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.

Did the Minnesota Twins Tank?

What is baseball going to do about teams tanking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton

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

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

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

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-JC

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

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

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

Joe Mauer will be the first baseman.

Brian Dozier will hold down second base.

Trevor Plouffe will man the hot corner at third base.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oswaldo Arcia
Oswaldo Arcia (Photo by SD Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-JC

Everything Old is New Again

Today, I want to revisit something I wrote in a prior post. The subject (as so many things written by so many people has been) was centered around what the Twins should do with regard to Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton.

Maybe you take them aside and say, “Guys, if you’re healthy in April, you’re going to be Minnesota Twins. You may perform like Kennys Vargas or you may look more like Aaron Hicks, but you’re going to stay in Minnesota. You will not be sent back to the minors. From this point forward, you are Major League baseball players. Now get to work and act like it.”

The thing is, you can’t wait until spring training to make this decision. It wouldn’t be fair to Trevor Plouffe.

If Sano is going to step in as your primary third baseman, Plouffe needs to spend some time this winter learning to play left field. Maybe he and Joe Mauer could learn together.

For that matter, I’d tell Sano to go out there and shag some fly balls, too, because I’m not convinced the Twins won’t discover they’re better off defensively with Sano in the outfield and Plouffe at the hot corner.

What’s that? You say you’re one of the five or so people who have read everything I’ve posted this offseason and you don’t recall reading any of that? Well, you’re absolutely correct.

I offered those recommendations in October – of 2014.

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)

That just demonstrates that I’m never wrong with my ideas, just occasionally ahead of the curve! Eventually, conventional wisdom (and that of the Twins’ front office) comes around to my way of thinking. They really should just listen to me in the first place, right?

So was I prescient or premature? Based on the reactions I received to these suggestions 14 months ago, most would say I was premature – that it was simply too soon for Sano and Buxton to be plugged into the Twins starting lineup right out of the gate in 2015.

Maybe. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say I’d still like to have seen what kind of results the Twins would have had if they had benefited from a full season of Sano-Buxton, rather than half a season of Sano and only enough Buxton to show eventual flashes of his potential at the end of the season.

Of course, based on the reactions we see to the Twins trading Aaron Hicks and their statements concerning plans to use Sano in the outfield in 2016, a lot of fans would say I was neither prescient nor premature, but I was simply wrong then and wrong now.

I’ve been critical of front office decisions with some regularity over the past few years (but then, who hasn’t?), but I’m on board with both the trade of Hicks to fill a definite need at catcher and the plan to give Sano a look in the outfield.

Maybe Hicks will become another Carlos Gomez, emerging as an All-Star performer in another organization’s outfield after escaping Minnesota. But, for me, Buxton remains far more likely to become that All-Star outfielder and he’s not going to reach that level by spending more time in Rochester. He needs to be told he’s the Opening Day centerfielder and neither he nor the Twins should waffle from that decision, even if he opens the year a little slow. He won’t disappoint.

As a minor leaguer in spring training, Miguel Sano wore no. 24. Will he replace the player currently wearing that jersey with the Twins? (photo: SD Buhr)
As a minor leaguer in spring training, Miguel Sano wore no. 24. Will he replace the player currently wearing that jersey with the Twins? (photo: SD Buhr)

A lot of people make a big deal of Sano’s size, doubting that a guy weighing in at nearly 270 pounds has any business playing the outfield. Ordinarily, I might agree. But Miguel Sano is not your ordinary 270-pound athlete. If he can learn to take at least decent routes to fly balls and, obviously, catch the balls he gets to, I think he’ll impress us. Of course, it’s not a given that he’ll be able to do those things. We have nothing to go on, positive or negative, to judge at this point whether he can do those things. But anyone thinking he’ll be another plodding outfielder in the mold of Young, Willingham or Arcia are, I believe, going to be proven wrong.

As I wrote a year ago, it wouldn’t hurt for Plouffe (and perhaps even Mauer) to shag some fly balls, as well. If it does turn out that Sano simply can’t field the position, there will be a need for Plan B. If Byung Ho Park transitions well from Korea to the American League, the Twins are going to need to find another way to keep the bats of both Park and Sano in the lineup every day. It seems unlikely that MLB will grant manager Paul Molitor special dispensation to use two designated hitters.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in all of this, but there are two things we and the Twins do know – Trevor Plouffe can play a solid third base and Joe Mauer can do the same at first base. We don’t know if Sano and Park can do the same. I suspect we’ll all know a lot more about who is capable of doing what by June, but for now, I’m okay with what the Twins appear to be planning to do – let the guys who have demonstrated an ability to play infield defense do so and bet on Sano’s athleticism being good enough to fill the third outfield spot along with Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton.

General Manager Terry Ryan has a few things left to do this offseason to finalize his roster and if he gets overwhelmed with an offer for Plouffe, he can accept it. However, based on what we’re seeing of the third base market, that seems unlikely to happen and he shouldn’t give Plouffe away for a handful of magic beans.

But I have no problem with him betting on Buxton and Sano making him look smart a year from now. After all, not many people have gone wrong betting on the ability of those two men to do just about anything on a baseball field.

-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.

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

Good-bye and Good Luck, Mr. Hicks

Aaron Hicks’ trade to the New York Yankees on Wednesday brings to a close one of the more frustrating eras for a young Twins player in some time. Frustrating for those of us who closely follow Twins prospects, frustrating for the Twins’ front office and, I’m certain, frustrating for the player, himself.

The methods that Major League Baseball employ to bring new talent into professional baseball in the United States amount to the biggest crapshoot in professional sports. A 40-round amateur draft for domestic players, combined with a process for signing international talent at the age of 16, feeds at least a half-dozen tiers of development leagues. The result is a meat-grinder of a system that chews up and spits out young players by the hundreds every year, with only the strongest, most durable (and luckiest) few of the group even getting a taste of big league life, much less having a significant MLB career.

International players that garner multi-million dollar deals at the age of 16, like Miguel Sano, and top-of-the-first-round draft choices, like Byron Buxton, are better bets, of course, but the road is also littered with players in those categories that, whether due to injury or any number of other reasons, never lived their Major League dreams.

A then-18 year old Aaron Hicks was the Twins’ first round draft choice in 2008, the 14th pick of the draft, and immediately was penciled in as the next-generation fixture in the middle of the Twins’ outfield of the future.

Beloit Snappers CF Aaron Hicks leads off 1B during a game in Cedar Rapids in June 2010
Beloit Snappers CF Aaron Hicks leads off 1B during a game in Cedar Rapids in June 2010

It took 4 1/2 years for Hicks to get to the big leagues which, at the time, seemed like forever for a first round draft pick. Yet, when he did debut, after winning the starting centerfield job out of spring training in 2013, it felt to many like he was rushed. As things turned out, he almost certainly could have used more development time, rather than skipping directly from AA in 2012 to The Show to open 2013.

Hicks got off to a very good start with the Gulf Coast League Twins after signing in 2008, hitting .318 with a .900 OPS, in just over 200 plate appearances. From there, though, the path became more challenging.

He was targeted to start 2009 with Elizabethton, but by mid-June of that year, the Beloit Snappers needed outfield help and Hicks was sent there, instead. He struggled a bit at the plate, requiring him to repeat that level in 2010. His numbers improved in 2010 and, given that he was still just 20 years old, his prospect status jumped, as well.

Hicks’ 2011 at advanced-A Fort Myers was nothing to write home about, again costing him some prospect-status points. The Twins sent him to the Arizona Fall League that year for some more work and he excelled in Arizona, hitting .294 and racking up a huge .959 OPS, albeit in just 30 games. That was enough to get fans excited about Hicks’ potential again, heading in to the following spring.

He didn’t disappoint at AA New Britain, having the quintessential “break out year” with the Rock Cats, hitting .286 with 13 home runs.

That performance emboldened Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, who saw Hicks as being so Major League ready that he traded away both of the Twins’ incumbent centerfielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, during the offseason leading up to 2013. Again, the enthusiasm turned out to be a bit premature, as Hicks struggled not only with the Twins, for whom he hit below the Mendoza-line level, but also at AAA Rochester, where he continued to struggle at the plate.

Hicks lasted less than a month into the 2014 season before literally “hitting a wall.” He suffered a concussion after slamming into the centerfield wall at Target Field in a game against the Dodgers. He ended up spending time at AA, where he once again excelled in 43 games, and at AAA Rochester, where he certainly held his own. After getting a September call-up, he totaled 69 games with the Twins during the season, hitting just .215 in his time with the big club.

Justified or not, Hicks earned a reputation within the Twins organization as having a less-than-professional approach to his game. Reports came out that at times he didn’t even know who the opponent’s starting pitcher was. Struggling from the left side of the plate, he announced he would give up on switch-hitting (a decision he later reversed, after a chat with Rod Carew).

The Twins did not bring Hicks north with them to open the 2015 season, opting instead to start him at AAA Rochester. To his credit, Hicks immediately set about earning another chance with the Twins. He hit .342 with the Red Wings and put up a .948 OPS.

With the Twins, Hicks was respectable at the plate for the first time in his big league career, batting .256 and hitting 11 home runs in 97 appearances. In addition, his defense in centerfield was a critical contribution to the Twins’ surprising (to many) 83-win season, despite struggling with a hamstring issue.

That’s the history with the Twins that Aaron Hicks carried into this postseason. Given all of that, it certainly could not have come as a surprise to anyone that General Manager Terry Ryan was willing to listen when the Yankees’ Brian Cashman approached him about a possible deal involving Hicks.

Reports have surfaced that there was interest in Hicks previously on the part of other teams, but the Twins were unwilling to let him go. That’s not surprising, since any overture before the 2015 season would have almost certainly been a low-ball offer.

We’ve also read that Cashman got a lukewarm response from Ryan to his first suggestion of a trade involving Hicks for Yanks catcher John Ryan Murphy, but Ryan became much more interested in the idea after the Twins learned they had won the right to negotiate with Korean slugger Byung Ho Park.

Adding Park to the mix at first base and designated hitter meant the idea of Miguel Sano getting regular time in the Twins outfield in 2016 went from just a casual option to a much more real possibility. Inserting Sano into the outfield mix with Hicks, Eddie Rosario and, sooner rather than later, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, left Ryan with an abundance of outfielders.

It may be risky to assume (1) that Sano can play a passable outfield and (2) that Buxton and/or Kepler will be successful big league hitters in 2016. We also can’t rule out the possibility that third baseman Trevor Plouffe could yet be dealt by the Twins, opening up that position for Sano and taking him out of the outfield mix again.

On the flip side, however, given Hicks’ roller-coaster performance record, Ryan had to figure that now might be the best time to maximize Hicks’ trade value. The Twins needed a catcher capable of at least challenging Kurt Suzuki for the starting job behind the plate immediately. The Yankees had such a catcher available in Murphy and they were willing to part with him in return for Hicks, so Ryan pulled the trigger.

I’d like to say I wish Aaron Hicks the best of luck and I do – to a point.

If he had been traded to any team I either have some kind of affection for or at least have no feelings toward whatsoever, my wish for good fortune would be unconditional. He seems like a good guy and I truly appreciate the challenges he overcame to eventually be a significant contributor to the Twins at the Major League level.

But he’s going to the Yankees.

So the best I can do is wish Hicks all the personal good luck in the world in the future, while stopping short of being able to wish him good fortune in conjunction with his new team. I just can’t wish the Yankees anything close to good luck.

As for Murphy, I don’t know much about him, but all reports indicate that he has grown from a “bat first” catcher into a guy who is at least a legitimate MLB talent behind the plate. If he can perform in that manner and hit the way he has done historically, he’ll amount to a significant upgrade for the Twins at the position.

I believe that the Twins have multiple legitimate big league catching prospects in their organization. I believe that Stuart Turner, Mitch Garver and Brian Navarreto, to name just three, will someday catch at the MLB level, either with the Twins or elsewhere. They have different strengths and weaknesses and whether they become regulars or backups will depend on how they improve on those weaknesses, but they’ll get their shots.

It takes time, however, for most to develop into a regular big league catcher and it will be more than a couple of years before any of those prospects is ready to be “the guy” behind the plate for what, by then, should be a MLB contender.

For now, at least, Murphy seems like a very good cost-controlled addition to the roster and the price paid was reasonable.

-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

What a Terrific Start!

It’s pretty hard to imagine this baseball season getting off to a better start, isn’t it? I mean, even the most optimistic of us probably wouldn’t have predicted a .789 winning percentage through the first week of games! This looks like it could be a fun summer of baseball!

What’s that? You say the Twins are languishing with a 1-6 record? Who cares? I’m talking about their full-season minor league affiliates! That’s where the action (and literally ALL of the fun) is!

The AAA Rochester Red Wings are 3-1.

The newest Twins affiliate, the AA-level Chattanooga Lookouts (with arguably one of the most loaded rosters in all of minor league baseball) are sitting at 4-1.

The Class A Advanced Fort Myers Miracle are 3-2 (pending the outcome of their Tuesday game – what’s up with these morning start times, anyway?).

And last, but certainly not least, the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels are still on pace to be a perfect 140-0 at the end of the year after winning their first five games of the season.

That means that the four minor league affiliates, combined, are 15-4 through Monday night and have lost two fewer games than the Twins have managed to drop all by themselves.

Does this represent the Twins' pitching woes or their farm clubs' hitting prowess? Take your pick.
Does this represent the Twins’ pitching woes or their farm clubs’ hitting prowess? Take your pick.

Of course, it’s early. You don’t want to read too much in to the small sample size of a week’s worth of games. After all, will even the Twins continue losing at their current pace to finish the year with a 27-135 record? Of course they won’t. Well – probably not, anyway.

But while those of you who insist on following only the big leaguers continue to wonder why you’re paying big league prices to watch what even Torii Hunter has admitted to essentially being “Bad News Bears” baseball, here’s a small sample of what you’ve been missing on the farm:

  • The Red Wings have three guys, all deemed by Twins management to be unworthy of a spot with the Twins, with an OPS over 1.000. Two of them, Danny Ortiz and Aaron Hicks, would likely improve the Twins’ outfield defense if they weren’t wearing Rochester uniforms. The third, Josmil Pinto, probably deserves an entire post dedicated to discussing why he should or shouldn’t be in Minnesota.
  • The consensus top two Twins prospects, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, both are in the Lookouts’ everyday lineup, so it’s not surprising that Chattanooga also has three guys with above-1.000 OPS numbers. Then again, none of those three guys are named Buxton or Sano. Stephen Wickens, DJ Hicks and Travis Harrison are bringing the lumber, so far, for the Lookouts. They aren’t the only productive hitters, however. That lineup is stacked, as expected. Their TEAM OPS is .829. Oh, and their pitchers are striking out almost 1.3 batters per inning, too.
  • Niko Goodrum is a .400 hitter, going in to Tuesday’s game, for the Miracle, who also had two starting pitchers, Aaron Slegers and Ryan Eades, who each tossed six shutout innings in their initial starts of the season.
  • No less than five Kernels hitters have put up 1.000+ OPS numbers through the first five games. As a TEAM, the Kernels have put up a .316/.380/.471 (.851 OPS) slash line. That Midwest League-leading team batting average is a full 47 points over the next highest team in the league. Not to be outdone, the pitching staff has put up a 1.80 ERA, so far, and have struck out 57 batters in a combined 45 innings of work.

Conversely, the Twins have put up a team OPS of .530 on the season, which is the worst in Major League Baseball. Their team ERA is 6.52, which is also dead last among the 30 big league teams. Not coincidentally, their 35 staff strikeouts is also good for dead last.

All of this might be more understandable if the Twins had made clear that, for the good of the franchise, they were going to punt on 2015 – that the plan would be to plug journeymen “replacement level” players in to fill every perceived gap in their big league roster, in order to give their much-heralded minor league prospects more time to become adequately seasoned on the farm.

But that’s not what they did. Every public comment from everyone in the organization from the end of 2014’s fourth consecutive 90+ loss season through the final days of spring training expressed the company line that they were expecting significant improvement this season.

That’s not really surprising. Twins fans generally hear that refrain every offseason.

The truth is that the Twins have been hoping that fans would be patient, because there really is a ton of young talent approaching the Major League team’s doorstep. From the sounds coming from Target Field on Monday, it seems that ‘patient’ is not exactly what much of the fan base is feeling.

I don’t think it had to be this way.

Back in early October, I wrote that I thought it was time for the Twins to adjust their model, when it comes to promoting their prospects. I suggested that, despite both guys losing virtually their entire seasons a year ago to injury, the Twins should consider simply promoting Buxton and Sano and letting them learn their craft on the big stage.

I argued that, yes they would struggle, but they’re likely to struggle a while whenever they are finally promoted and both young men have demonstrated that they learn, adapt and, ultimately, dominate, very quickly as each new challenge is presented.

I also argued for either signing one of the top free agent starting pitchers or simply getting Alex Meyer and Trevor May in to the rotation from the start and setting up Jose Berrios for a debut not too deep in to the season.

I didn’t discuss the bullpen, at the time, but if I’d known what the Opening Day bullpen was going to look like, I’d have argued pretty forcefully for an immediate youth movement there, too.

Instead, the Twins have assembled a cast at the big league level that deflated and discouraged its fan base (warm welcome-home ovation for Torii Hunter, notwithstanding) virtually before the Home Opener was finished.

The future does look bright. There is an embarrassment of riches in terms of baseball talent in the Twins organization.

Unfortunately, the Twins have decided that you won’t see a lot of it at Target Field for a while.

That’s bad news for fans in Minnesota, but Twins fans in New York, Florida, Tennessee and Iowa look to be in for a lot of fun this summer.

– JC