Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Automatic intentional walks? Boo on that

The news Tuesday night that intentional walks will now be granted automatically on a signal from the manager -- rather than requiring the pitcher to actually throw four wide ones -- displeases me.

The routine IBB isn't a giant time suck (unlike, say, the more than 45 minutes of ads in nationally televised games), and every once in a rare while the routine becomes not so routine. Like that Twins game last September when Pat Light threw a wild pitch while trying to walk Erick Aybar. Or the game in 2006 when Miguel Cabrera, then with the Marlins, singled in a 10th-inning run.

Or the 1972 World Series showdown between two future Hall of Famers, Johnny Bench and Rollie Fingers. A stolen base opened first base and made the count 3-2. Oakland manager Dick Williams walked to the mound and pointed emphatically at first base while talking to Fingers and catcher Gene Tenace. Tenace then stood behind home plate with his hand outstretched -- and dropped into a crouch while Fingers threw a slider for strike three called.

It was a great piece of baseball theater that embedded itself in a young fan's memory. And it won't happen again.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Bulk numbers of starters

When we start thinking about the Twins starting rotation, the first thing to consider is the limited opportunities.

The Twins have four veteran starters with eight- or seven-digit salaries: Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson and Hector Santiago. If healthy, they're filling 80 percent of the rotation. (I truly expected the Twins to move one of Gibson or Santiago during the winter, but it not only never happened, I never heard of any rumors.)

That leave one spot to decide this spring, and a lot of possibilities:

Young holdovers: Tyler Duffey made 26 starts last year and -- you might win a bet on this -- led the team in wins (9) despite a 6.43 ERA. Jose Berrios made 14 starts and got racked up for an 8.02 ERA, They had the two highest strikeout rates of the nine Twins who made at least nine starts, but their results were bad enough that they aren't certainties for the rotation.

The reconversion: Trevor May was on-and-off the disabled list with back problems, and a popular theory blamed it on the everyday activity of bullpen work. I like his stuff in the 'pen -- his fastball really perked up in short use -- but if he can't pitch, it doesn't do any good.

The rookies: Aldeberto Mejia -- big lefty they got from the Giants in the Eduardo Nunez trade last summer -- apparently impressed Monday throwing live BP. Justin Haley is a Rule 5 pick, so he has to make the 25-man roster or be offered back to Boston. He might stay as a long man in the bullpen,

The retreads: Ryan Vogelsong is 39, has made an All-Star team, been in the rotation for two World Series winners and has spend 12 years bouncing between Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Nick Tepesch is 11 years younger and less accomplished. Both are non-roster invitees. I don't expect much from either, but I didn't last year from Brandon Kintzler either.

There to be seen: Four arms from the farm system in camp who aren't serious contenders for April but might be factors later in the season: Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, Felix Jose and Aaron Sledgers. The part of me fascinated by bright shiny objects would rather see one or two of them than Santiago or Gibson, but the sensible part knows better.

My preliminary ranking of how likely they are to open in the rotation: May. Duffey, Mejia, Tepesch, Vogelsong, Berrios, Haley.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Roster spot competiton

Saturday was the full-squad reporting date for the Twins, and all 61 were in Fort Myers on time: The 40 on the major league roster and the 21 non-roster invitees.

Let's assume that

  • the Twins open with a 12-man pitching staff (likely) and
  • there are no trades or injuries (not likely).

What are the position player spots that need a spring-training decision?

Start with a list of givens:

Regulars: Jason Castro, Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler.

Add to this Eduardo Escobar and Jorge Polanco, one as the shortstop and the other as a backup infielder. (Polanco is out of options, and I'm pretty sure Escobar is too.)

That' accounts for nine of the 13 roster spots and eight of the lineup spots (missing the designated hitter).

One of the four remaining roster spots will go to a backup catcher -- one of the trio of Mitch Graver, John Ryan Murphy and Chris Gimenez. That leaves three.

The Twins will probably want a right-handed hitting backup outfielder who can fill in for Rosario or Kepler against lefties; Robbie Grossman had that job last year and hit well but fielded poorly. The Twins brought in some better defensive outfielders as NRIs, but Drew Stubbs and J.B, Shuck aren't the hitters Grossman is.

Grossman, a switch-hitter, might figure in the DH competition, as does Kennys Vargas, who apparently got an extra option year.

Danny Santana came up as an infielder, is listed as an outfielder, switch hits and doesn't do any of those things particularly well. His selling point is his versatility -- a fifth outfielder/four middle infielder in one roster spot -- but being a Grade D outfielder/infielder/hitter hurts. For any one role, the Twins have better choices available.

Contemplating the options turns into something of a Rubik's Cube.

Let's say Grossman is the standard DH. That leaves a bench of:

  • Backup catcher
  • Escobar/Polanco, whoever isn't playing short
  • Glove-oriented fourth outfielder
  • Unknown priority

If the Twins are comfortable with Grossman as the fourth outfielder, Vargas or Byung Ho Park could get DH at-bats and back up Mauer at first. That would create a bench of

  • Backup catcher
  • Escobar/Polanco
  • Grossman
  • Unknown priority

Unknown priority ... possibilities include Santana's low-level versatility or an extra infield glove man (Ehire Adrianza?) to support the questionable left side of the infield. They could take Vargas as the DH, keep a defense-first fourth outfielder and still keep Grossman.

The spring training competition for roster spots in some regards isn't as much about chosing the talent as about chosing the priorities. Molitor has a track record of prefering hitters. The new regime may push him in a different direction.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pic of the Week

Eduardo Escobar is having a good day at spring training.

The reporting date for Twins position players was Saturday, but almost everybody was there by Friday.

And why not? We're weeks away from any losses that matter.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Gardy's cancer

It's a bit surprising to me to realize that I haven't noted here the prostate cancer diagnosis of former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, which he revealed at the start of spring training.

Not that I have anything insightful to say about prostate cancer or its treatment, but I can't imagine how many words I've written in this blog, approving or frowning, over the years about Gardenhire.

He's not involved with the Twins anymore, of course; he's the bench coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

And best wishes to him, both with the new job and with the cancer treatment. No matter how trying the record his last few years with the Twins, I know of no reason to wish the man ill.

Friday, February 17, 2017

How hard to work Castro

No question: Jason Castro was signed to be the Twins primary catcher. But how primary?

Castro has averaged 105 starts behind the plate the past three years with Houston. Paul Molitor has reportedly told him he (Molitor) wants to start him 120-125 times this year.

I intuitively think that's too much. I'd rather see the left-handed hitting Castro deployed as part of a platoon -- Castro starting against right-handed starters, the backup against lefties. Certainly the pieces are there to do that, with backup contenders Mitch Garver, Chris Gimenez and John Ryan Murphy all right-handed.

Castro certainly has hit righties better than lefties. In 2016, for example, his OPS against righties was .757; against southpaws, .478. He's a .190 career hitter against lefties (505 official at-bats). Of course, the Twins didn't commit $24.5 million to him for his bat, and there's no platoon differential in the field.

Houston does not appear to have ever tried a straight platoon with Castro. Last season Castro started 81 of Houston's 109 games against righties and 21 of their 53 games against lefties. That leans toward a platoon, but is pretty loose.

Last year the Twins faced 46 left-handed starters and 116 right-handers. If repeated in 2017, that sort of splits the difference between 105 and 125. It may well be that even if Molitor were to adopt a strict platoon at catcher (at least in terms of who starts) that Castro would get more work than he did in Houston. And it would focus his at-bats against pitchers he has a chance against.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The state of the Twins farm system

My copy of Baseball America's Prospect Handbook 2017 arrived this week. Also arriving this week, the Top 100 Prospects issue of that fine publication.

Each gave me something to grump about.

From the Handbook: The Twins No. 14 prospect on BA's list "is" Pat Light. Light was waived last week (well after the publication deadline) and is now in the Pittsburgh organization. My grumpiness isn't because the Twins arguably dumped their 14th best prospect, because I was quite unimpressed with Light during his late-2016 callup. It's because, if Light is No. 14, what am I to make of, let us say, No. 28 (Jake Reed)?

From the Top 100: The Twins system placed just two prospects on the list, shortstop Nick Gordon at No. 60 and left-hander Stephen Gonsalves at No. 99. Yes, the Twins graduated a lot of prospects the past couple of years -- Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Tyler Duffey, Jose Berrios -- but they've also been drafting pretty high since 2011, and the returns on those high picks aren't all that promising. One might reasonably expect a pipeline with more to offer.