Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Arcia, Vargas, Santana, Rosario, Kepler and Polanco

Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco are the most recent examples of premature hype of young players based  on some success in a limited number of at bats at the major league level. Last season started with Vargas and Santana inked into the lineup, this season it was Sano and Rosario. Before that it was Oswaldo Arcia. In all of these cases, stories seemed to anticipate improvement the second year while the players couldn't even carry over into the following year their initial success.

The reality is that players are often called up because they are hot at AAA and that sometimes carries over to the big leagues. Then the scouts do their work, major league pitchers are able to use the holes in their game and they crash back to earth.  That is why Tom Kelly used to suggest you didn't really know what you had until 1000 at bats. Kepler looks like he is a winner and Polanco has been solid in a series of appearances. But, just as patience is often required for young players to establish themselves, even more patience is required before forming a firm opinion about players who have initial success.

There is a larger problem that the new focus on statistics has created. That is that during the season players, and teams,  numbers are heavily weighted to early performance. Last year the Twins were a sub-500 team for the last four months of the season, but their hot May masked that reality. The same thing happens with individual players. They start out cold and it looks like they are having a terrible year. Or, especially with young players, they have a hot start and it masks their poor to mediocre performance for a long time.

Right now Kepler, Rosario and Polanco are hot. Rosario's resurgence after returning from Rochester is particularly encouraging. But we need to have some patience before we start talking about roster positions for the future. Just as we need to be patient with talented players who struggle initially. For the last month the Twins have looked like they will be contenders next year. But the reality of that depends on those young players continuing to show they are ready for the big leagues. Chances are some will and some won't.

Monday, August 08, 2016

There is nothing wrong with Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton was sent down to AAA this week to make room for Trevor Plouffe. Buxton has repeatedly demonstrated his bat it not ready for the big leagues. In fact, he never really established that his bat was ready for AAA pitching. The Twins rushed Buxton to the big leagues because his defense played there and they had traded away Aaron Hicks who was the only other real center fielder they had.

The idea was his bat would develop in short order. It hasn't. That isn't much of a surprise for a guy who is just 22 years old. To put that in perspective, Torii Hunter played a handful of games in the big leagues at 22 getting less than 20 plate appearances. The next year he was part of the Twins youth movement and spent the entire season in the big leagues as the Twins center fielder. The next year he struggled mightily to start the season and was sent back to AAA. He tore up the league at AAA and was recalled for the rest of the season. The next year his offensive roll continued and he went on to become a Twin legend.

The reality of the Twins is that they have a lot of very young players who will likely need more seasoning at AAA. That includes guys like Sano, Kepler, Palanco and Berrios in addition to Buxton. That does not mean they aren't any good. It simply means that it takes time to adjust to the big leagues for even the most talented players. We remember the guys who have instant success and never look back. But the more typical path is that instant success is followed by failure and the need to adjust. Some guys do that while still producing just enough to hold a roster spot at the big league level, most don't.

What we should look for is the extent to which Buxton takes advantage of the next couple weeks to work on his bunting and base stealing. He should be focusing on those things that he can use at the big league level to take advantage of his outstanding tools. If he doesn't do that, then the real message is that he really isn't mature enough yet to make the jump. That doesn't mean he won't get there eventually or that he won't be a superstar when he does.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Too Late to Send Sano to Rochester

As I posted earlier, I think Miguel Sano should have been at Rochester this year learning to play third base and cutting down on his strikeouts. But it is unlikely he can learn that in the three weeks remaining in this year's minor league season. Wasting a full option year for those three weeks this season may well come back to bite the Twins by limiting their options if Sano continues to struggle in the future. They are better off letting Sano sit on the bench and get occasional use at the major league season. Then let him know that he is slated to start next season at Rochester unless he forces himself onto the roster in spring training. He's still a future star, but he isn't really ready to play at the big league level.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

New Stadium Caused Twins Failure

Pat Reusse at the STRIB suggests Target stadium lead to the firing of Terry Ryan. He suggests that the expenses associated with the new stadium has fundamentally changed the Twins business model. That the patience the Pohlad's had with rebuilding at the Metrodome no longer was possible with the need to drive ticket sales with immediate success on the field.

The reality is that business model is almost guaranteed to fail. Baseball is a zero sum game, for every winner there has to be a loser. So a business model that depends on consistent winning means being above average on the field all the time.Nine teams go to the playoffs each year, 21  don't.

The teams that are successful with that business model, like the Red Sox and Yankees,  have revenue streams so large that they can  sign players, their own and free agents, at the peak of their careers and continue to pay them as fading veterans. What would the Twins record have been over the last few years if they had signed Nathan, Santana, Hunter, Morneau, Cuddyer, Hardy and Liriano? Financial considerations were part of all of those players leaving and new revenue from Target stadium is not enough to change that part of the equation.

Of course, you can ask why can't the Twins be consistently above average with the right people making the decisions. And the answer is that baseball is set up to punish success. If your success depends on drafting and developing your core of players, each time you win you are pushed down the ladder on where you draft.  Its tough to build a championship core solely with players taken that late

You can see this with the Twins. For ten seasons, from 2002 to 2011 they drafted in the top of the first round only once, in 2008 when they took Aaron Hicks at number 14.  Their next highest pick was at round 20, where they took Denard Span, Chris Parmelee and Trevor Plouffe. Span and Plouffe are the most successful of any of the players taken at that level in the last 15 years.  Both are solid major league players,  but  neither one is the kind of player you build a championship team around.

In short, if you are going to rely as the Twins in the past have on drafting and development to build a core, then you have to have to have the patience to accept the cycles required to periodically rebuild. With five years of high draft choices and some solid international signings the Twins look like they might be ready to break out and compete in the near future.

Houston started its rebuilding process in 2008 when they took Jason Castro with the 10th pick. They added George Springer and Carlos Correa to their core with high pickes in subsequent drafts and emerged as a contender last year.   That is the player development model the Twins should be following. But the new business model, driven by an expensive stadium, doesn't allow them to wait.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sano Should Have Been at Third Base All Season ... at Rochester

The handling of Miguel Sano is a good example of the Twins recent focus on immediate results over long term development. He was called up last year because the Twins were in a pennant race and needed his bat in the lineup. His power played well until the league figured him out. Then his inability to make contact, as evidenced by his propensity to strike out, caught up to him. That was apparent at the end of last season and continued into this season without the hot start to mask it in his statistics.

The assumption by fans and sports writers seemed to be that Sano was a DH last year and a right fielder this year because he was blocked at third base by Trevor Plouffe. But it appears that the truth was a little different than that. His glove at third base wasn't ready to play in the big leagues. This is actually similar to David Ortiz, who never learned to play the field and became a career DH. It would be a tragedy if the Twins lack of patience resulted in the same thing happening to Sano. Sano, unlike Ortiz, has the tools to be a good fielder. But he needs lots of repetitions to get there and he is unlikely to get them in the big leagues with impatient owners demanding immediate results.

With Plouffe hurt and the terrible record, it probably makes sense to have Sano play out the year at the big league level. But if he hasn't shown improvement both in the field and at bat, they ought to send him to Rochester to start next year rather than hoping he will somehow figure it out in the major leagues. Its not that Sano isn't "ready", its that the Twins don't have the patience to let him develop fully at the big league level. The experiment in right field was just and example of that impatience.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Twins need New Owners, Not a new GM

The decision to fire Terry Ryan while insisting that the new GM keep Paul Molitor as manager is an indication of how far the Twins organization has come since the days when Carl Pohlad let his baseball people run the show. Pohlad's sons have come to see the Twins as part of their own identity and went into a state of panic over the Twins horrendous start.

Part of that was no doubt a result of the apparent belief of Twins management that last year's record was something to build on rather than the product of over achievement. While no one could have anticipated a nine game losing streak to start the season, even a repeat of last year was optimistic. As I pointed out elsewhere - the Twins were 5 games under .500 after the all-star break and finished the 7 games under .500 from their peak in the middle of June.

What the Twins really lacked this year is patience. As I pointed out in an earlier post, they started the season with a bunch of players who had yet to establish themselves as major league players. They are just starting to see the arrival of the bright new stars they were able to draft during their down years. The first wave of those players,  Buxton, Duffey and Rogers were all drafted in 2012 and are now on the major league roster.  Berrios and Chargois from that same draft got their first taste of the majors and are now back at AAA working on what they learned. No one since 2012 has appeared in the major leagues.  To put that in perspective Rosario was drafted out of high school in 2010. Sano has been in the organization just as long. These two are just now working at establishing themselves.

Unfortunately, the Twins owners are no longer lead by seasoned business guy who had that kind of patience. Carl Pohlad was vilified by some fans for failing to spend his money to buy them a winner. But it was his willingness to hire people he trusted and then let them do their jobs that lead to the Twins series of successes in the early part of the century. In fact, you can make the case that it was only when he closed his checkbook in frustration at the lack of a new stadium that the Twins took off. Forced to play for the future, the team centered around Terry Ryan built success from a group of prospects with a lot less talent than the current crop. Its not that Ryan has lost his touch or that the game has passed him by. Its that the owners lack the patience needed to build a team from scratch.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Twins Struggles Not Unexpected

While no one expected the Twins to lose their first nine game, that they struggled is not really surprising in retrospect. The allstar break is a good time to look back at what caused the struggles, but also to look forward to evaluate what to expect in the future.

A lot was made of the Twins almost making the playoffs last year. While a lot of people seemed to think they got better as the year went on, they were actually worse in the second half. The team that had them at nine games over .500 at the break was not the same team that ended the year.  The Twins team that ended the season was 5 games under .500 after the break.

Other than the hope that young players would improve, there was actually no reason to think the 2016 Twins would be better than the team that ended the season. To the contrary, they had lost their team leader in Torii Hunter, their starting center fielder in Aaron Hicks, their number two starter in Mike Pelfrey, their backup catcher in Chris Hermann and their fifth outfielder in Shane Robinson.

The guys who replaced those players were all young unproven prospects. In fact, 4 players in the Twins opening day batting order had less than 500 major league at bats. Rosario, Buxton, Sano and Park. Only one player on their bench had more than a 1000 major league at bats, Nunez. Two of the other bench players, Santana and Arcia were there primarily because they were out of options. The new backup catcher, Murphy, had less than 500 at bats. Arcia ended up being released and Buxton, Rosario, Park and Murphy were all demoted to Rochester. None of that was really a big surprise, or should have been. The surprise is that Sano has managed to stay in the big leagues. At least so far...

The Twins starting pitching was supposed to be improved, despite losing Pelfrey. But it was a rotation filled with question marks whose upside was steady medicority. Thats about what they got that from Nolasco, Gibson and Santana. The rest of the staff had the injuries and performance problems to be expected from pitchers who have never strung together two consecutive seasons of success at the major league level.

In addition to losing Pelfrey from the rotation, the Twins let Duensing and Boyer walk over the winter and Aaron Thompson was released at the beginning of the season. Again, the replacements were pitchers with little proven major league experience.

There was a lot of hope going into this season with all the ink and commentary about how good this team could be. There was very little thought given to how bad it was likely to be. If the Twins play .500 ball from here on out it will be a better record than last year over the same period. The last couple weeks have provided some hope that they can do that.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Twins 13 Position Players

Its an odd year for the Minnesota Twins. They go into spring training with their roster of 13 position players basically set. Its possible, maybe even likely, that there will be some surprises. But there does not appear to be any real wide open competition for any of the slots, including the bench,. So here is the likely opening day roster for 2016:

Catchers (2) Kurt Suzuki will start the year as the regular catcher again. His defense and handling of pitchers will make him the starter. The Twins acquired John Ryan Murphy will start the year as backup. He was acquired from the Mets as the catcher of the future and he may well take over the starting role by the end of the season. How much playing time will depend on how Suzuki does with the bat and how well Murphy handles the pitching staff.

First Base (2) Joe Mauer starts.  Byung Ho Park is the backup, but he will mostly DH.

Second Base (1) Brian Dozier

Third Base (1) Trevor Plouffe

Shortstop (1) Eduardo Escobar

Utility Players (2) Eduardo Nunez will return as one of the utility players. He can play all three infield positions and the outfield. Danny Santana is out of options and will be the other utility player. He is a better defender than Nunez in both center and at shortstop.  Its possible he will take over as the regular shortstop at some point during the season with Escobar taking the utility role.

Outfield (4) I think the Twins project the everyday outfield as Eddie Rosario in left, Byron Buxton in center and Miguel Sano in right. Oswaldo Arcia is out of options and will be the extra outfielder. As a left hander hitter, Arcia will also DH, sparing Park from hitting against some of the harder throwing right handers to start the season. The Twins have Santana and Nunez who can also play in the outfield so they don't really need a traditional fourth outfielder who can play all three positions.

Obviously injuries may effect this lineup. The Twins may decide Buxton's bat needs more seasoning. Santana and Arcia could play their way out of the organization in Spring Training. Its even possible that the Sano outfield experiment will flop or Park will be deemed not yet ready to face major league pitching. But, there aren't any open roster spots for someone like Max Kepler to take simply by having a hot spring. Unless someone else falters, there aren't any jobs open.

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