Thursday, November 20, 2014

Progress on the coaching staff

Eddie Guardado was a fan favorite as a Twins reliever
from 1993-2003 and again in 2008.
The lengthy pause after announcing that Gene Glynn and Rudy Hernandez would join holdover Tom Brunansky on Paul Molitor's debut coaching staff suggested that the remaining four slots would be filled by outsiders, people the Twins would have to pry away from current teams.

But then word leaked Wednesday night that Eddie Guardado will be the bullpen coach. "Everyday Eddie" has been on hand early in spring training the past few years, but hasn't had a fulltime job with any organization.

Bobby Cuellar, the bullpen coach the past two years, told Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press that he was informed two weeks ago he would not be retained. Frank Viola, "Sweet Music" on the 1987 champs and 1988 Cy Young winner and now a pitching coach in the Mets system, said he was interviewed for the pitching coach job but has been told he's not one of the final two candidates.

Carl Willis, dubbed "The Big Train" as the top setup man on the 1991 champs, apparently is one of the finalists. (The other, according to the star Tribune's LaVelle Neal, is Neil Allen, currently the Triple A pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays.) Willis has a fairly lengthy coaching resume, largely on the staffs of Eric Wedge, who managed the Cleveland Indians 2003-2009 and Seattle 2011-13. He's currently working in the Indians system.

Willis has also coached three Cy Young seasons (C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez).

Which led me to wonder about Rick Anderson. He coached two Cy Youngs (both Johan Santana.) His charges have also had 12 All-Game nods from six pitchers: Joe Nathan four times, Santana three times, Glen Perkins and Guardado twice, Francisco Lirano once. That list is heavy on bullpen guys, which figures. The bullpen was generally a strength of the Gardenhire era.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Giancarlo Stanton, Russell Martin, Jason Hayward and Billy Butler

A few significant moves the past couple of days, and even through they don't directly affect the Twins, there are still points to be made.

Giancarlo Stanton agrees to a long-term deal with Miami. Exactly how long term is difficult to say. It's Stanton's choice, basically; it's either 13 years for $325 million or six years for $107 million. He has an opt-out clause after the 2020 season.

This is a heavily backloaded contract, so much so that I can't see how the Marlins avoid getting badly scalded at the end. (Remember, I'm the guy who wrote last March that the Twins should offer a pair of 20-year, $200 million contracts to Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano; I'm hardly opposed to really long-term deals for really talented young players).

Stanton is just 24 now; his best years figure to be ahead of him. They figure to be behind him when the opt-out comes. I don't know how likely he is to decide that the market will support $31 million for him in his middle 30s. If he does opt-out, the Marlins dodge the bullet they just fired into their future.

In total, however, this is probably not a terrible contract for the Marlins. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs did an illuminating analysis of comparable players to Stanton -- this level of production ages 22 to 24 -- and found 18 others since 1950. Most of them, he concludes, were productive enough to justify the complete 13 years of this deal.

Jason Hayward traded to St. Louis. Stanton is a star because he has one very important tool: He has top-level power. Hayward's power isn't as impressive, but he does everything else better. As a result, he's been a better player than Stanton, but few recognize that. (The two are about the same age, Hayward being about three months older.)

With Hayward a year from free agency, the Atlanta Braves chose not to pay him. They traded him to St. Louis for two young pitchers, notably Shelby Miller, on whom the Cardinals seemed to sour a bit last year.

Jose Posnanski goes into detail on the Hayward-Stanton comparison here. It is intriguing, the different approaches the Braves and Marlins took on these two outfielders.

Russell Martin strikes a five-year deal with Toronto.  OK, I can defend the Stanton contract. I can defend trading one year of Hayward for almost 10 years of pitchers. .

I can't see the logic in committing $82 million over five years to a 31-year-old catcher. It almost doesn't matter that Martin has had just one good year at the plate in the past six seasons. If it were five good years at the plate, the problem would still be there: He's a catcher entering the collapse years for hard-used catchers.

The Blue Jays are putting a lot of faith in his defense and his clubhouse intangibles, more than I think is wise.

Billy Butler agrees to a three-year deal with Oakland. Huh?

Another signing I don't get. Butler has no defensive value, he grounds into about two dozen double plays a year, his power has been in steady decline. I can't see why Billy Beane is sinking $30 million into this guy.

I don't imagine the Royals are sorry to see "Country Breakfast" go. His departure certainly opens a hole in the middle of the Kansas City lineup for a right-handed hitter, and the Royals are said to be pursing Torii Hunter hard.

K.C. makes more sense for Hunter than Minnesota does. He's looking for a ring, and the Twins are not ready to contend, while the Royals just went to the seventh game of the World Series. I think Hunter will sign with the Royals.

Which, as a Twins fan, is fine by me. I don't want Hunter with the Twins.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pursuing pitching is the wrong priority

Here's the conventional wisdom about the Twins: The pitching's the problem.

And a cursory look at the stats supports that claim. The Twins had a team ERA in 2014 of 4.57, which was last in the American League and almost three-quarters of a run per game worse than the AL average. The Twins were, on the other hand, fifth in runs scored.

It's the pitching, stupid. And so there is speculation of signing free-agent starters (a la last winter's $73 million spree, which brought the Twins one very good season and two injury-plagued/awful seasons).

Here's a unconventional view: That's the wrong priority.

Fix the defense, and the pitchers already in place will look a whole lot better.

One of my foundation beliefs about the game: The easiest way to improve a pitching staff is to get better defensive outfielders.

And it really shouldn't be that difficult to improve the Twins outfield defense. They spent much of 2014 with Josh Willingham or Jason Kubel in left field, Oswaldo Arcia or Chris Colabello in right and a shortstop (Danny Santana) in center.

By Baseball Info System's DRS metric -- DRS meaning "defensive runs saved" -- the Twins were next to last in all of baseball. Only Cleveland's fielders gave more runs to the opposition.

The Twins team DRS was -67, meaning they were 67 runs worse than MLB average. Most of that is traced to the corner outfielders. Left field was -25, right field was -23. (The pitchers and catchers were also notable problems; the pitchers were -13, the catchers -10. Those four positions account for -71 runs, so the other five combined scored a bit better than average.)

TheTwins gave up 777 runs last season, Give them league average defense, at least by DRS, and that drops to 710 -- still worse than average, but fewer than they scored themselves.

It's only mid November, but the Twins outfield plan for 2015 is pretty vague.

We know Arcia will be the right fielder. That probably means subpar defense in that corner again.

Center field and left field are wide open. Aaron Hicks, Jordan Schafer and Chris Parmelee are on hand from last season, but I have to doubt the Twins intend to base their outfield on those guys. Santana ... new manager Paul Molitor sounds like he wants to focus Santana there. It doesn't make sense to me -- Santana has always been a dicey defensive shortstop in the minors, and with Eduardo Escobar coming off a strong season, the Twins would be "fixing" a problem that doesn't really exist.

Which is very much, again, like plunging back into the free agent market to sign a raft of veteran starters. Better to jettison one or two of the incumbent starters and give Alex Meyer or Trevor May rotation berths, not add more big salary guys to block their ascent.

And better to focus on getting outfielders who can run and throw, be they Santana, Eddie Rosario or somebody from the outside.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Rosario Scenario

Last Saturday, while most sports fans were watching college football, I had an eye on the Arizona Fall League championship game.

After Eddie Rosario, playing left field and hitting third for the Salt River Rafters, opened the game with a strong throw and a home run, I issued a tweet that almost certainly set a personal record for responses:

Call it the Rosario Scenario.

That tweet drew both agreement and disapproval. Brandon Warne gives a rational reason to oppose the Rosario Scenario:

In truth, Rosario vs. Hunter is a false choice. Hunter isn't likely to return to the Twins; he wants a team closer to contention. The Twins are typically conservative with prospects, and they will probably agree with Warne that Rosario's big AFL season doesn't outweigh his lousy regular season. 

Which doesn't make that caution the right choice.

The AFL is a pretty good league, made up largely of Triple A- and Double-A players. Rosario, whose "hit tool" -- the ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball -- has never been in question, hit consistently there. 

He's got a quality arm. He runs well enough to have been a center fielder before the attempt to convert him to the infield. I'm willing to chalk up his Double A struggles to the drug suspension that wiped out his spring training and first two months of the year.

I'm certain of this: Eddie Rosario right now is a better defensive outfielder than Torii Hunter. Yes, Hunter is the most decorated outfielder of the past 15 years. He's 39 now. He ain't the Gold Glove wizard he once was. I'd rather go with the guy with a future than the guy with the past.

Set the Hunter fantasy aside. Rosario may not be better in the field than Aaron Hicks or Jordan Schafer, but he's not likely to be much worse, either. And I'm certain he'll outhit either.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Sunday Funnies

Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell, as many of his contemporaries did after washing out of the majors, continued to pitch in the minors. He was pitching for the Minneapolis Millers, a high level minor league team, and the Millers were about to play a crucial series against Toledo.

Manager Joe Cantillon told Waddell: "You've gotta lay off the liquor for the next four days. You'll be going against Earl Yingling (Toledo's ace) at least once and maybe twice, and I want you at your best."

But when the series began on Monday afternoon, neither Waddell nor Yingling showed at the Minneapolis ballpark. Nor did they appear on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

On Friday, after Toledo had left town, Waddell walked in with a stringer of fish, which he presented to Cantillon with the explanation that he had tkaen care of Yingling by having the Toledo ace accompany him on a four-day fishing excursion on Lake Minnetonka.

A week later, Cantillon received a bill from a local market -- a bill for the fish Waddell had purchased on the previous Friday.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Alvin Dark, Willie Mays and the integration of baseball

Alvin Dark, who would win the pennant that year as
manager of the San Francisco Giants, with Casey Stengel
of the Mets in 1962,
Alvin Dark died Thursday at 92. You have to be of a certain age to remember him in baseball -- a standout shortstop on three World Series teams despite getting his career off to a late start because of military service during and after World War II, a skipper of two World Series teams in a lengthy managerial career.

Dark's career took him just shy of Cooperstown. There are worse shortstops than "Blackie" in the Hall of Fame, and there are better ones out, but that's not the point here. I'm thinking, instead, of the complexities that accompanied integration, not merely in baseball but in the larger society. It was a process, after all. It didn't begin with Jackie Robinson, and it sure didn't end with him.

Dark was widely seen during his playing days as a natural future manager. Dark was not merely a standout athlete. He was a college man and a Marine officer who broke in under one great manager (Billy Southworth) and starred for a second (Leo Durocher).

And he was a white Southerner, with all the racial baggage that came with growing up white in the South at that time.

He tried to change. I believe that. When he took over as Giants manager in 1961, he shuffled locker assignments to break up racial cliques. He had, as any manager would, a deep appreciation for the instant intelligence Willie Mays brought to the game, and named Mays team captain -- the first black to officially hold such a position.

And Mays returned that esteem, telling his future biographer, Charles Einstein, in 1961, that he thought Dark -- who he called "Cap," short for captain, the title Dark had when they were teammates -- a better manager than Durocher.

Then came a mid-season interview in 1964, with the Giants in a losing streak. Dark, who tended to be over-reactive, spouted off on his black and Latin players, rapping star first baseman Orlando Cepeda by name. A few excerpts:

We have trouble because we have so many Spanish-speaking and Negro players on the team. They are just not able to perform up to the white ball player when it comes to mental alertness. ... They just aren't as sharp mentally. ... You don't know how hard we've tried to make a team player, a hustling ballplayer, out of Orlando. ... I'd have to say he's giving out 40 percent.

And so on and so forth.

Well, you can imagine how that went over with men like Mays, Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal -- all black or Latin, all future Hall of Famers. In his fine book on Mays, "Willie's Time," Einstein describes a furious meeting of the non-white Giants convened by Mays in his Pittsburgh hotel room:

"Shut up," Mays told the congregants in his room. "Just shut up." 
"You don't tell me to shut up," Cepeda said. "I'm not going to play another game for that son of a bitch."
"Oh yes you are," Mays told him. "And let me tell you why."
One of those reasons: Were Dark fired immediately, it would merely make him a martyr, "a hero to the rednecks." Another, Mays reminded his teammates, was that Dark was truly colorblind with his lineups and playing time.

Mays, fighting a virus as he fought a team mutiny, quelled the player rebellion. But there was more. Einstein again:

Willie's cold had worsened. The following day he suited up, but the sickness was in this throat and his voice was gone, which may have been a good thing. Silently Dark handed him the lineup card to take out to the umpires. Logically, Mays ought not to play that day ... Logically, also, in the light of what Dark had said the day before, the baseball world would have taken it as a Mays refusal to play for a man who had bailed out on him, and Dark's managerial career would end then and there. Silently, Mays took the lineup card. His name was not on it.
"I actually felt sorry for the man," he told me later. "So I did the only thing I could do." What he did was to take a pencil, write his name back into the lineup, and hit two home runs to beat the Mets.
.... The day a sickness-ridden Mays took the lineup card from Dark and wrote his own name on it was two full months from the end of the season. In all that time, Mays never spoke to his manager again.

Whether or not Mays actually saved Dark's managerial career, Dark went on to manage the Kansas City Athletics, the Cleveland Indians, the Oakland Athletics and the San Diego Padres, winning the World Series with the A's in 1974. Two stints working for Charley O. Finley might be deemed suitable punishment for alienating so many star players.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Baseball America's Top 10 Twins prospects

Baseball America's current issue features the Top 10 prospects for the American League Central teams. The print copy hit my mailbox Wednesday; the on-line copy of the Twins list goes up Nov. 17.

So ... here's BA's list of the Twins top prospects, compiled (or at least described) by Pioneer Press beat write (and BA alum) Mike Berardino:

  1. Bryon Buxton, of
    Miguel Sano missed
    the 2014 season after
    Tommy John surgery.
  2. Miguel Sano, 3b
  3. Jose Berrios, rhp
  4. Kohl Stewart, rhp
  5. Alex Meyer, rhp
  6. Nick Gordon, ss
  7. Nick Burdi, rhp
  8. Jorge Polanco, ss/2b
  9. Trevor May, rhp
  10. Eddie Rosario, of/2b

Now, a few comments:

  • This is largely last winter's list recycled. Only two names are different: Danny Santana (No. 9 last year) graduated to the majors, and Lewis Thorpe (No. 7), a teenage lefty, was good but not dominant in the Midwest League. They've been replaced by a pair of 2014 draftees, Gordon and Burdi.
  • Burdi is an interesting name because he's purely a bullpen candidate. Pitchers who make these lists are usually starters, because starters are more valuable. He ended 2014 in High A; I can easily imagine him reaching Target Field this summer.
  • The three right-handed starters who follow the Buxton and Sano megaduo were 3-4-5 last winter also, but in a different order. Then the list was Meyer, Stewart, Berrios. 
  • Rosario dropped from No. 6 last time around to No. 10. He had a rough 2014, but he rebounded nicely in the Arizona Fall League, and I can imagine him pushing his way into the left field job this spring.