Monday, August 3, 2015

Interperting the use and future of Trevor May

The Twins' deadline acquisition, Kevin Jepsen, didn't exactly pay off Sunday. The big righty walked the first two men he faced in the top of the 11th inning, setting up the three-run inning that decided the game.

It was not a good day for the Minnesota bullpen overall. Glen Perkins gave up a homer in the ninth to break a scoreless tie and the Twins survived to extras only because Brian Dozier returned the favor in the bottom of the inning. And the Brian Duensing-Casey Fien combo that had until recently been favored by Paul Molitor for non-Perkins late innings allowed Jepsen's walks to score, plus one of their own,

But let's talk instead about Trevor May, who threw a scoreless 10th inning with two strikeouts. Earlier in the day, the Twins announced that Tommy Milone had inflammation in his left (pitching) elbow and was going on the disabled list and that Tyler Duffey was coming up from Triple A to take his spot in the rotation.

Duffey, not May. May has been in the bullpen for a month now (Sunday marked his first appearance in back-to-back games), and the Twins apparently doubt that he's prepared for a starter's workload now.

There's another aspect: May has, perhaps, made himself too valuable in the bullpen to shift. May has made 10 relief appearances; he has a 3-0 record, one hold and a 3.17 ERA. He hasn't given up a lead or broken a tie and been scored on in only two of his outings.

May's the primary set-up guy now, Molitor's top option for the non-Perkins late innings. It was May in the ninth inning of Saturday's tie; it was May in the 10th inning Sunday. Not Jepsen, not Duensing or Fien or Blaine Boyer.

Dan Gladden's tone in discussing the Duffey call-up suggested that he thinks Milone's injury should get May back into the rotation. Certainly it provided an opportunity to do so, and probably, had it come two weeks earlier, it would have. That's it's not happening strongly suggests that it won't happen in 2015.

Or, maybe, ever. Much as I believed and argued that May was actually the team's most reliable starter when he was put in the bullpen, he seldom pitched deep into games. He had a season high of seven innings, achieved twice in 15 starts. Mike Pelfrey, in comparison, has gotten at least 21 outs (seven full innings) nine times. Milone's had four such outings in 14 starts.

And a point I made in commenting on the Jepsen trade applies to May: There's not much room in the rotation beyond 2015. Assume Pelfrey doesn't return. the Twins still have Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, Milone, Ricky Nolasco and Ervin Santana under contract for 2016 -- and 2017 as well. Plus there's Duffey (one home run allowed in 132 combined inning in Double A and Triple A) and Jose Berrios knocking on the door.

Injuries happen. Trades happen. A door back to the rotation may very well open for May. But there's a genuine possibility that his destiny is in the bullpen.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Pics of the Week

On Wednesday night, Wilmer Flores was visibly teary-eyed
while playing what he thought was his final game with the Mets,

On Friday night he hit a walk-off home run and got his
fourth standing ovation of the game.

I daresay this was a week Wilmer Flores will never forget.

Flores, an infielder who turns 24 next week, has spent his entire professional career with the New York Mets, with whom he signed at age 16 out of Venezuela, It has not been a distinguished major league career; his lifetime batting average is .246, and although he has had the bulk of the playing time at shortstop this year, his defensive skills at the position are lacking.

Then came Wednesday and the trade that wasn't.

Flores was supposedly part of a multi-player deal with the Milwaukee Brewers that was to bring Carlos Gomez to the Mets. The trade was widely reported on social media as the Mets played the Padres, and word reached Flores, who was seen wiping away tears even as manager Terry Collins kept him in the game. Flores got a warm ovation from the home crowd as he took what everybody assumed was his final at-bat with the Amazin's.

Then, after the game, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson dumbfounded everybody: There was no trade for Gomez, There wasn't going to be a trade for Gomez. Not then, not on Thursday, not on Friday. (Collins on leaving Flores in the game: "I've been sobbing in the third inning before. Nobody takes me out of the game.")

There was, and remains, speculation on what happened to the trade. Gomez's hip scared the Mets off. Or the cash-strapped Mets ownership wouldn't accept Go-Go's contract. Or (largely dismissed) the Brewers were concerned about the elbow of pitching prospect Zack Wheeler, who had Tommy John surgery earlier this year.

Whatever: No trade. Flores remains a Met. And on Friday, he drove in a run in the fourth inning and hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 12th against the Washington Nationals. Of course, he got a standing ovation for that bit of heroics. But he'd had three already that day.

A few tears at the idea of leaving the Mets, and Flores is now everybody's favorite at Citi Field.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Hello, Jepsen; good-bye, Hu

Chih-Wei Hu with Cedar Rapids in
The Twins did make a bullpen trade Friday afternoon: Kevin Jepsen from Tampa Bay for two minor league pitchers, Chih-Wei Hu and Alexis Tapia.

The trade addresses the biggest need on the roster. I'm lukewarm on it only because I had already developed an emotional investment in Hu, who I saw last summer in his full-season league debut in Cedar Rapids. Having been impressed by him before I ever read a scouting report gives me a sense of discovery. (Tapia is a Venezuelan pitching at Elizabethton; I don't know enough about him to say anything beyond: He's a 19-year-old arm in Rookie ball, and good luck with that.)

But really, I cannot complain about this deal. Jepsen isn't a big name, but he does fill an immediate need: He's a power arm who has pitched in late innings for the Angels and the Rays. This is the kind of trade I said Friday morning I was looking for.

Kevin Jepsen, 31,
has a 2.81 ERA with
the Rays this season.
Hu, 21, has a chance to be a major league starting pitcher. He has four average pitches with good command of each. He was, to my self-trained eye last summer, much more polished than the higher-bonused high draft picks who started the day before and the day after, Ryan Eades and Kohl Stewart. Personally, I would rather have Hu than Eades; perhaps the Twins or Rays agree, perhaps they don't. They agreed on Hu.

Having praised Hu, I have a hard time seeing where he would fit in a future Twins rotation. As matters stand, the Twins have seven big-league starters (counting Trevor May in the bullpen and Ricky Nolasco on the disabled list). Of those seven, only Mike Pelfrey is not under team control for not just 2016 but 2017. Plus the Twins have Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey pushing at the door from Triple A. Even at the High-A level where Hu's been so effective this year, the Twins have a bunch of starting prospects -- Eades, Stewart, Stephen Gonsalves, Tyler Jay, Aaron Slegers, Mat Batts -- who certainly aren't markedly worse pitchers than Hu and most of whom got bigger bonuses when they signed.

I'm not eager to give up Hu. But this deal helps the chances of the 2015 team snagging that wild card berth, and it doesn't do obvious damage to the long-term outlook.

Later on Friday, the Twins demoted both Danny Santana and Jorge Polanco, a pair of moves that opened roster slots for Jepsen and Trevor Plouffe, back after the birth of his son Teddy. I'll probably use the Monday print column to comment on that.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The ticking clock

As I compose this, there are less than 12 hours to the trade deadline. There has been an expectation for days that the Twins would do something to at least shore up their bedraggled bullpen, if not shortstop or catcher.

And so far, nothing.

What I said here Thursday stands on Friday: I don't want a short-term deal with prime prospects. The 2015 Twins have a chance to make the playoffs, but the real window of opportunity is down the road still. Certainly one has to give something to get something, but the price still needs to be right.

History is worth remembering, and history tells us that:

  • The most successful mid-season deals for the Twins have waiver-wire pickups after the deadline; and
  • The vast majority of pre-deadline trades don't swing the pennant race or postseason.

Carl Pavano and Orlando Cabrera in 2009 were August acquisitions that worked out pretty well. The Matt Capps trade the following year was more about the postseason than the division race, and the Twins never got him a lead in the playoffs.

A Thursday rumor connected the Twins to Justin Upton (San Diego outfielder). I don't see the fit. Another rumor had the Cubs pushing hard to move shortstop Starlin Castro, just 25 but hitting .237 with a poison pill contract. As troublesome as shortstop has been for Minnesota, I'd rather go with the current grab-bag.

And neither Upton nor Castro would address the biggest problem on this roster: A low-octane bullpen. That's not, in truth, a problem that needs a big name player to resolve. A minor deal -- the right minor deal -- will do the trick. We're all waiting on that one.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Unsolicited advice to the Twins on the trading deadline

The Twins are not exactly playing inspired baseball these days -- the clown-show sixth inning Wednesday, with its "wild pitch" through Kurt Suzuki's legs and the three-run Little League homer, being a particularly atrocious example -- but they are still, barely, in a playoff spot at the moment.

For all the speculation and angst about the nonwaiver trading deadline Friday, the Twins have yet to make a move, and the rumor mill has not connected Minnesota to many if any big names. (My own speculation about Jonathan Paplebon was so wildly inaccurate in so many ways that I'm embarrassed to think about it now.)

If the Twins make no trade this week and ultimately miss out on a wild-card berth, I'm good with that. If they trade Max Kepler or Jorge Polanco for a bullpen rental, I'll have to see a World Series trip to be satisfied with the move, and that sort of outcome is not guaranteed.

These are the key facts:

  • The Twins are nine games behind Kansas City in the division. They're not catching the Royals.
  • That means their door into the postseason is a wild card berth, That's a one-game crapshoot.
  • Unlike Kansas City and Detroit, their realistic time is down the road a bit. 

This is prime time in the Royals' cycle. They need to make their push now, because key parts of their lineup are in late arbitration years or approaching free agency. The Royals management recognizes this; that's why they traded much of their farm system for two to three months of Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, and it's why they're treating Salvador Perez as a disposable asset. Flags fly forever, and the Royals don't care if Perez is a wreck in five years; he won't be there by then anyway.

The window is closing in Detroit, regardless of whether they trade free-agents-to-be David Price and Yoenis Cepedes. Their farm system has been neglected, the core of the roster is aging and the financial commitments to Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander in what figures to be their decline phases are staggering.

The Twins, on the other hand, are a team in transition with better days ahead. I genuinely don't want them making short-term moves except in the bullpen, and I certainly don't want them trading away prime prospects for rentals. Trading a good prospect for a multi-year fix at shortstop or catcher, yes, but that's more likely a wintertime move than a deadline deal.

I'm comfortable with treating outfielders Oswaldo Arcia and Adam Brett Walker as trade chips for short-term bullpen help, because I don't see either being part of the outfield future anyway. Those two are, or should be, well behind Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Aaron Hicks and Kepler. If, as I increasingly expect, Torii Hunter returns, Arcia and Walker are even further back. Arcia's out of options next year anyway,

The next question is whether Arcia can demand anything in return. The market for platoon designated hitters (Arcia's optimal role) has always been limited, and this isn't Earl Weaver's American League. Walker might be another matter; if he gets his strikeouts under control he might be the next Nelson Cruz. But that's a big if.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Three P's in a post: Plouffe, Polanco, Perkins

Trevor Plouffe went on paternity leave after Tuesday's game; the baby, to be born today, will be the first for the infielder and and his wife Olivia. Jorge Polanco gets the brief callup.

If Miguel Sano's ankle is good to go, this presents an opportunity to give the rookie some time at third base. That would be ideal from a development standpoint. But the Twins very much need his bat in the lineup -- Mike Melancon, a quality closer, pitched around Sano in the ninth last night, which underlined how quickly Sano has gotten the reputation of being difficult to pitch to -- and they have other options for third base if the ankle is at risk.

As for Polanco: My normal take on this kind of thing is, if's he's gonna be in the majors, play him. The Twins now have four supposed shortstops on the roster (Eduardo Escobar, Eduardo Nunez, Polanco and Danny Santana) and nobody they really feel comfortable with at the spot. Tuesday was Escobar's first start at shortstop in more than a week and only his second since July 3; he had a big double in the eighth-inning rally and made some good plays in the field. I would be fine with giving him sustained playing time there, even if that means Polanco sits during this callup.

Glen Perkins has had four appearances since the All-Star break. He has given up at least a run in three of those outings with two losses and two blown saves. He says he's fine, and we should take his word for that, but it's also worth remembering that he said the same thing late last year before finally admitting that there was a problem and the Twins shut him down for the final weeks.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Twins and the Tulo trade

A good bit of player movement going on as nonwaiver deadline approaches. Troy Tulowitzki, who is as good a shortstop as there is when healthy (which hasn't been often in the past five years), was apparently traded late Monday by Colorado to Toronto for fellow oft-injured shortstop Jose Reyes. Also involved in the trade: old friend LaTroy Hawkins, three Toronto pitching prospects and some $50 million in salary relief for the Rockies.

There's been speculation for years about the Rockies moving Tulowitzki and his big contract ($20 million a year through 2019, 14 million in 2020 and a $15 million option in 2021), and now it has happened.

Reyes, who actually is paid more this year than Tulo, is probably going to get flipped by the Rockies in the next few days. The Rox wanted the pitchers more than Reyes, but there was no way the Jays wanted to have both shortstops on their roster.

There's been an undercurrent of speculation in Twinsdom about Tulo as a solution to the shortstop problem. I never took that too seriously; five years, perhaps more, is a long timeline for a 30-year-old shortstop, particularly one with Tulowitzki's injury history. The Twins are, of course, notoriously patient with young players, and even if they weary of waiting for Danny Santana to put it together they have invested pretty seriously in some young shortstop prospects in the past two years (Nick Gordon and Wander Javier). If they trade for a shortstop, it will be for a shorter-term fix. 

Reyes is more likely, but not much. He's due $22 million each of the next two seasons, plus a $4 million buyout on a $22 million option for 2018. The Twins would be wiser to go for a two-month (or hopefully three) rental than a multi-year commitment. 


I wrote this print column in May on the book "Big Data Baseball," which described how the Pittsburgh Pirates committed to sabermetrics. On Monday, the Pioneer Press printed this Mike Berardino piece on the Twins and their own use of advanced statistics and analytics. I cannot recommend this highly enough.