers to be the first among the group to debut with the Twins.

Finally, there are two players I want to focus some special attention on, because the Twins’ front office certainly will be focusing on them as the new season gets underway.

The careers of pitcher Kohl Stewart and outfielder Travis Harrison could be approaching crossroads.

Stewart was the Twins’ first round pick (5th overall) in 2013 and Harrison was a compensation round pick (50th overall) in 2011. Both were high schoolers, so you wouldn’t say that the fact that they aren’t being mentioned as potential big leaguers in 2016 is necessarily a big red flag, but both players have spent time higher on “top prospect” lists than where you will find them this year.

Stewart has more breathing room than Harrison simply because he was chosen 46 spots higher (and paid about $3.5 million more in bonus money) than Harrison and is two years younger than the outfielder.

Still, in an era where the strikeout is king, Stewart has not missed bats at the rate that scouts (and fans) would like to see. He struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings for the Miracle in 2015. As has often been pointed out, Stewart didn’t focus on baseball until after graduating from high school. Before that, he spent as much time, if not more, honing his quarterbacking skills as he did his pitching mechanics.

Stewart’s 129 1/3 innings of work in 2015 was far and away the most time he has ever spent on a pitcher’s mound in one year. At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to begin to wow the organization with his stuff and move closer to realizing his enormous potential. But it might be a good idea to begin doing that in 2016 because another year of, “what’s wrong with Stewart?” talk among fans – and scouts – might not be a positive thing for his career.

Similarly, it’s hard to believe that Harrison is still just 23 years old, because it feels like we’ve been discussing him forever.

After signing late in 2011, Harrison debuted with Elizabethton in 2012 and has made progress one step at a time ever since. He played full seasons in Cedar Rapids (2013), Fort Myers (2014) and Chattanooga (2015), always against competition that was at least a year or two older than he was.

So, if he has made steady progress up the organizational ladder and is still relatively young, why should we consider Harrison’s career to be approaching a crossroads? It’s not a matter of him showing signs of failure. Like Stewart, it comes down to the player not yet having met certain expectations.

Harrison launched 15 home runs for Cedar Rapids in 2013 (16, if you count one walk-off “single” that left the park but wasn’t credited as a home run because one of the runners on base abandoned his trip around the bases to join the team’s celebration on the field) and it appeared that the Twins had found themselves a future power hitter. However, his home run totals have dropped to three and five round-trippers in the two seasons since leaving Cedar Rapids.

He’s very strong and has been among his team’s leaders in doubles virtually every season, so it’s quite possible that those doubles will begin finding the extra few feet of distance to clear the fences. If so, Harrison could quickly enter any conversation about the Twins’ “outfield of the future.” But the clock is ticking, because he’ll be a minor league free agent after 2017 and because, let’s face it, there are already a few pretty good young outfielders in the process of arriving at Target Field ahead of him.

Both of these young players undoubtedly know they’ve reached the point where they need to show everyone just why the Twins scouts liked them enough to use very high draft picks on them as they were coming out of high school. They’re both hard workers.

Don’t be surprised if, a year from now, we are all talking about how they both had breakout seasons and wondering how the Twins are going to find big league spots for them in the near future.

-JC

Let the Sano-Buxton-Park Era Begin

The Minnesota Twins held a press conference Wednesday morning to introduce their newest addition to the family, Korean slugger Byung Ho Park. The hope is that Park can approach the level of production he showed in Korea and, if so, join potential stars Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton as cornerstones in a Twins everyday lineup being built to contend for the postseason for years to come.

Park press conferenceBy now, everyone knows how he came to be a member of the Twins. His Korean team posted him, the Twins won the bidding for the exclusive rights to negotiate with him, they came to an agreement on a multi-year deal and, on Wednesday, he and the Twins’ brass spoke to the media about the whole thing.

The assembled media asked a lot of good questions. How will park adjust to facing better pitchers who throw better breaking balls and faster fastballs? How will he adjust to being a full-time designated hitter? What kind of fielder is he, in the event he needs to use his glove more frequently than is currently envisioned? How will he adjust to living and working in the United States?

The media got very few good answers to those questions, however.

That’s not the fault of Park, GM Terry Ryan or anyone else on that dias, really. The fact is, there are no good answers to most of the questions, yet. Park will need to answer those questions on the field, in the clubhouse and out and about in the greater Twins Territory community.

Ryan told the media that he feels his team needs to add offense and that he expects Park to replace Torii Hunter’s offensive production.

My goodness, I certainly hope he can do better than that. After all, while Hunter made significant critical contributions to the turnaround of the 2015 Twins, not a lot of those contributions were with his bat. If Park doesn’t exceed Hunter’s 2015 production, he may well be getting acquainted with upstate New York or south central Tennessee at some point.

It sounds like expectations are measured, which is good. Everyone with the club has indicated they expect Park to struggle a little bit as he adjusts to Major League pitching, but that he is also expected to successfully make those adjustments. I wonder how well those limited expectations will be remembered when the strikeouts come, especially if wins don’t come as quickly for this team as we think they should.

I’m looking forward to a full season of Park and Miguel Sano in the lineup. That’s a lot of long-ball potential that wasn’t there on Opening Day, 2015. It’s also a lot of strikeout potential, of course.

Ryan was asked if he expects to make more roster moves, obviously alluding to the possibility of trading incumbent third baseman Trevor Plouffe. His response seemed unequivocal, stating that he did not expect to make additional changes to the regular lineup. “We’re going to go with what we’ve got,” he said. He added, “We’re going to move Sano to the outfield.”

Things change, of course. Baseball’s Winter Meetings are coming up and it’s reasonable to expect that Ryan will get some inquiries about the availability of some of his players, including Plouffe. Maybe his unambiguous statements today are just part of a posture he’s taking to send a message to his peers that they should not expect to get Plouffe (or anyone) for peanuts.

But, to me, he certainly sounded and looked like a man who believes his everyday lineup is just about set in stone.

The additional power is good. It’s very good. I just don’t think it’s so good that it will, by itself, push the Twins over hump and propel them into the postseason. I believe that this team also needs more hitters who can get on base and contribute some extra-base hits with regularity.

For that to happen, Miguel Sano cannot afford a sophomore slump. He needs to not only continue to pepper the outfield bleachers with 400-foot home run balls, he needs to continue adding 30 or 40 doubles and get on base 38% of the time. In short, he needs to be a fixture in the cleanup spot for the Twins that strikes fear into the minds of opposing pitchers and catchers.

He needs to be that guy right out of the gate in 2016.

Byron Buxton also needs to arrive in 2016. And by “arrive,” I mean he needs to, as Nuke LaLoosh put it, announce his presence with authority.

If Buxton and Sano take control of the leadoff and cleanup spots, respectively, on Opening Day and both show the talent they have demonstrated at every minor league level (and that Sano demonstrated in half a season with the Twins this year), it will allow the rest of the lineup to easily fall into place.

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton

Mauer and Dozier become the everyday number 2 and 3 hitters. Plouffe, Park and either Rosario or Arcia (whichever claims the third outfield spot) easily slot into the 5-7 spots, while Escobar and the catcher du jour, Suzuki or Murphy, pull up the rear.

In that scenario, the Twins lineup has become much “longer,” to use the buzzword currently in favor that describes a team with dangerous hitters even far down the batting order. It also allows guys like Dozier, Mauer, Plouffe and Rosario to successfully fill roles they are most suited to fill, rather than try to be something they aren’t.

Yes, I would have defensive concerns with any outfield that includes both Sano and Arcia in the corners. That’s a disaster waiting to happen, but I’m pretty confident that Rosario will be the winner of that battle this spring, so I’m not too concerned about it.

But if Buxton can’t be Buxton at the top of that order or if Sano struggles to make consistent hard contact at cleanup, suddenly your “long” lineup isn’t really so long and you’ve got some guys hitting in spots they really aren’t best-suited for.

Your leadoff hitter needs to work the count, hit for average, draw walks, find some gaps and cause all sorts of anxiety for pitchers, catchers and defenses on the basepaths.

Your cleanup hitter needs to consistently drive in runs. He needs to hit home runs in bunches. He needs to be able to do more than make pitchers pay for mistakes. He needs to hit a pitcher’s best pitch for extra bases. He needs to avoid striking out so often that opposing teams don’t worry about seeing him step into the on-deck circle.

If Buxton isn’t an effective leadoff man, someone else has to do that job and there is nobody currently on this roster that you could honestly say, “leadoff is his best spot.” The same is true of Sano at cleanup.

Yes Dozier could lead off. Mauer and Escobar could do it, too. But all three of those players have holes in their offensive games that make them much better suited to hit someplace other than at the top of the Twins’ order.

It’s possible that Park will turn out to be a legitimate cleanup spot alternative to Sano. If so, that’s a bonus. But right now, the best the Twins show me is a few guys who could serve that role if they absolutely had to. That’s not good enough.

If you have to slide Dozier and Mauer up a spot in the order and/or do the same with Plouffe and Rosario, not to mention Escobar and your catcher, suddenly that lineup doesn’t look so “long,” after all. You no longer have a lineup set up to challenge the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central Division, much less make a deep postseason run.

I know that I’ve totally ignored the pitching situation and, obviously, that’s very important, too. I also am aware that the Twins will be likely be a better team with Buxton in centerfield every day, regardless of what he does with his bat.

But for the Twins to become the team we all want them to be, they need Byron Buxton to be an All-Star level leadoff hitter, they need Sano to be a beast in the cleanup spot and they need those things to happen closer to April than September. They also need Park to quickly make whatever adjustments need to be made to allow him to be a significant contributor to a big league contender.

No pressure, guys. Just become great and do it now.

Next for Twins Offseason? Hopefully Not Much

Last week, Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan went back-to-back-to-back making three deals in three days in an effort to improve his club, winning the bidding for the right to negotiate with Korean slugging first baseman/DH Byung-ho Park, trading backup catcher Chris Herrmann for a prospect, which cleared the way for catcher John Ryan Murphy to be added via trade.

After one or two more roster adjustments, Ryan should R-E-L-A-X. (Photo: SD Buhr)
After 1 or 2 more roster adjustments, Terry Ryan should R-E-L-A-X. (Photo: SD Buhr)

It has been almost a week since the last of those deals was announced, so the question has become, “Now what?”

I felt the catching situation was the most glaring need that had to be addressed this offseason and Ryan & Co. appear to have resolved that situation with the addition of Murphy.

Now, where should the GM turn his focus?

Given the state of the Twins the past four offseasons, it seems odd to say it, but I think Ryan’s offseason work should be about done already.

Let’s take a position-by-position look at where the Twins stand right at this moment, with some thoughts as to how they could still be improved.

Between incumbent catcher Kurt Suzuki and the newly-acquired Murphy, the position appears to be set. If Ryan could find a taker for Suzuki, they could just hand the starting job to Murphy and look for another backup, but that seems highly unlikely.

Joe Mauer is at first base and isn’t going anywhere. The Twins added another first baseman in Park, which was surprising to most of us, so the odds are stacked high against seeing another one added. Kennys Vargas remains on the periphery of the 1B/DH mix and now we’re seeing reports that he could make a good sized payday in Korea or Japan if the Twins are willing to sell his contract.

Brian Dozier will play second base. If the Twins get an offer they can’t refuse for Dozier, Jorge Polanco would likely get his shot at a permanent promotion to the big leagues. It’s hard to imagine the Twins adding someone else to the mix. James Beresford performed well in Rochester, but he’s a minor league free agent again this year and is at least an even bet to sign elsewhere after the Twins didn’t even give him a look in September.

Eduardo Escobar did everything anyone could ask of him at shortstop in 2015 and appears to have given the Twins the stability they’ve lacked at the position since the ill-advised trade of J.J. Hardy to the Orioles. The Twins will also have Danny Santana around as a utility player, should Escobar falter. It’s unlikely the Twins will go looking for another shortstop.

Everyone seems to think that third base is already crowded. Trevor Plouffe is still manning the hot corner, but is looking over his shoulder at the hulking figure of Miguel Sano. This has led many to recommend that the Twins trade Plouffe this offseason and hand the position to Sano.

While that might make sense, providing that Ryan could get fair value for Plouffe on the market (I’m not all that certain would be the case, but it’s possible), making that deal would mean putting all of the club’s third base “eggs” in the Sano basket. That makes me nervous.

Maybe Sano can play third base competently every day, but that’s hardly a certainty. If Plouffe is sent packing, Ryan had better have a reliable Plan B ready to step into the position. With Plouffe gone, who would that be?

There are few internal options that manager Paul Molitor could plug in. Do we want to see Eduardo Núñez as the Twins’ starting third baseman? Polanco and Santana have rarely played the position, even in minor league ball, but maybe one or both could do it.

Could a Plouffe trade be followed by the acquisition of a stop-gap type? Conceivably, yes. The Twins Daily Offseason Handbook projects 37-year-old Juan Uribe to sign a one-year deal for $3 million. That sounds a little high, to me, for Uribe, but if it’s in that neighborhood, it wouldn’t be a bad price for this particular situation.

Trevor Plouffe in a Twins uniform, where he should stay, at least for now (Photo: SD Buhr)
Trevor Plouffe in a Twins uniform, where he should stay, at least for now (Photo: SD Buhr)

Unless Ryan is really wowed by an offer for Plouffe, however, I think he’s better off keeping the status quo. Let’s see how Sano handles the position (and how he handles his sophomore season at the plate) before running the risk of turning the third sack back into the black hole it was between the departure of Corey Koskie and the arrival of Plouffe.

Likewise, the outfield appears pretty full, even with the departure of Aaron Hicks to the Yankees in the Murphy deal.

Eddie Rosario will be in one corner and the Twins are hoping Byron Buxton claims centerfield right out of spring training. They’ve expressed their intention to teach Sano to play a corner outfield spot, especially now that Park seems likely to get most of the DH at-bats. Oswaldo Arcia is another internal outfield option, but the Twins won’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) consider any option that results in Arcia and Sano sharing the same outfield, no matter how good the man in centerfield is. Max Kepler earned the opportunity to impress coaches and the front office enough in spring training to claim an Opening Day roster spot, but I suspect they’ll start him in Rochester, especially if the alternative is a fourth-outfielder role with the Twins.

And then there’s the pitching staff.

The predominant theory seems to be that the Twins have plenty of internal options to fill out their rotation, but need to look to the free agent and/or trade market to improve their bullpen.

I disagree. Not that the bullpen wasn’t bad (it was), but I disagree with that approach to fixing it. I would prefer to fix the bullpen by improving the rotation even more.

There are four pitchers that you have to figure should be locks to open in the Twins’ rotation. Ervin Santana, Tyler Duffey, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes will, unless traded or injured before then, open the year as Twins starters.

Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco all have starter pedigrees, in the minors and/or Major Leagues, and any of the five could earn the Twins’ fifth rotation spot. But if the Twins are set on being more than just a borderline contender in the American League Central Division, you have to ask yourself whether they could do better than those five pitchers in that final rotation opening.

Now, I’m a Zack Greinke fan from way back. After the 2010 season, I advocated here for the Twins to engineer a trade with the Royals to acquire Greinke. Five years later, I’d still love to have him at the top of the Twins’ rotation, but the Twins are not going to shell out the $25+ million per year over 5+ years that is being projected as being what it will take to sign the free agent – alas, nor should they.

Likewise, you can pretty much rule out names like Price, Cueto, Samardzija and Zimmerman, all of which are likely to garner $100+ million/5+ year deals on the open market. That’s an awful big commitment to make to pitchers who, in each case, come with some significant question marks about their abilities to perform at “ace” levels for the next half-decade. Only Price, in my view, is worth that kind of money. Unfortunately, he won’t be had for that kind of money – it will likely take over $200 million to get him. Ouch.

Berrios is a future Twins starter. May and Meyer could very well be future rotation fixtures, as well. The big unknown, in each case, is the definite arrival time of that future. We just don’t know. It could be April, 2016, and if it is, for just one of those pitchers, then the rotation question is asked and answered.

Trevor May - Bullpen or rotation in 2015? Answer: yes (Photo: SD BUhr)
Trevor May – Bullpen or rotation in 2015? Answer: yes (Photo: SD BUhr)

However, like the situation with Sano as a full time third baseman, relying on any of the five possible fifth starters currently on the roster to be good enough to help propel the Twins into an elite-level team in 2016 is pretty risky.

If Ryan decides to take that risk, it’s fine with me, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Twins take a one-year flyer on Doug Fister, who certainly will be looking for a make-good contract to rebuild his value with an eye on trying free agency again next year. Two years ago, Fister was traded to Washington after 2 ½ successful years in a Tigers uniform. Had he been a free agent a year ago after notching a 2.31 ERA over 25 starts for the Nationals, he’d have undoubtedly been near the top of every team’s free agent starting pitcher wish-list.

But he was Washington property for another year and he did not live up to expectations in 2015, to put it mildly. He lost his starting rotation spot as the dysfunctional Nationals faltered and he finished the season working out of the bullpen.

Could a return to the familiar AL Central spur a revival of Fister’s starting career? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind if the Twins spent $10-15 million or so to find out. At that price, they can afford the risk. If it works out, he’s more than just another fifth starter. If it doesn’t work, all they’ve lost is a few bucks and they move on with whoever is looking the best from among the internal options.

With a rotation of Santana, Duffey, Gibson, Hughes and Fister, you are left with a lot of pretty strong options to improve your bullpen.

Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen will be there. You have to be concerned with the way Perkins pitched the last half of 2015 and I’m not certain Jepsen is really as good as he looked after being acquired from the Rays, but those two will be cornerstones of the 2016 relief corps, if they’re healthy.

Now, just for fun, plug the following five arms into the bullpen: Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco.

Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva chatted during a spring training game in March. They should be able to have chats like this at Target Field in 2016 (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva chatted during a spring training game in March. They should be able to have chats like this at Target Field in 2016 (Photo: SD Buhr)

Yes, that leaves just Perkins and Milone as lefty arms, so I’d like to see Logan Darnell make the team, meaning Nolasco is cut loose or one of Meyer/Berrios is kept in Rochester to stay stretched out in case there’s an early hole to plug in the rotation.

No team survives a season without running 7-10 pitchers through their rotation during the year and all five of these guys could work their way into starting roles either by their own performance or attrition among those who open the year as starters.

But the point remains that the Twins have pitching that is capable of bolstering their bullpen and I’d  spend $10-15 million to take a chance on Fister improving the rotation. Then, as the dominoes fall, quality internal pitchers are pushed to the bullpen.

To me, that’s preferable to making multi-year commitments to one or more of the flavor-of-the-month relief arms available in free agency when the Twins have guys like Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, J.T. Chargois, Taylor Rogers, Zach Jones, Alex Wimmers and Mason Melotakis (to name just a few), any of which could become high-quality internal bullpen options before 2016 is over. Even 2015 top draft pick Tyler Jay, who will be given an opportunity to work in a minor league rotation somewhere to start the season, could be called on for a big league relief role, if needed at some point.

The best free agent bullpen arms will command large, multi-year deals, which the Twins should not invest in, and the next tier on the open market are no more likely to provide consistent quality relief innings than the Twins’ own internal options.

The bottom line, for me, is that Terry Ryan can get Park signed, make a deal with Fister, then go on vacation, as far as I’m concerned. If he can get someone to take Nolasco’s contract off his hands, terrific, but otherwise, I’d be content to head to spring training with that roster.

-JC

Twins May Get a New ‘Park’

No, not THAT kind of “park.” The Twins will continue to call Target Field their home for the foreseeable future.

byung-ho-park
Byung Ho Park

On Monday, it was announced that the Minnesota Twins had submitted the winning $12.85 million bid to secure the rights to negotiate with Korean Baseball’s slugger Byung Ho Park. The Twins now have 30 days to work out a contract with the 29-year-old first baseman/designated hitter who slashed .343/.436/.714 with a 1.150 OPS for the Nexen Heros. He hit 52 and 53 home runs the past two seasons, respectively. He also has over 300 strikeouts combined over the past two years.

As Major League Baseball’s General Manager Meetings get underway in Florida this week, the GMs walking the halls must be just shaking their heads and saying, “That Terry Ryan is just so unpredictable, you never know what that crazy SOB is going to do next!”

I suppose the first thing we will need to learn, if the Twins do sign him, is how to write his name. I’ve seen Byung-ho Park, Byung ho Park, Byung Ho Park and Park Byung ho. I have no idea what’s correct, but I hope someone will check into that and let us all know.

Park is listed at 6′ 1″ and 195 pounds, so he’s certainly not a massive physical specimen, but there are plenty of videos available on YouTube that include compilations of his home runs. He has hit a lot of deep home runs and has mastered a variety of bat-flips, as well.

(This is a LONG montage of Park home runs, so I’m not suggesting you watch the whole thing. I didn’t.)

Reports have emerged, however, that Park will be toning down his bat-flipping in recognition that it’s not as “acceptable” in MLB as it is in Korea, where flipping the bat has become essentially an art form.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I admit that I have been a bit old school in my views about bat-flipping. I’m willing to acknowledge, however, that those views may have been affected by the fact that the Twins haven’t had many guys lately who had the ability to do anything worthy of flipping a bat. With the arrival of Miguel Sano, potentially Kennys Vargas and, now, Park, maybe I’m not so anti-flip as I used to be.

I’m happy to discover that the Twins have put their Tsuyoshi Nishioka experience in their rear view mirror and not allowed it to sour them completely on risking some money in the Asian market.

You have to be careful about comparisons involving small numbers, but it probably didn’t hurt that the Pirates had success with third baseman Jung Ho Kang, who put up similar stat lines to Park a year ago in Korea. Kang hit .287/.355/.461 as a 28-year-old rookie in 2015.

With the technology available today to measure bat speed, velocity of the ball off the bat, etc., we can hope that scouting is a bit more precise than when the Twins took an ultimately ill-advised flyer on Nishioka. Still, conventional belief is that Park hasn’t faced anything near MLB-level pitching, either in velocity or breaking balls, so it would be premature to celebrate too much.

I do think it’s interesting that the Twins (and presumably other bidders for Park’s services) were willing to overlook his strikeout rate, given the concerns everyone seems  have with Twins outfield prospect Adam Brett Walker II, who likewise has shown impressive power and excessive strikeout rates.

I’m not sure if that indicates the Twins might be more likely to give Walker a big league shot in the near future or simply that Walker, in a worst case scenario, could make some big bucks playing in Korea, but I find it interesting.

If the Twins sign Park, it also opens up questions about where he would fit in Paul Molitor’s lineup. This guy named Joe Mauer has been viewed as having pretty much a lock on first base. I saw a report that Park was working some at third base during his Korean team’s spring training this past year, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate he actually played that position during the season. In any event, the Twins already could have one too many third basemen in Trevor Plouffe and Miguel Sano.

The Twins have asked Sano to play outfield during winter ball, so that could open up the (perhaps most likely) possibility of simply having Mauer and Park split 1B/DH duties, but I’m having trouble imagining Sano going from full time DH in 2015 to full time right fielder in 2016. I think Sano will DH a lot next summer. I also have become irreversibly attached to the idea of a future four-man outfield rotation consisting of top-notch defenders Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Aaron Hicks and Max Kepler.

I have to believe Trevor Plouffe is on the trade block. I wouldn’t give him away, however, and I’m just not convinced other teams value him enough to give up much of value in return. Of course, any of the four outfielders mentioned above, other than Buxton, would also be potential trade bait and one or two could bring more of a return than Plouffe.

For two years, I have made fun of anyone who claimed Mauer should return to catching. The man stopped catching for a good reason. He had brain injuries that resulted in his doctors telling him he needed to stop taking 100 mph foul tips off his head.

If his doctors still feel that way, then I still feel Mauer should not catch. Period. It’s simply not worth the risk to his future health.

Is it possible, however, that given his relative lack of additional concussion issues since moving out from behind home plate a couple years ago, that he has received medical clearance to return to the position? This is pure speculation, of course, but if so, a lot of pieces suddenly start falling into place. It seems highly unlikely, bordering on impossible, but stranger things have happened.

For example, did you hear the Minnesota Twins outbid everyone for Korean slugger Byung-ho Park?

-JC

 

Walker 195/51