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

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

Flirting With an Old Addiction

I did something recently that I hadn’t done in probably 15 years.

It used to be a habit. In fact, in retrospect, it may have actually become my very first true habit – something I came to feel I needed. Whether it was a good habit or a bad habit is probably open to debate, depending on one’s perspective.

carlinquote (2)The habit had its roots in my youth. My dad was a baseball coach, so I spent most of my spring and summer playing or watching baseball. I spent a lot of time around the high school players that my dad coached and wanted to do pretty much anything that would make me feel connected to real ballplayers.

I turned five years old during the Minnesota Twins’ first season of existence in 1961 and it was at least indirectly because of the way my friends and I followed that team in the early to mid-60s that we eventually began to spend an increasing percentage of our weekly allowances to feed our mutual habit (remember when kids got allowances that they had to learn to live within each week?).

My parents seemed to understand. They were baseball fans, after all, and didn’t want to discourage me from being one, too. Of course, had they known how much money I would eventually spend (arguably, “throw away” might be a more appropriate term) on the habit, they might have more closely supervised or restricted my activities. Then again, people did a lot of things in the 60s that, it turns out, weren’t exactly good ideas.

By the late 1980s, I was more heavily involved with the habit and I could see that my own young son was also taking it up. I was even more of an enabler than my own father had been with me. I didn’t even make my son spend his own money to get started on the habit, I covered a significant portion of the financial commitment necessary to get him hooked.

By the mid 1990s, my son and I were both putting money into buying baseball cards.

He graduated from high school in 2001 and I’m not sure how much he has continued to spend on the habit, but I’m certain he hasn’t kept up with the levels we did when he was younger.

Personally, I have picked up a pack once in a great while, but I hadn’t bought a full multi-pack hobby box of cards for a very long time – until now.

I don’t know what made me backslide. I could probably blame it on the idleness that comes with having retired from my day-job, leading me to spend too many of my cold (and not-so-cold) winter days in bored hibernation. But the honest truth is, I just wanted to do it.

I wanted to buy a box of cards and spend some time opening every pack, looking to see what superstars might emerge as I tore open the packs and thumbed my way through the individual cards – just the way I did when I was eight years old and hoping to find a Harmon Killebrew or Tony Oliva, while I combed past the checklists and the inevitable Bill Monbouquette card that seemed to be present in every pack.

And it felt good. Very good. Maybe dangerously good, for a guy who’s facing a future of living on a relatively fixed (and potentially decreasing) retirement income.

Nice card. Now if it had just been autographed by both of these guys...
Nice card. Now if it had just been autographed by both of these guys…

I’m not sure what caused me to backslide. I think perhaps a couple pictures of new cards found their way into my Twitter timeline, triggering a previously buried subliminal command that forced me to spend time entering various baseball card-related phrases into my search engine of choice that day. At least I’ll blame it on Twitter. I blame a lot of things on Twitter, after all.

In the end, I decided to order a box of 2012 Panini Extra Edition Elite cards. Honestly, until the day I ordered them, I hadn’t heard of Panini baseball cards. It turns out, though, that they issue sets of prospect cards each year and the fact that they supposedly included six autographed cards in each hobby box (20 packs with 5 cards per pack) was a selling point.

I figured the 2012 set might include some of the first three classes of Twins-affiliated Cedar Rapids Kernels that I’ve gotten to know during the past three seasons.

The box arrived Thursday morning. It was smaller than I envisioned it being, but I got past that. Alas, many things from the days of our youth seemed bigger than they really were, in retrospect.

I opened the box and gave some thought about how I wanted to proceed with opening the packs. I considered opening just three or four packs a day, spreading out the fun of opening them over the course of at least a few days.

Yeah, that didn’t happen. I opened the first 10 packs in just minutes, coming across four autographs and a handful of other special “numbered series” cards in the process. I paused at that point to get a drink and look up the names of a couple of the unfamiliar guys I now had autographs of.

I’m not too proud to admit there were a couple of well-regarded prospects in 2012 that I had no recollection of ever hearing about (but I’m also not going to open myself up to public humiliation by admitting exactly who they were).

After acquainting myself with those players, I ripped into the remaining 10 packs.

About the time this card was being released, Kyle Tucker was turning 15 years old. He later became the Astros' 2015 first round draft choice (5th overall).
About the time this card was being released, Kyle Tucker was turning 15 years old. Three years later he became the Astros’ 2015 first round draft choice (5th overall).

I ended up with seven autograph cards (one more than the promised six – bonus!) and my hopes concerning picking up a few former Kernels/Future Twins were also realized. Among them were Luke Bard, Adam (sans Brett) Walker, Mason Melotakis and J.O. (a.k.a. Jose) Berrios.

Twins pitching prospect J.T. Chargois showed up in a pack, as well, though he never had the honor of wearing a Kernels jersey.

None of the autograph cards were Twins prospects, but I did get a “Building Blocks” card featuring the Astros’ Carlos Correa and Twins uber-prospect Byron Buxton.

Maybe best of all, there wasn’t a Bill Monbouquette in the entire box. In fact, I only had a total of three duplicate cards. (if you’re a particular fan of Joe DeCarlo, Brett Mooneyham or Matt Price, let me know and I’ll hook you up with a card.)

As I write this, probably three hours or so after opening the last pack of the box, I’m left to wonder what this all means.

I want to convince myself that this was a one-time thing – that buying one box of cards doesn’t mean I’m destined to relapse into the full depths of another epoch of card-collecting. I’m just not sure that even I would believe that.

If you should hear that I’ve decided to take my 401(k) money in a single lump sum, please pray for me.

-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

Berrios Headlines Kernels’ Hot Stove Banquet

Jose Berrios has shot up the national “top prospect” rankings based on his performance the past couple of years in the Minnesota Twins organization and on Wednesday night, Berrios joined his former manager with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, Jake Mauer, and Twins farm director Brad Steil to participate in a “roundtable” discussion at the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.

Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet
Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet

Before the banquet got underway, all three men were available for media interviews.

It was the first time Berrios had been back to Cedar Rapids since he was part of a 2013 Kernels squad that was loaded with potential big leaguers, including Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Tyler Duffey, Adam Brett Walker and many others.

Berrios said he was enjoying the homecoming.

“Coming here today in the afternoon, I saw things and thought, ‘I remember that.’ It’s different because now, you’ve got a lot of snow, but I remember some things. My host family, Abby (Pumroy) is coming tonight and I’m excited about that. This is where I played my first full season and I enjoyed it. My family came for my birthday in May. I enjoyed all of my year in 2013 in Cedar Rapids.”

Pumroy, his host mother during his stay with the Kernels (as she is every summer for many of the Latin-American players), not only came to see Berrios at the banquet, but joined him on the stage during the roundtable to serve as interpreter, if necessary.

That service wasn’t needed often. Berrios has made a lot of improvements since his time with the Kernels and that would include his command of English.

In truth, his season with the Kernels was Berrios’ worst as a minor leaguer. He didn’t turn 19 until the second month of the season and notched a 7-7 record and 3.99 ERA and gave up, on average, just over one hit per inning. He struck out “just” 8.7 batters per nine innings. That’s certainly not bad, but 2013 is the only season of his young career in which he failed to top the 9 Ks per inning mark.

Maturity on the mound was an issue for Berrios at times that season. There were times when an inning would start out with an error or two or maybe a couple of hits and the young right-hander would appear to lose his composure a bit, leading to crooked numbers going on the scoreboard that inning for the opponent.

That’s not unusual, of course, especially in the lower levels of the minor leagues, as Mauer pointed out while talking about the progress that Berrios has made since their time together with the Kernels.

“He was pretty young, obviously, when he was here,” Mauer recalled. “He came up late (in April). One thing he would do is he would always compete. Really it was probably the first time he had been hit in his life. He had struck everybody out.

“Kohl Stewart went through some of that, when he was here, too. Some of those guys, that’s what they learn to do here – they start to learn how to pitch, learn how to overcome adversity. Sometimes you get yourself out of innings that maybe your defense created for you. Do I just roll over or do I compete and get through it? I think both of those guys are starting to figure that out pretty good.”

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

Berrios, who will still be just 21 years old when the 2016 season opens, agreed that he has developed a more mature approach to his craft.

“I’ve matured every year,” he said. “You have to be under control in every situation. That’s what I work on every year and that’s what I’ve learned.

This is the second year that Berrios has been invited by the Twins to open Spring Training with the big club in Fort Myers. A year ago, he wasn’t shy about telling people his goal was to open the season in the Twins’ rotation.

That didn’t happen, of course, and Berrios ended up throwing all 166 1/3 of his innings in the minors, split between AA Chattanooga and AAA Rochester.

His goals going into 2016 have not been tempered from his experience last year, however. If anything, he has taken them up a notch.

“Yeah, I’m keeping the same goals,” he confirmed. “Trying to make the 25 man roster in April with the Minnesota Twins. Then keep going, work to be selected for the All-Star Game in July and then at the end of the season, maybe the Rookie of the Year.

“That’s my goal, that’s what I’m preparing myself for, to make that goal. Be ready for spring training this year. I’m excited about that.”

There may still be snow on the ground, but Berrios said he’s ready to get the new season underway.

“Yeah, there’s too much offseason, I want to play a game.”

Steil, voicing the views of the Twins front office, wasn’t prepared to predict a Rookie of the Year award for his young prospect, but he clearly is looking for good things from Berrios in 2016.

“We’re looking for him to keep improving, which he’s done a nice job at every level he’s been through in our system, Steil said. “Last year, when he went from AA to AAA, he was a little shaky to start with at AAA, which is to be expected.

“I think once you saw him get settled in and get comfortable, he made some adjustments and really pitched well the last month of the season. So he’s going to give some guys at spring training a run for their money when it comes to competing for a roster spot there.”

While it’s too early to make any firm predictions about the Kernels’ 2016 roster, Steil did talk about what he’s expecting at this early point in time.

“I think, looking at it right now, a rough idea of what kind of team we’re going to start with, I think it will be another strong pitching staff, similar to last year,” he offered. “I think as the season goes on, some of the younger hitters will get better and I think we’ve got a chance to have a better lineup than we did last year, just because of the talent that some of these guys have that are coming here.

“Jermaine Palacios, a shortstop that was in the GCL and Elizabethton last year, is one of those guys. I expect LaMonte Wade will be back here to start the season. Chris Paul is another guy that will probably be back to start the season. So I think we’re going to have a few guys that can swing the bat. We should have a little bit more of a threat in the middle of the lineup than they maybe did last year.”

Steil also talked about a couple of pitchers that Kernels fans saw a little of two years ago, Lewis Thorpe and Fernando Romero.

Regarding Thorpe, Steil said the 20-year-old Australian lefty is, “doing very well.”

“He’s probably not going to be ready to go to start the season, so he’ll probably start in extended and get stretched out and build up his arm strength.

“Fernando Romero is in a similar situation,” Steil added. “A guy that pitched here briefly two years ago. He’s got a really good arm. He’ll touch 97, 98 (mph). He’s doing really well. He’s a little ahead of Thorpe, so he may be ready to go at the beginning of the year.”

The Twins assigned each of the managers in their system to the same teams they led in 2015, but the departure of a couple of coaches at the AAA level meant wholesale coaching changes among most of the minor league staffs. As a result, Henry Bonilla, the Kernels pitching coach last season, is moving up to handle the Miracle’s pitching staff and Tommy Watkins, who has coached Kernels hitters for three seasons, will be in Chattanooga with the Lookouts.

Mauer will be welcoming J.P Martinez and Brian Dinkelman to his staff in Cedar Rapids this season as pitching and hitting coaches, respectively.

While Mauer had known Bonilla and Watkins going back to the days that they were teammates in the Twins organization, he said he doesn’t have a similar background with Martinez and Dinkelman. As Mauer was moving through the organization as a player, Martinez and Dinkelman were always a rung or two below him on the ladder. By the time they were reaching the upper levels as players, Mauer had begun his coaching career back in rookie ball.

“I missed being a teammate with them, but I remember them in Spring Training and being around them last year a little bit. They’re both competitors and they both have a lot of information. They’re both really good personalities as far as they’re hard workers and they’re excited.

“This is more ‘real baseball’ than what extended and Gulf Coast League are. They’ve heard a lot of the positive things that are going on up here and both played in this league. I spoke to both of them right around Christmas time. They’re both heading down to Florida early to get down there and get around some of our boys a little sooner.”

Mauer indicated that one benefit of the coaching changes is that Martinez and Dinkelman have already worked some with many of the players likely to pull on a Kernels jersey this summer.

“To be honest, I don’t know many of the guys,” Mauer admitted. “I’ll probably rely on JP and Brian quite a bit. They had them in instructional league and some of them in extended, so they have a feel for them. We’ll shake it out in spring training and figure out who can do what and where they all fit.”

Mauer has set the expectations bar high for next season after leading Cedar Rapids to within one game of a Midwest League championship. On Wednesday, his boss expressed how impressed he has been with the Kernels’ skipper.

“He and Tommy and the pitching coaches here have done a great job in our three years here, advancing a level deeper into the playoffs the last two years,” Steil said. “Especially last year, they did a great job as a coaching staff.

“I don’t think that team was as talented as the first two years we were here. But they did a really good job and those players battled and they never gave up. They played good, sound baseball. They didn’t beat themselves and that was a credit to Jake and Tommy and Henry.”

Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids' baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.
Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids’ baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.

-JC

Max Kepler’s 2016 Role

In 2015, Twins outfield prospect Max Kepler had his long-awaited breakout season, primarily with the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts. He was the Southern League Player of the Year and, immediately after his Lookouts team won the Southern League Championship, Kepler was on his way to join the Twins for the remainder of the 2016 season.

Max Kepler
Max Kepler

Kepler had an injury-plagued season in 2013, not being able to even join the Cedar Rapids Kernels until mid-June due to an arm injury. In 2014, he made progress with the Fort Myers Miracle, but still wasn’t wowing the supposed “experts.” He had a very good stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2014, however, setting the stage for his outstanding 2015 season.

This has led to some conjecture as to what his role might/could/should be in 2016. The topic became the subject of a Twitter exchange I participated in on Monday but making a thoughtful argument on a matter like this in 140 character bites is all but impossible.

Fortunately, I have a blog that has no such limit.

I don’t recall how the topic was originally raised, but in essence, I believe the question of Kepler perhaps being utilized as the Twins’ fourth outfielder in 2016 was posed.

The immediate reaction, from informed persons with considerable experience and knowledge on such matters, was that Kepler would not and should not open the season with the Twins if he’s not going to be one of the three starting outfielders. In that case, he should begin the year on the farm where he’ll be an everyday player, preparing for a possible mid-season promotion.
This is a reasoned and logical view. It’s a view I would have shared a year ago. It’s a view I wouldn’t necessarily criticize the Twins’ front office for taking this spring, either.

But I don’t necessarily agree it would be the correct approach in 2016.

I don’t think we can rely too much on one very impressive season out of Kepler (or any prospect) and we can’t assume that he’s going to pick up in March right where he left off in Septermber, though he will get an opportunity to impress coaches and the front office during the Twins’ spring training. He may struggle against what passes for big league pitching in the initial spring training games and, if so, the only decision to be made will be whether he opens 2016 in Rochester or back in Chattanooga.

Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s assume he opens strong and is successful against the March versions of Major League pitching he faces, but not to the extent that he forces his way into one of the top three outfield spots with the Twins.
Now, what do you do?

Option one, of course, is that you still send him to the minors where he’ll play every day.

Option two is that you bring him north to Minnesota to open the season as the Twins’ fourth outfielder.

Max Kepler
Max Kepler

With a prospect of his caliber, conventional wisdom is that you don’t want him rotting on the big league team’s bench. You want him honing his craft in the upper minors by getting daily looks at quality pitching (though, clearly, not MLB level “quality”).

I’m not prepared to just blindly follow conventional wisdom, in this case, however. It may be conventional, but I’m not convinced it’s wise.

As things currently stand, the Twins’ starting outfield is likely to be some three-man combination of the following four players: Eddie Rosario, Oswaldo Arcia, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. If Trevor Plouffe remains the Twins’ starting third baseman on Opening Day, it’s quite possible that all four of the aforementioned men are with the Twins, making Arcia the likely “fourth outfielder.”

But, again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume Plouffe, Rosario or Arcia is not with the organization, Buxton struggles in spring training or the Sano-as-outfielder experiment goes bust.
In our “what if” scenario, then, the Twins are left with the choice of adding a replacement level fourth outfielder in the Shane Robinson mold or making Keper that fourth outfielder.

If the Twins were still in the midst of a run of 95-loss season futility, Kepler would be farmed out. If you have little hope of competing for the postseason, you give your top prospects all kinds of time to develop in the minors, even if they might make your big league club marginally better. You’re planning and playing for the future, when you can contend.

But the Twins of 2016 are no longer rebuilding. To my mind, every roster decision they make coming out of spring training should answer only one question – who gives us the best chance to win games at the MLB level?

I simply don’t buy the argument that Kepler’s development would be damaged by being the Twins’ fourth outfielder, as opposed to being a regular in Rochester if – BIG IF – he demonstrates that he is not overwhelmed by big league pitching.
Given the likely composition of the Twins’ starting outfield (and the fact that Paul Molitor, not Ron Gardenhire, is the Twins’ manager), Kepler would not rot on the bench. Most starting outfielders get one game off each week, either entirely off or where they serve as the designated hitter. That would potentially give Kepler three starts every week. At worst, he would start twice and pinch hit a time or two.

Together, Shane Robinson and Jordan Schafer averaged over ten plate appearances per week for the Twins in 2015 and they were not the only reserves who saw time in the Twins outfield.

Reynaldo Rodriguez led the Red Wings, playing in 132 of Rochester’s 140 games in 2015. He averaged about 25 plate appearances per week. If you subscribe to the “promote Kepler at mid-season” philosophy, he’s not going to come anywhere close to that number, anyway.

If the Twins can find a dozen plate appearances for Kepler each week at the big league level and if he demonstrates he is not overmatched in those opportunities, I would rather he learn to hit MLB pitching in the Major Leagues, not simply continue to show a proficiency for hitting good minor league pitching.

But that’s not really the point, anyway.

The point is that these Twins should be doing absolutely everything within their power to win Major League games. They found out in 2015 just how important every single win is and that a win in September is no more important than a win in April.

Max Kepler, in Arizona Fall League (2014)
Max Kepler, in Arizona Fall League (2014)

For that reason, if the Twins believe that Max Kepler’s presence, whether it’s his defense, his baserunning, his pinch-hitting or his ability to ably fill in as a starting outfielder two or three times a week, is likely to result in more wins over the course of the season than whoever else they might alternatively utilize in that role, then that’s all that really matters. You keep Kepler in April, period, even if that means Kepler doesn’t reach his full potential as a big leaguer for another year.

The Twins – and their fans – need to stop thinking like an organization still “waiting until next year.” Next year is now and the Twins should need to begin acting like they plan to compete with the Kansas City Royals for dominance of the American League Central Division and do so beginning in 2016.

That means you bring your best 25 players to Minnesota with you in April. If that includes Max Kepler (and/or Byron Buxton and/or Jose Berrios), then so be it.

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’ Roster is Set (but don’t call it “final”)

With Thursday night’s announcement that Chris Herrmann would be heading north with the Minnesota Twins, their opening day roster appears to be set. The back up catcher spot was the final unresolved question of the spring.

A lot is made of the make up of the Twins’ roster as they open the 2015 season, but it really is of just mild interest to me, personally.

Yes, I like to see a guy like Herrmann rewarded for his hard work and persistence and JR Graham’s story as a Rule 5 pick up earning a spot in the bullpen is compelling.

Chris Herrmann (photo: SD BUhr)
Chris Herrmann (photo: SD Buhr)

But I’m a lot more curious, already, as to what the Twins roster will look like come mid to late July than I am concerning what it looks like when they travel to Detroit to open the season. And I suspect there will be at least a 33% turnover in the roster by the end of July.

That would be eight or nine spots on the 25-man roster that would be held down by someone not making the trip north out of spring training with the Twins – and I think that sounds about right. In fact, I could see the turnover being more than that.

JR Graham (photo: SD Buhr)
JR Graham (photo: SD Buhr)

I’m not making that prediction based purely on an expectation that the Twins will be clearly en route to a fifth straight 90+ loss season and find themselves in sell-off mode. In fact, I’m probably more optimistic about the Twins’ chances of remaining competitive beyond the All-Star break than I’ve been in a couple of years.

I think that, if they stay healthy, this line up will score plenty of runs and I think a lot of people are underestimating how improved the starting rotation may be with the addition of Ervin Santana and a healthier Ricky Nolasco.

Trevor May (photo: SD Buhr)
Trevor May (photo: SD Buhr)

My belief in the likelihood of significant turnover comes not so much from a lack of confidence in the team as initially constituted (though I do worry about that bullpen), but from a sense that there are simply so many talented young players at the higher levels of the organization minor leagues that are almost certain to force their way on to the Twins roster by mid-season.

To start with, if Josmil Pinto is healthy and still in the Twins organization, I have little doubt he’ll be wearing a Twins uniform by July.

Beyond that, does anyone not believe that Alex Meyer, Trevor May, Nick Burdi and Jake Reed will be pitching for the Twins by mid-year if they come out of the gate strong in their respective minor league assignments? Those are four pitchers that you could make an argument for putting on the roster right now. You might even be tempted to put Jose Berrios on that list, though I suspect he may be held down on the farm at least until later in the season.

Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva (photo: SD Buhr)
Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva (photo: SD Buhr)

Even if any/all of those arms fail to impress during the season’s first half, that doesn’t mean that all of the arms that are making up the Twins’ opening day pitching staff are likely to have performed well enough to keep their jobs. This pitching staff (especially among the relief corps), as initially constituted, is simply not strong enough to avoid the need for a significant make-over, whether via promotions or trades (or, perhaps most likely, some combination thereof).

And we haven’t even mentioned the organization’s consensus top pair of prospects, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. If they manage to shake off the rust that resulted from lost seasons a summer ago (and which clearly still existed during spring training), I expect they will both be Minnesota Twins by mid season. They could easily be joined by Eddie Rosario and, of course, nobody would be at all surprised to see Aaron Hicks rejoin the big league club.

Miguel Sano (photo: SD Buhr)
Miguel Sano (photo: SD Buhr)

In addition to the prospects that have become familiar to much of the Twins’ fan base, the AA Chattanooga Lookouts’ everyday line up is going to be literally full of players that are only a hot start and the ability to play a defensive position of need away from being called up.

What it all means is that the Twins roster in July, August and September should include far more players that are likely to be part of the next generation of Twins capable of contending for future postseasons than the roster we are discussing in April.

It’s not easy being patient, but most of these young players will benefit from getting a little more minor league seasoning. The good news is that we are no longer talking about it being several years before we see these promising prospects at Target Field, but, hopefully, merely several weeks.

– JC

JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects: 2014-15

Ho Ho Ho. Tis the season for being merry and jolly and all that stuff.

It’s also the season for publishing “top prospect” lists. Actually, it’s a bit late in the season for doing this, but I just haven’t felt like doing a lot of writing lately. So sue me.

Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

This is the fourth year that I’ve put out my own list. I’m not really sure WHY I do it. It’s not like we really need yet another such list and the other people who tout their lists know their stuff better than I do (in many cases, anyway). So let’s just say I do this for fun.

As I was preparing this list, I went back and looked at the lists I’ve put together previously. I did a Top 10 before the 2012 season and Top 15 lists before 2013 and 2014.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) that this is the third consecutive season that I’ve had the same three prospects ranked 1 through 3 in some order or another. They have swapped spots a bit between them, but Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Alex Meyer have been in my top 3 spots for three straight years.

It’s more than a little exciting to realize that all three have the potential to make their Major League debuts in 2015.

Without further ado, here’s the list:

  1. Miguel Sano – 3B – Why? I’m more optimistic that he won’t be a liability defensively than I have been previously, but more importantly, I believe his injury is highly unlikely to preclude him from reaching his ceiling.
  2. Byron Buxton – CF – Why? I have some (not a lot, but some) concern that his wrist injuries could become chronic wrist issues that certainly could affect his ceiling as an outfielder and as a hitter. It’s not a huge concern, for me, but it’s enough that I gave the top spot to Sano, who I have no such concerns about.
  3. Alex Meyer – SP – A lot of people are dropping Meyer and moving Berrios up ahead of him based on a year when Meyer didn’t break through as hoped and had some injury issues, while Berrios had a breakout year. I still think Meyer’s ceiling is a notch above Berrios’.
  4. Jose Berrios – SP – But, yeah, Berrios DID have a really good year. He’s a workout fiend and clearly is intent on getting the most out of his opportunity to pitch professionally, despite not being the prototypically tall athlete that is in vogue around the league.
  5. Eddie Rosario – OF – It was nearly a lost year for Rosario after his suspension and only getting half a season in during the summer, but he reclaimed his value with a strong Arizona Fall League. I’m probably a litte higher on him than most people.
  6. Jorge Polanco – MIF – Yes, his cup of coffee with the Twins was more a matter of convenience, since he was on the 40-man roster, than reflective of his current abilities, but he did have a very strong season.
  7. Trevor May – SP – His ceiling might be as a #3 starter, but he’ll seriously contend for a Twins rotation spot in spring training this season. That, in itself, warrants a spot in the top 10 prospects.
  8. Kohl Stewart – SP – Unlike May, Stewart is at least a couple of years away from even being considered for a spot with the Twins, but even though his strikeout rate in 2014 was lower than hoped for, he remains a top of the rotation prospect.
  9. Nick Gordon – SS – The 2014 first round pick had a very good short-season at Elizabethton. If he shows even more in a full season this year, he’ll move up this list quickly.
  10. Nick Burdi – RP – The 2014 2nd round pick has legitimate 100 mph potential and an unfair slider. Should pitch for the Twins at some point in 2015.
  11. Max Kepler – OF – We are seeing more flashes of promise on the potential that’s been talked about for years. He needs a breakout season in 2015.
  12. Stephen Gonsalves – SP – The lefty showed real talent against Midwest League hitters after joining Cedar Rapids and was very young for the level.
  13. Chih-Wei Hu – SP – I’m probably the only one you will find ranking Hu in the top 15, but he showed me more command  – of more pitches – and more mound maturity – than any other starting pitcher in Cedar Rapids in 2014, and that’s saying something.
  14. Travis Harrison – OF – Harrison is dropping out of the top 15 on some lists, seemingly due to his lack of home runs in 2014. I understand that, but I felt Harrison’s biggest need going in to last year was to cut his strikeouts down and develop more as a hitter who can deliver to all fields with some authority. He did both. The home runs will come, he didn’t get “weaker.”
  15. Stuart Turner – C – I have to say, it is very difficult to pick a #15 for this list. I’m going with Turner primarily because he skipped low-A and went to the Miracle and, after a slow start at the plate, he hit better later and reports are he was as good as advertised as a receiver.

It is almost impossible for me to believe that I’ve created a Top 15 Twins Prospects list that does not include Lewis Thorpe, Jake Reed, Mitch Garver, Adam Brett Walker and Taylor Rogers.

I want to see Thorpe recover from his elbow issue without requiring surgery before I give him a spot in the top 15 which he otherwise deserves and I want to see Walker be successful against pitchers at least one level higher, given his issues with the strikeouts.

With Reed, Garver and Rogers, though, it was simply a case of running out of room. If they stay healthy, I expect every one of those guys to play Major League baseball (hopefully for the Twins). If you have an organization where those guys are not among your top 15 prospects, you’ve got a damn good pipeline going.

The Twins have a damn good pipeline going.

JC

Sickels’ “Twins Top 20” Features Past/Future Kernels

The 2013 season was, by almost all measures, a successful maiden season for the affiliation between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their new Major League parent, the Minnesota Twins. Now, fall is bringing out the first of what will be many published organizational “top prospect” lists, signaling that it’s not too early to begin looking at what kind of talent the Twins will be sending to Cedar Rapids in 2014.

John Sickels publishes The Baseball Prospect Book yearly and is one of the more respected minor league experts in the business. This week, he released his list of the Twins’ Top Twenty Prospects at his minorleagueball.com website.

A peek at that list not only confirms for Kernels fans that they had the opportunity to watch a number of future Major Leaguers on Perfect Game Field this year, but also gives a clue as to what Cedar Rapids fans can expect to see next summer.

Sickels wrote that the “Twins system is among the elite in the game,” and a number of recent Kernels are among the reasons for that high praise. He also believes that, “there are some lively arms of promise at the lower levels,” in the Twins organization, which should tip off Kernels fans to what they can expect to see in 2014.

Sickels uses a grading system (A, B, C, etc.) to rank the prospect status of minor leaguers and he is not an easy grader. As he writes, “Grade C+ is actually good praise, and some C+ prospects (especially at lower levels) turn out very well indeed.” Of the hundreds of minor league players in the Twins organization, 24 attained that C+ grade, or better, from Sickels this fall. That may not sound like many, but it’s actually a high number for one organization.

Byron Buxton, who patrolled centerfield for the Kernels during the first half of the 2013 campaign, was one of two Twins prospects (along with Class AA slugger Miguel Sano) to attain Grade A prospect status from Sickels. Wrote Sickels, “Few organizations can boast a pair of potential superstar Grade A talents like Buxton and Sano, and the Twins have good depth beyond them…”

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton

Buxton ranks as the number one prospect in the organization, on Sickels’ list, but five other Kernels alumni also rank in his Top Twenty.

Right handed pitcher Jose Berrios gets a B grade from Sickels and ranks sixth among Twins prospects. Both infielder Jorge Polanco (B) and outfielder/first baseman Max Kepler (B) make the organizational Top Ten, coming in at numbers nine and ten, respectively, in Sickels’ rankings.

Third baseman Travis Harrison earns a B-/C+ from Sickels and the number 11 ranking, while outfielder Adam Brett Walker’s C+/B- grade placed him at number 13.

Four additional Kernels, infielder Niko Goodrum and pitchers Mason Melotakis, Taylor Rogers and Miguel Sulbaran pulled C+ grades from Sickels and fell just outside the Top Twenty. In essence, this means ten members of the 2013 Kernels are among Sickels’ Top 24 Twins Prospects going in to the offseason.

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum
Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

As for the future, grading recently signed or drafted ballplayers that haven’t yet competed in a full season of professional baseball is a tricky business, but Sickels placed five such Twins prospects among his organizational Top Twenty. All five are pitchers.

Kohl Stewart, a right hander who was the Twins top draft pick in last summer, leads that list with a B+ grade from Sickels and his number three ranking in the organization. Sickels’ wrote that Stewart, “was the best high school pitcher in the draft and showed good command of plus stuff in his pro debut.”

Lefty Lewis Thorpe, an Australian 17-year-old, reportedly grew an inch and added something close to 50 pounds and several miles per hour to his fastball this past summer. Sickels grades him at a B- and places him seventh among Twins’ prospects. Thorpe pitched in the Gulf Coast League (the lowest US rookie league team among Twins affiliates) in 2013 making it highly unlikely that he starts 2014 in Cedar Rapids and may not arrive until the following summer.

Felix Jorge (number 17), Stephen Gonsalves (19) and Ryan Eades (20) slip in to Sickels’ Top Twenty, as well, all with C+ grades.

Jorge is a righthander from the Dominican Republic who had a very good year for Elizabethton in 2013, striking out 72 hitters in just 61 innings covering his 12 starts.

Gonsalves, a lefty and the Twins’ fourth round pick last June, only threw 28 innings combined during time with both Twins rookie league teams in 2013 but was a strike out machine and posted a 0.95 Earned Run Average.

Eades, another righthander, was the Twins’ second round pick in 2013 out of LSU. He accumulated just 15 2/3 innings of work for Elizabethton this summer but will be 22 years old by opening day in 2014, making it possible the Twins would try to accelerate his movement through the organization.

It could be years before Cedar Rapids fans see another collection of hitters in Kernels uniforms the likes of the group that the Twins sent through town in 2013. Buxton could well be wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform and calling Target Field in Minneapolis his home by the end of the coming season. By 2016, several of his Kernels teammates could join him with the Twins.

While Kernels hitters in 2014 are not likely to measure up to what fans saw this year, a pitching staff that could include Stewart, Jorge, Gonsalves, Eades and, possibly by the end of the season Thorpe as well, has the potential to be among the best in the Midwest League.

– JC