Friday, December 6, 2019

The return of Pineda

The Twins and suspended starter Michael Pineda have agreed on a two-year contract. I approve.

Presuming the oversized righty passes his physical, the Twins have accounted for three of their five rotation slots, although Pineda will have to sit the first five weeks or so of the 2020 season to finish his suspension for a drug-testing violation.

The 2019 Twins had a remarkably stable rotation, but they entered the offseason with four vacancies. Two of the four free-agents are back, and they are the two best of the four, Pineda and Jake Odorizzi.

Somebody said on Twitter last night that the fan base would be more excited about Odorizzi and Pineda if they were coming from outside. Since they were here in 2019, they don't have the appeal of a new bright shiny object. But we've seen them be effective. But I'd rather have either of them than Zack Wheeler, who the Twins reportedly had as a top priority but who is going to be a Phillie.

Meanwhile the speculation about Madison Bumgarner continues. The longtime Giants ace was widely expected to be the next prominent free-agent starter to pick a suitor, and the Twins are prominently connected with him. I'm lukewarm on the sjbject, in large part because I think people see that name and think of the postseason stud of the first half of the decade. Those years are past. Bumgarner would still help this rotation, but he's no longer the Cooperstown-caliber ace of those three San Francisco championship teams.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Good-bye (presumably), Cron and Hildenberger

The Twins "celebrated" the contact-tender deadline by turning first baseman C.J. Cron and reliever Trevor Hildenberger into free agents.

That the Twins declined to offer either a 2020 contract is perhaps mildly surprising, although there was plenty of speculation that Cron might be non-tendered. Hildenberger, not so much; the sidewinder isn't, or wasn't, even arbitration eligible. The Twins apparently put a higher value on the spot on the 40-man roster he was occupying than on Hildenberger himself.

I doubt very much that the old regime would have non-tendered these two, but teams are much more aggressive this year about non-tendering controllable players than even last winter.

Passan implicitly sees this as a logical development. I am inclined to view it as evidence that the arbitration system is now as broken as free agency appears to be. Arbitration is supposed to give established players who don't qualify for free agency some leverage. While teams frequently chafed at the large raises the system funneled to arbitration-eligible players, those salaries were generally still seen as lower than they would get on the open market. Non-tenders at this scale suggests that teams don't expect free agents in their upper 20s to be treated any more kindly in free agency than 30-somethings.

That said, there are individual factors in play with both Cron and Hildenberger. Cron is coming off thumb surgery; the public certainly doesn't know his physical status, and it's quite likely the Twins and Cron himself don't know yet how much the procedure will cure his problems. Cron certainly, and understandably, didn't hit much in the second half of 2019. And as a right-right first baseman, he's got to hit.

Cron was a better defensive first baseman than I expected but a step down from Joe Mauer with the glove. And, as I've noted before, right-handed power doesn't seem to draw the interest of current front offices. (Cron himself the last three winters has been traded for a minor leaguer, waived and now non-tendered.) The Twins certainly weren't viewing him as a long-term fixture at first base, but I don't know that  there is a clear front runner among the minor-leaguers who might be that someday -- Alex Kiriloff, Brent Rooker, Luke Raley. 

It may be that the Twins will fill the position out of free agency. It may be that Plan A is to fill first base early with a combo platter of the guys who played there in Cron's absence last year -- Marwin Gonzalez, Ehire Adrianaza (who was tendered a contract), Willians Astudillo, Miguel Sano -- and see if one of the young guys bashes the door down. I like that second route more, but I expect to see a veteran brought in,

Hildenberger has had stretches of utter dominance, and stretches of utter futility. He could re-sign as a minor league free agent, but I suspect his struggles last September after a strong finish at Triple A have put him too far behind other bullpen arms in the Twins arsenal. 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Holiday movement

There was some action involving the Twins on the eve of Thanksgiving, all of it outgoing:

  • Kyle Gibson signed with the Texas Rangers
  • Derek Shelton was named manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Jeremy Hefner will be pitching coach of the New York Mets
To the degree that any of these moves are a surprise, it would be Gibson's destination. Texas has not been a friendly environment for pitchers, but that's not necessarily relevant now, since the new stadium is to open next season.

Aaron Gleeman noted on Twitter that Gibson made as many starts in the past decade for the Twins as the next two guys (Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana) combined, so it's a bit odd to contemplate a Minnesota rotation without him. He was, early in his career, frequently frustrating to watch, but he developed into a good middle of the rotation arm, at least until he developed his intestinal issues that wrecked his 2019 season.

I bumped into a reader at a supermarket this week who asked: What happened to sinkerballers?  The short answer is: The sinker -- the two-seam fastball -- has fallen out of favor because of the "launch angle" revolution. The flight path of that pitch and the swing patch of hitters looking to lift are simply too similar.

And that's relevant to Gibson because he was a classic "sinker-slider" pitcher. a type that populated pitching staffs for years and now has fallen from favor. He had to reinvent himself a few years ago, and did so. I can imagine him, some time down the road, as a pitching coach. (He may prefer a post-playing career in broadcast, however.)

An off-field aspect to Gibson's departure: He was, I believe, the Twins union rep. With storm clouds massing on the labor front, that could be a significant role in the Twins clubhouse over the next two years. 

Shelton was reportedly the runner-up to Rocco Baldelli during last winter's managerial search, and he was viewed as a hot commodity this winter. The Pittsburgh job, now that Ben Cherington is the general manager, is a better one than it was when the Pirates started looking for a new dugout boss. Shelton should get a genuine multi-season opportunity.

But the Pirates' chaotic offseason rippled onto the Twins. Had they been more decisive early in the process -- they didn't fire Neal Huntington as general manager until well into the process to replace Clint Hurdle -- the Twins might have been able to retain James Rowson. But Rowson took the bench coach job in Miami, and now the Twins have to find a new bench coach to fill Shelton's spot.

And they need a new assistant pitching coach too. Hefner seemed, from this outsider perspective, a wonderful complement to Wes Johnson. Johnson's rep is as a guru of delivery and mechanics. Hefner's strength was in video review and forming plans of attack for pitchers against specific hitters. That, I'm sure, oversimplifies things, but I fully expect the Twins to fill Hafner's post with somebody with his own chops in breaking down at-bats.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Adding to the 40

Wednesday was the deadline for teams to add minor leaguers to their 40-man rosters ahead of next month's Rule 5 draft. The Twins protected five prospects, leaving three slots open on the 40.

The five:
  • IF/OF Travis Blankenhorn 
  • OF Gilberto Celestino
  • RHP Dakota Chambers
  • RHP Jhoan Duran
  • 1B/OF Luke Raley 
Four of the five came to the Twins via 2018 mid-season trades. Celestino was part of the Ryan Pressly deal with Houston (as was Jorge Acala, who pitched a little in September for the big-league team) . Raley was part of the 2018 Brian Dozier trade with the Dodgers (as was Delvin Smeltzer, who was a frequent call-up to shore up the rotation or long-relief). Duran was part of the Eduardo Escobar trade with Arizona. Chambers came from Oakland for Fernando Rodney.

Blankenhorn is the only one of the five who was in the organization before the Derek Falvey/Thad Levine regime arrived. He's also, in my estimation, the least likely of the five to make an impact on the major league team.

Among the notable exposures to the Rule 5 draft are shortstop Wander Javier, who had a miserable 2019 (.177 batting average at Cedar Rapids amid shoulder problems); pitcher Griffin Jax, whose development has been somewhat stunted by his military obligations (he was drafted out of the Air Force Academy); and Luis Rijo, who the Twins got from the Yankees for Lance Lynn in another 2018 deal.

I mighr rather have any of those three than Blankenhorn, but Blankenhorn, who spent most of 2019 in Double A, is closer to the majors and might be more likely to stick on an active roster next season if taken in the draft.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Retaining Odorizzi

Jake Odorizzi on Thursday accepted the Twins qualifying offer and took himself off the free agent market this winter. He gets a one-year contract for $17.8 million.

Few players have accepted a QO, but presumably Odorizzi and his agency shared my reading of the market -- and/or my sense of risk adversion. They took the bird in hand and will go after the one in the bush next winter.

These are key factors informing Odorizzi's decision:

  • Odorizzi, while coming off the best season of his career, was not close to the best starter on the market. That would be Garrett Cole, with Stephen Strasburg right behind. Odorizzi was perhaps the fourth-best free-agent starter.
  • The draft-pick penalty for signing a QO-tagged free agent is stiff enough that a lot of teams simply rule it out. In each of the last two winters, a couple such pitchers have gotten burned, finding no significant interest in a multi-year deal. Think Lance Lynn two winters back; he landed with the Twins late in spring training and had a miserable 2018 season.
  • The Twins cannot make another qualifying offer to Ordorizzi after the 2020 season, and the crop of free-agent starters will be considerably more shallow next winter.

The worst case scenario for Odorizzi is that something happens this year that wrecks his future value. He elbow pops in September, say. In which case, hey, he got $17.8 million, and that's not a bad consolation prize.

The best case scenario is that he has at least as good a 2020 season as he did a 2019. In which case he's better positioned for a big multi-year contract than he was this year.

I don't know that the Twins brain trust is celebrating Odorizzi's return. They may have preferred that he depart; that way, if they sign a qualifying-offer free agent, they get a draft pick back, which partially makes up for the pick they lose. But they too have the bird in hand. My guess is that Odorizzi's return makes the pursuit of Cole or Strasburg less likely, not that landing either was anything resembling a certainty.

So two pieces of the Twins projected 2020 rotation are known, Jose Berrios and Odorizzi. Pencil in lightly a rookie-to-be-determined at the tail end of the rotation. That leaves two slots -- the ones occupied in 2019 by Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda -- to fill.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Roster moves

The Twins made a number of notable moves Monday. One made official what was already known, some were expected and none was truly startling.

The biggest news involved the starting rotation.

The Twins declined their option on Martin Perez, making the veteran lefty a free agent. I thought they might opt to keep him around as an innings eater at the back of the rotation, but they will go in a different direction.

They made a qualifying offer to Jake Odorizzi but not to Kyle Gibson or Michael Pineda. This presents a significant obstacle to Odorizzi on the free-agent market. I rather suspect he'll wind up taking the QO, which is a one-year deal for something around $17.8 million, and know that he'll be unrestricted after the 2020 season.

If he does take the offer, that's two rotation slots filled, three to go. He has until next Monday to decide.

Odorizzi is an effective but limited starter. He's not an innings-eating horse. In 2019, as an all-star having his best season to date, he didn't reach the 162 innings required to qualify for the ERA title. Perez, while far less effective, threw more innings. So I was mildly surprised that the front office made the QO.

It's not surprising that Gibson and Pineda didn't get QOs. Gibson's health issues and Pineda's lingering suspension were good reasons not to go there. I can imagine the Twins bringing one of them back, but not both. 

Also on the pitching line, the Twins parted ways with Kohl Stewart and Stephen Gonsalves, a pair of prominent draft picks who never quite forced their way into the Twins plans. They were taken out of high school in 2013, Stewart in the first round (fourth overall) and Gonsalves in the fourth, but they've been leapfrogged by other prospects.

Gonsalves, who had injury issues and seldom pitched in 2019, was claimed off waivers by the New York Mets, and Stewart opted for free agency after the Twins outrighted him.

The Twins also officially exercised their 2020 option on Nelson Cruz. One can debate the wisdom of any of the other moves and non-moves of Monday, but not this one.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Washington champion

Quite the impressive October for the Washington Nationals, who won five straight elimination games and had to overcome deficits in each.

Here's an apparent trend: This is the third straight World Series won by a team whose manager, with reason, mistrusted his bullpen and turned to starters to fill relief roles:

The 2017 Astros saw Ken Giles --  who had a fine regular season, with 34 saves and a 2.30 ERA -- implode repeatedly in the playoffs. In the Series that year, A.J. Hinch finished wins with Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock. Lance McCullers finished the clinching win in the ALCS.

The 2018 Red Sox similarly saw their closer, Craig Kimbrel, splutter in the postseason. When Alex Cora had a chance to wrap up the series, he brought in his top starter, Chris Sale, and left Kimbrel in the pen. Kimbrel was charged in the 2018 postseason with seven runs in 10.2 innings.

The Nationals this year were in a different boat; bullpen depth was a problem all season. Closer Sean Doolittle had some injury issues and pitched to a 4.05 ERA. They picked up Daniel Hudson, an oft-injured journeyman -- he's had two Tommy John surgeries -- from the Blue Jays in an end-of-July trade that barely showed on the radar, and he performed far better than anyone could have imagined.

Doolittle and Hudson gave the Nats a usable back-end of the bullpen. Bridging the innings between the starters -- and the Nats do have a notably strong rotation -- and Doolittle/Hudson was an issue. Davey Martinez dealt with that issue in the playoffs by utilizing starters, particularly lefty Patrick Corbin (the winning pitcher in Game Seven).

The Astros were confident in the quality of their bullpen this October. And that confidence was sustained until Game 7, when Will Harris and Joe Smith imploded and Roberto Osuna didn't get the job done either. My Twitter feed Wednesday night fed me plenty of criticism of Hinch for bypassing Gerrit Cole for his usual relief crew. I suspect that criticism gets extra lift because we now have a string of winning managers -- including Hinch in 2017 -- who bypassed his usual relief crew for a starter.