Monday, September 30, 2013

How the Twins Won

Note: This was written on March 31st,2013, the day before the season opener, as a fantasy look-back at how the the Twins might win. I decided not to publish  then, but to save it for the end of the season. Here it is unedited. 

How did this happen? Six months ago the Twins entered the season projected to finish last in the division for the third straight year. How did they end up not only winning the division, but winning it convincingly?

The "Aceless Rotation"

It turns out you don't need an ace who pitches only once every five games. You need five pitchers who keep you in every game. The Twins went into the season with a bunch of castoffs and redemption projects. Four key pitchers started the year on the disabled list and one, Mike Pelfrey, probably should have.

Instead of a single ace, for the first time in three years the Twins had three pitchers get over 200 innings pitched.  Vance Worley, received in trade for Ben Revere, was the opening day starter. Scott Diamond missed his first start recovering from off-season surgery, but that was the last game he missed. Kevin Correa, a widely panned off-season signing, started 33 games for the first time in his career. 


But it was the depth behind those three that allowed the Twins to overcome injuries and some early season struggles.  Mike Pelfry pitched well until his velocity started to fall, instead of improve. Once it was apparent he had come back a bit too quickly from Tommy John surgery, hs replacement, Rich Harden, stepped right in and dominated as a starter for the last three months of the season. Cole DeVries, before going down with a sore elbow in early August, kept the Twins in every game and was on a pace for 200+ innings. Kyle Gibons stepped in to finish out the month before being shut down for the season when DeVries was ready to pitch again.

In short, it was a rare game where the Twins were out of it after six innings. The starters didn't dominate, but they all consistently gave the team a chance to win.

Six Innings and Over

The real key to the Twins pitching success was the bullpen. Teams had to get their runs in the first six innings because, once the Twins starter left, their chances of scoring on the Twins bullpen were very slight. Glen Perkins was solid as a closer, but the setup and middle relief guys were almost as dominant. Rule 5 pick Pressly dominated the 8th inning. He got help from Rafael Perez,  Jared Burton, Anthony Swarzak and Brian Duensing who were all in the game as early as the sixth inning when starters faltered. Rich Harden dominated in the bullpen before moving to the rotation and Mike Pelfry was equally dominating once he regained his velocity with some rest.  While not as dominating, Fien and Roenicke did a more than adequate job keeping chairs warm for injured players. The Twins bullpen was expected to be a strength and it was both very good and very deep. 


Hicks, Parmelee, Plouffe and Arcia

The emergence of Hicks, Parmelee, Plouffe and later Arcia transformed the Twins lineup into one of the most feared in baseball. Hicks skills in the leadoff spot eclipsed even his predecessor Denard Spans,  as he not only got on base but started to show his power by the end of the year. Parmelee's emergence as a .300 hitter with 25 home runs made it possible that this is Justin Morneau's last year as a Twin. Plouffe's demonstration that his home run burst in 2012 was not a fluke, gave the Twins a number 8 hitter with over 30 home runs. When Morneau went on the DL for a week in late June, the Twins called up Arcia to play right field. He started hitting and never stopped. When Morneau came back, the Twins sent Drew Butera packing as third catcher and Ryan Doumit got most of his at bats as a backup catcher and bat off the bench. Arcia, Parmelee and Morneau rotated through the DH spot.

Mauer, Morneau and Willingham

Mauer and Morneau are both top candidates for American League MVP and Willingham is not that far behind. Morneau started out the year the way he did in 2010 before he had his concussion and never stopped, except for his brief stint on the DL in early July. With 40+ home runs, 120 RBI's and a .340 average he should be a shoe-in for MVP. Except that he plays first base and his teammate Joe Mauer, a catcher,  won the batting title hitting .360 with a career high 30 home runs. He had an amazing .480 OBP, which accounted for some of Morneau's RBI's. Willingham repeated his 2011 season with  35 home runs, but got over 100 RBI's for the first time in his career.

Defense up the Middle

Focusing solely on pitching and offense would be a mistake. One of the key changes from last year was the defense up the middle. While Pedro Florimon never provided any offense, his defense first with Brian Dozier, and then with Levi Michael at second base, gave the Twins a stable middle infield for the first time in a long time.  Michaels swift rise through AA and AAA took everyone by surprise. His defense is what got him the job, but he hit well enough to hold down the number two spot in the order the last two months of the season. With Hicks and Mauer at the other two key defensive spots, the Twins had gold glove quality defense at every position up the middle.


The Bench

The Twins depth became a huge asset as the season moved along. Escobar and Carroll gave the Twins solid backups at every infield position. Escobar has even shown he is a plus defender in the outfield.  Doumit, while not a great defensive catcher like Butera, provides the Twins with a switch hitting bat on the bench when he isn't catching. Mastroianni can play all three outfield positions and his offense plays at both leadoff and number two spots. He also pinch runs.

Scouting and Player Development

The Twins had four first round choices emerge this year as part of the core of the team. Hicks, Parmelee, Plouffe and Michaels are all first round choices that some people have written off as failures in the past. Scott Diamond and Ryan Pressly were rule 5 draft choices who played key roles this year. 


Baseball is an unpredictable business and no one would have predicted this. But the Twins are now in the playoffs with the American League's best record. Lets hope they end this run the same way they did in 1992 when they went from last to first and then won the World Series.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Justin and Gardy

This season is likely the last as a Twin for Justin Morneau and it ought to be for Ron Gardenhire.

The Twins apparently declined an offer from Morneau to open negotiations on a contract extension. That makes sense. If Morneau does well enough, he will be a sought after player at the trade deadline. If he doesn't, the Twins don't want to extend his contract. With Parmelee in right field and Arcia almost ready to get a chance, the Twins don't really have a need for Morneau unless they are in a pennant race this year. Which brings us to the second goodbye.

Ron Gardenhire's last minute decision to move Mauer into the number two spot is at best puzzling. Aside from it being a really bad idea, it reeks of panic. From the start of spring training, Gardenhire seemed determined to go with Brian Dozier at second base. But it was obvious that whoever was at second also had to fit into the second spot in the order. Its now apparent that Gardy never really had confidence in Dozier's ability to hit there. Yet, he had an established number two hitter in Jamie Carroll that he never really gave any opportunity to win the starting job. The result is that he has two number nine hitters and no one to bat second.

Apparently he waited until opening day to set the top of his lineup. But you have to wonder if he really never let Terry Ryan know before this that Dozier's bat didn't play in the number two spot, even if his fielding at second did. Its as if spring training was used with one plan and suddenly it changed.

Dozier was a disaster last year. Yet Gardenhire seems to be repeating the mistake.  Worse, its not clear that he isn't just pandering to reporters and bloggers opinions. "You want to see Mauer bat second? Why not? We aren't really going anywhere anyway." Unfortunately under Gardenhire that is likely true, no matter how many quality pitchers Terry Ryan finds. Players like him. Writers like him. Fans like him. But he seems to lack any ability to make judgments about players.  This last minute decision makes Gardenhire look like he is just mucking around, clueless as to what to do rebuild a team other than throw players out there and hope for the best.

Today is the start of what's going to be a long season that could get stranger and stranger as Gardy sees the edge of the approaching cliff. I just hope Terry Ryan doesn't feel the need to jump overboard with Gardy.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Comparing Last Year's Opening Day Lineup to This Year's

Here is the lineup for last year's opening day:

Span (CF)
Carroll (SS)
Mauer (C)
Morneau (DH)
Willingham (LF)
Doumit (RF)
Valencia (3B)
Parmelee (1B)
Casilla (2b)
SP Pavano

This year's lineup:

Hicks (CF)
Carroll/Dozier (2B)
Mauer (C)
Willingham (LF)
Morneau (1B)
Doumit (DH)
Parmelee (RF)
Plouffe (3B)
Florimon (SS)
SP Worley


Here is how that lineup stacks up:

Offense:

Span was a better leadoff hitter than Hicks will likely be this year. That is aside from being a proven veteran with a lot less possibility of failing.

Carroll was also a better number two hitter than Dozier. Although there is not a lot of reason other than normal aging to think this year's version of Carroll will be any better or worse than last years.

Joe Mauer should be Joe Mauer. There have been some suggestions he will step up his power, but that is probably mostly spring training chatter.

Willingham replaces Morneau in the cleanup spot. This is how the year ended last year. Unless Morneau goes back to hitting like an MVP, its likely Willingham will be better than Morneau turned out to be last year. Certainly better than Morneau's start.

Morneau replaces Willingham. Again, this is likely to be an improvement in some ways, but not compared to expectations. Morneau will not likely match Willingham's home run output, but then Willingham didn't project to hit 35 home runs last year either.

Doumit should be Doumit.

Parmelee replaces Valencia. Parmelee projects as a much better hitter, but then Valencia was expected to be much better than he was.

Plouffe replaces Parmelee.  Plouffe will likely hit better than Parmelee last year. But that is not a very high bar. The enthusiasm for Parmelee's bat is based on his AAA performance, not what he did against major league pitching.

Florimon replaces Casilla. Casilla was a better hitter than Florimon is ever likely to be. Again, not a high bar.

Overall the Twins offense should be as good, if not better, than last year.It could be a lot better if Hicks, Parmelee and Plouffe are all productive hitters.

Defense:

Mauer and Willingham are the only defenders returning at the same position. Morneau is a better defensive first baseman than Parmelee. Casilla was better then Dozier is likely to be at second. Florimon is a big improvement at shortstop over Carroll. Plouffe and Valencia are probably comparable defensive players, but Valencia had more experience. Strangely, Parmelee is likely an improvement defensively in right field over Doumit. Span, as a veteran, was a better center fielder than Hicks to start the year.

Overall, the Twins defense has improved with Florimon at shortstop and Morneau back at first. Dozier and Hicks are close enough to their predecessors that it won't make a huge difference. Of course this compares to the start of the year and  Ben Revere was on the bench.

It appears the Twins position players have improved from a year ago and they may be better than they at any point last season.

Pitching:

This year's starter, Vance Worley, actually looks better than Carl Pavano, who was last year's starter. But last year the Twins started with Capps as the closer and Perkins as a setup guy. Its not clear they have the same quality in the bullpen.

The Twins pitching has them projected to finish last again in the division. But their everyday lineup is likely stronger. Whether that will be enough to compensate for the pitching is the real question.  

Friday, March 29, 2013

Five Keys To Twins Success, Key Five: Bullpen

The Twins bullpen is the final key to their success. As mentioned earlier the Twins success depends on closer Glenn Perkins shortening games to eight innings. But the Twins starting pitching is not going to get them to the ninth inning on their own very often.

Last year, the Twins bullpen was one of its strong points.

Jared Burton, emerged last year as the Twins primary setup guy. Aside from Glen Perkins he is the only returning player who spent the whole year in the bullpen.

Brian Duensing bounced between the rotation and setup guy last year. He needs to emerge as a major contributor in the bullpen this year.

Anthony Swarzak was a swing man last year, moving between long relief and the rotation. He starts the year on the disabled list, but the Twins need for him to emerge as a stable part of the bullpen.

Casey Fien and Tyler Robertson were called up in early July and late June respectively. Fien was a solid middle reliever. Robertson is a lefty specialist. He is almost unhittable by lefties, but struggles against right handers.

Brian Roenicke was picked up off waivers from Colorado. He is projected as another middle inning guy.

Ryan Pressly is the last member of the bullpen. He was taken in the rule 5 draft. He was shifted to the bullpen in the minor leagues last year, pitched well in the Arizona Fall league, showing velocity into the mid-90's, much higher than he had as a starter and had a great spring training.

Performance by the bullpen, with a few exceptions, is always uncertain. But with the Twins starting pitching, they can't afford many bullpen meltdowns. They are going to need six innings from their starter, two innings from the middle relief and a lights out performance by Glenn Perkins.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Five Keys to Twins Success, Key Four: Three Starters

One of the criticisms of the Twins is that there rotation going to consist of five guys who are bottom of the rotation starters. The Twins success depends on the three starters with the potential to be better than that. Mike Pelfrey, Scott Diamond and Vance Worley all need to be above average big league starters. The Twins have a number of candidates to share the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation with Kevin Correia. But they don't have anyone else ready for the big leagues who has the ability to be a top of the rotation starter this year. 

Mike Pelfrey

Pelfrey is the veteran of the three. He put up close to 200 innings for four years until last season when he had Tommy John surgery after three successful starts. It usually takes more than a year for a pitcher to recover from that procedure, but Pelfry has appeared to be healthy all spring. If he is healthy and effective he can be a top of the rotation starter.

Scott Diamond

Diamond was a pleasant surprise for the Twins last year. He was taken in the rule 5 draft for the 2011 season and spent the entire year at AAA.  He started last year dominating at AAA and became the Twins best pitcher once called up. If he can repeat last year's performance over a full season, he will give the Twins a solid above average starter with 200+ innings.

Vance Worley

Worley, who came to the Twins in exchange for Ben Revere,  is a year younger than Diamond. He had a good 2011 season after being called up from AAA and then struggled in 2012. Some of that may be attributable to bone chips that were removed last fall. If he pitches for a full season the way he did in 2011, he will give the Twins another solid number two starter.

The Twins pitching is unlikely to be a strength. None of these guys are going to consistently dominate other teams. But with the offensive potential of their lineup, they don't need to for the Twins to win. They just need to pitch well enough to keep the Twins in games without overworking the bullpen. A key to the Twins being competitive is for these guys to give the team quality starts most of the time.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Effect of Hendriks' Injury / Roster Management

No real Impact on Rotation from Liam Hendriks' Injury

Unless Liam Hendriks injured hand is much worse than described, it is not likely to require any significant changes in the Twins rotation. With a day off after their spring opener, the Twins won't really need a fifth starter until April 7th. That's 12 days from now. That would mean having DeVries pitch ahead of him in the rotation on April 5th, assuming that wasn't the original plan anyway. To push him back to the 7th would also require Worley to make his second start on April 6th, rather than getting an extra day of rest.

Scott Diamond has said his target date for being ready is April 12th.   That means whoever is the 5th starter will get only one start in that role. With an off day April 11th, they can rearrange the rotation schedule to accommodate either DeVries or Hendriks, whichever one wins the competition for the last rotation spot.

Roster Management

The Twins apparently are planning to keep Wilkin Ramirez who is not on the major league roster. As I posted earlier this will require opening a spot on the 40 player roster for him. That decision should be announced in the next couple days. No one has really played their way out of a job, with the possible exception of Robertson and he still has options left. This is something that the Twins may struggle with this season more than usual. Once guys like Harden and Perez who are on minor league contracts are ready to pitch, they will need to create room for them. And they don't have many likely candidates to pass through waivers.

Five Keys To Twins Success: First Picks Emerge

With the Twins pitching lacking really dominant starters, they are going to need to regularly produce runs to have a chance of winning even when the starters keep them in the game. The Twins start the year with  four experienced hitters in their lineup.  Mauer, Willingham and Morneau make formidable middle of the lineup. They are followed by Ryan Doumit. Those guys are going to produce some runs, but the Twins will need more than that to be competitive.

The key to the Twins producing even more runs is going to be the production they get from three former first round choices, Aaron Hicks mentioned yesterday in Keys: Up The Middle, Chris Parmelee and Trevor Plouffe. Hicks is the only rookie in that group. But Plouffe and Parmelee are still looking to spend their first full season in the big leagues.  Neither one is an outstanding defensive player, so they are going need to show they are productive major league hitters.

Trevor Plouffe 

Plouffe went on a tear in June last season when he hit 11 home runs. That's a  Ruthian pace that no one expects to be repeated for a full season. He got hurt and struggled the last couple months. He needs to come back this year and put up numbers closer to those he had during the middle of last season. Last year was his first playing there regularly and it showed.   He needs to demonstrate adequate defense at third base this year no matter how well he hits.

Chris Parmelee

Parmelee tore up the International League while at AAA last year, but was unable to transfer that success to the major leagues with irregular playing time. Nonetheless, the Twins handed him the right field job in the off-season. He is probably more suited to first base than the outfield. But he appears to be an adequate fielder. He just needs to hit.

The Twins lineup goes from adequate to dangerous if Plouffe and Parmelee play up to the potential they had when drafted. There aren't many teams that have a guy hitting eighth with the pop Plouffe showed hitting 24 home runs last year in only 465 plate appearances. These two are key components of an offense that needs to compensate for a mediocre starting rotation.

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