Saturday, January 31, 2015

Prospect season, Day Two

Byron Buxton: Still on top of at least
one prominent prospects list.
The folks at's prospects division ( released their Top 100 Friday night, and Byron Buxton is No. 1

Yoo-hoo! Par-tay!

It doesn't make any real difference if the prospect gurus rank Buxton first or second, of course. If Buxton hadn't gotten hurt last spring, he probably would have gotten a callup when the Twins decided Aaron Hicks wasn't cutting it, which would have been before the All-Star break. He'd have gotten a shot in center before Danny Santana.

So in a very real sense, that Buxton is 1-2 on prospect lists this winter is a disappointment. I wanted and expected him to have graduated from such lists by now.'s list includes six Twins prospects, all of them in the top 36, so it's considerably higher on the Twins system (or at least the top six prospects) than ESPN's Keith Law. Besides Buxton at the top. has

Miguel Sano at 11
Alex Meyer at 29
J.O. Berrios at 32
Nick Gordon at 33
Kohl Stewart at 36

Every one of the six is ranked higher by than by Law.

Meyer, Berrios and Stewart are all right-handed starters, and their ordering figures to be the most interesting aspect of the various lists. Law had Berrios third among the trio and more than 60 slots down the list. As I've noted repeatedly, Law thinks Berrios is too short, with not enough life or plane on his fastball, to rank higher. (Not that the 97th overall prospect is release bait.)

That's his opinion, and he may be right. Or he may be wrong.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Prospect season opens

One sign that spring training is getting closer (besides the fact that the Twins Caravan and Twins Fest are already in the rear-view mirror): Prospect gurus are starting to issue their Top 100 lists.

Keith Law of ESPN published his Top 100 yesterday. It's for "Insiders," ESPN's online subscription service, and I continue for what I'll call political reasons to decline to subscribe, so I don't know a whole lot about his list.

I do know, from others, that:

  • Byron Buxton, last year's No.1, is No. 2 this year. (Kris Bryant of the Cubs system is No. 1)
  • The Twins have six players in Law's Top 100: Buxton; Miguel Sano (No. 15); Alex Meyer (30), Nick Gordon (43); Kohl Stewart (53) and J.O. Berrios (97).

That Buxton and Sano have slipped after injury-wrecked 2014s bothers me not a whit. Nor am I surprised that Law ranks Berrios behind Meyer and Stewart; Law is wary of Berrios' short stature for a right-handed pitcher. I'm a bit surprised he has Berrios in the Top 100 at all, in fact.

My unwillingness to sign up for ESPN's Insider service has nothing to to do with the quality of Law's work. Indeed, access to Law's work is really the only reason I ever consider signing up. And it's not because I philosophically oppose paying for content; I work for a newspaper that wants very much to find a way to monetize content.

No, my issue is that I already pay ESPN a goodly sum through my cable bill, and I don't see a need to further subsidize the Leviathan when there are other places to put my money for prospect information, specifically Baseball America and John Sickels.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Twins by position: Third base

His arm fracture
aside, Trevor Plouffe
has had a good winter:
a $4.8 million
contract for 2015
and a baby on the way.
Trevor Plouffe, theoretically, should have the firmest grip of his career on the third base job. He had a fine 2014. His defense was much improved over previous years, and he had the highest OPS+ of his career.

But ... here comes Miguel Sano.

Sano is not going to come out of spring training with the third base job. Even if some calamity befalls Plouffe, the organization will certainly insist that the Dominican megaprospect get his feet back on the ground in the minors first. Sano had Tommy John surgery before exhibition play began last spring, and the Twins held him out of winter ball.

So the job is Plouffe's at least for now. What happens when Sano is deemed ready for the majors is another matter. Terry Ryan made some waves this winter when he commented that Sano might try the outfield; when that came out, Ryan walked it back.

Plouffe -- or at least the 2014 version -- is a valuable commodity. Third base is an odd position, with a mix of hitting and fielding demands that few are adept at meeting. Many third basemen who can hit have trouble with the defensive demands of the position; many who can play the position well are below-average hitters. Plouffe last year was a bit above average both at the plate and afield, a rare combination.

And yet, I have no qualms about making this assertion: Plouffe is not good enough to block Sano. When Sano is ready, he should push Plouffe aside.

Whether that means a position shift -- remember, in 2012 the Twins expected to make Plouffe an outfielder -- or a trade remains to be seen. A year ago I would have doubted that there would be much of a market for Plouffe. Today there should be teams willing to surrender value for him.

Plouffe himself is coming off injury. He fractured his forearm on a tag play in the last home game of the season and had surgery shortly afterwards. Presumably he'll be good to go from the start of spring training.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Notes, quotes and comment

Chris Parmelee joins the
battalion of former Twins
in the Baltimore organization,
including Delmon Young,
J.J. Hardy and Steve Pearce.
When Chris Parmelee opted for free agency last month rather than accept relegation to Rochester, I suggested Baltimore was a likely landing place. And indeed, the Orioles this week announced that the 2006 first round draft pick had signed a non-roster deal with them.

The O's have had no small amount of success with Twins discards in recent seasons, and they'll see if they can replicate that with Parmelee. He's had 901 major league plate appearances and hasn't hit well enough to keep a 40-man roster job, but he has hit in the minors and seldom got a steady diet of at-bats with the Twins. There's no guarantee he'll get a steady diet of at-bats with the Orioles either, but Steve Pearce (who the Twins released out of spring training in 2012) broke through for the Birds last year after a very Parmelee-like career.


I griped at some length Monday about Rob Manfred's endorsement of the silly notion of banning drastic defensive shifts, so I should at least applaud this comment from the new commissioner: He's not interested in selling ad space on uniforms.

Hear, hear.


Hudson Boyd, a supplemental first round pick in 2012 who hasn't risen above Low A ball, will get to sit most of the first two months of the 2015 season after a second positive test for a "drug of abuse."

Wasted pick, apparently in more ways than one.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hall of Fame outfields

Jesse Barfield was part of a stellar outfield in Toronto
before being traded to the New York Yankees in 1989.
My Strat-O-Matic project last week had me playing with the 1987 Toronto Blue Jays, which got me thinking about great outfields.

If you're of a certain age, you remember the George Bell-Lloyd Moseby-Jesse Barfield outfield the Jays had in the mid to late 80s. All three ran well enough to play center field and threw well enough to play right. And hit? In 1987:

  • Left fielder Bell won the MVP. He hit .308 with 47 homers and 134 RBIs.
  • Center fielder Moseby hit .282 with 26 homers and 39 steals.
  • Right fielder Barfield bopped 28 homers (a year after hitting 40) and won a Gold Glove.

They were all just 27 in 1987. They'd been good for several years, and should have been good for several more. Instead, they pretty much dropped off a cliff. All three were gone when the Jays finally broke through to win the World Series in 1992 and '93.

In 1987, I would have been pretty certain that at least one of those three would wind up in the Hall of Fame. None will. And as I played a series with what was the best season of a great outfield, I found myself wondering: Has there ever been a team with a regular outfield of three Hall of Famers?

Three possibilities came immediately to mind: The Pirates during Paul Waner's career, the Tigers during Ty Cobb's, and the Philadelphia Athletics in the mid 1920s.

The Pirates in the mid 1920s were positively swimming in Hall of Fame outfielders. Max Carey was near the end of his career, Kiki Cuyler started his there before moving on, and the brothers Paul and Lloyd Waner spent years together with the Pirates.

Carey and Cuyler were regulars on 1925 team that won the World Series, but the Waners hadn't arrived yet. In 1926 the Pirates had a bizarre in-house controversy that resulted, among other things, with Carey being traded away and manager Bill McKechnie being fired.

Losing Carey at that point probably didn't hurt, but losing McKechnie likely turned a budding dynasty into a perennial disappointment. A case in point came in 1927, when new manager Donnie Bush clashed with Cuyler and benched him. The Waners were joined in the outfield not by a third Hall of Famer, but by Clyde Bigbee, who ... was not a Hall of Famer. Cuyler was traded away, and the Pirates spent years with "just" two Hall of Fame outfielders.

Eventually they got a third HOF outfielder, Fred Lindstrom, who actually spent most of his career as a third baseman. He spent two years in the outfield, 1933 and '34, with the Waner brothers, although he played in less than 100 games the second season.

In truth, Lindstrom and Lloyd Waner were poor Hall selections. (Paul Waner was a no-doubter). But they were selected for the Hall, and the 1933-34 Pirates had an all-Cooperstown outfield.

On to Cobb. It appears Cobb spent his entire career with at least one Hall of Famer in the outfield with him. First Sam Crawford, then Harry Heilmann with the Tigers, and with the Athletics in his final two years with Al Simmons.

The question is: Did he ever matched with a third? Answer: Yes. In 1924 Cobb and Heilmann were joined by Heinie Manush as a regular outfielder. There were other seasons in which Manush was a part-timer with Cobb and Heilmann. Manush is also a marginal HOFer, but he's in.

When the Tigers dumped Cobb as manager after the 1926 season, he moved on to Philadelphia, where he joined the young Simmons. Tris Speaker joined them in 1927, but was only a part timer.

But the next year, Speaker moved on to Washington, where he returned to regular duty between two other Hall-of-Fame bound outfielders, Goose Goslin and Sam Rice.

There are a few other cases in which teams had two Hall of Fame outfielders. For example, the Cardinals for much of the 1940s had both Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter. The Cubs in the 1930s had Hack Wilson and Cuyler. The Giants for a time in the 1950s had Willie Mays and Monte Irvin. But none of them had a third.

Monday, January 26, 2015

An unworkable fix to a nonexistent problem

Rob Manfred is now officially commissioner.
Sunday was Rob Manfred's first day as commissioner of baseball, and he opened the day with a notion apparently designed to make me miss Bud Selig: Banning defensive shifts.

Manfred didn't get detailed in his interview with ESPN's Karl Ravech on how this was supposed to work,  but the rationale is that runs scored have dropped the past few years as the shifts have become more commonplace, and he believes the fans want more runs.

Which they might. I don't necessarily need to see more runs, but I'm far from being representative of the masses. I would like to see more action, which is not exactly the same thing. I'd like to see fewer strikeouts and fewer walks, more balls in play and more baserunning. That might not result in more runs; it may well result in fewer runs.

I do believe this: The rise in the shifts that trouble Manfred (or, perhaps, that trouble certain people around Manfred)  and the rise in plate appearances that don't result in balls in play that concerns me, have a common cause: Sabermetrics.

Baseball's strategists know more about their game now than they did 30 or even 15 years ago because they have increasingly become open to the insights of the bookish outsiders. Those who reject analytics put themselves at a competitive disadvantage, and they increasingly fail and will continue to.

If the shifts have indeed disrupted the game's equilibrium -- which, as I'll get into shortly, is doubtful -- that equilibrium will recover. Hitters will either learn to "hit 'em where they ain't" or go the way of Jason Kubel, whose inability/unwillingness to adjust helped force him out of the game. ,

The rise in strikeouts is the more likely cause of a drop in offense. The prevailing belief of sabermetricians for decades was that strikeouts are just outs, that there was no real disadvantage to them. Indeed, because strikeouts rise with home runs and walks, a team actually benefits from having players who do all three things. I put it thusly some 20 years ago when complaining about Tom Kelly's obsession with making contact: Strikeouts are the exhaust of the power engine. You want home runs, you're going to get strikeouts as well.

That was a useful insight as long as nobody was acting on it. But last year the strikeout rate exceeded 20 percent. (It was 12.5 percent in 1980). The researchers told teams that they were too worried about hitter strikeouts; teams stopped considering that when evaluating players; strikeouts rose; and now offense is declining.

I suspect the shifts will, in time, work against the strikeouts. The shifts are employed largely against power hitters, pull hitters. If they are forced to go the other way, they'll have to cut down their swings. They'll make more contact. Hit a few balls into the vacated gaps, the defense will stop shifting,

There's no need to order fielders to stand somewhere that they know the hitter isn't going to hit the ball. The game will solve the problem, if there is a problem, itself.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

Honus Wagner claimed that one of his fondest memories of his illustrious career came in his third season.

A Giants player cracked a home run against Wagner's Pirates, and later, when Wagner crossed paths with the Giant, Honus said: "Nice hit."

The Giant replied: "Go to hell."

Why was that a highlight for Wagner? Because. the Hall of Famer recounted, "That was the first time any opponent talked to me."

Saturday, January 24, 2015

RIP, Ernie Banks

Ernie Banks in 1970, the year he hit
his 500th home run.
Ernie Banks, who died Friday, was a different kind of shortstop. He hit home runs.

There had been plenty of star shortstops before Banks, but -- with the exception of Honus Wagner, who was unique in many ways -- their offense was singles and speed. (Even Wagner, about as powerful a slugger as played in the deadball era, maxed out at 10 home runs in a season.)

Then, in the mid 50s, came Banks:

  • 44 home runs in 1955
  • 43 in 1957
  • 47 in 1958
  • 45 in 1959
  • 41 in 1960

No shortstop had hit 40 homers in a season before Banks. Until Alex Rodriguez came along, only one other shortstop -- Rico Petrocelli in 1969 -- hit 40. And Banks was doing it pretty much every year.

He didn't last at shortstop much beyond that stretch of 40 home run seasons. His knees became troublesome, he moved to first base, and the 40-something home run seasons became 20-something home run seasons. He did collect a Gold Glove as a shortstop, but the quality of his defense there is open to question, and he played more games in his career at first base than at short.

Still, one can overlook a few defensive failings in a shortstop who hits 40 dingers. He won back-to-back MVPs in 1958 and '59, even as the Cubs finished last both years.

Wrigley Field helped, beyond doubt. Banks hit 512 home runs in his illustrious career, 290 of them at home. He probably hit more 370-foot homers than anybody else in history.

But lots of men have had Wrigley as their home park over the years, and darn few hit 290 homers there.

Banks is remembered today for the relentless cheerfulness he projected, for the "Let's play two!" line with which he greeted every day, for his status as "Mr. Cub." He should be remembered as a racial pioneer -- the fans in Wrigley even today are often not hospitable to black players, even on the home team, as LaTroy Hawkins and Jacque Jones can attest. And he should be remembered as well for the uniqueness of his play.

A shortstop who hits home runs? It's a bit unusual now. It was unheard of until Ernie Banks showed up.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Baseball's version of 'Deflategate'

It has come to my attention that in the grotesquely popular spectacle/sport that is the NFL a controversy has erupted over whether a team tampered with the gameballs and garnered a competitive advantage by having said balls in sub-optimal condition.

For the baseball fan conversant with the history of the superior game, this is a big "been there, done that." And I'm not talking about spitballs, shineballs, scuffballs or any other pitcher shenanigans intended to enhance a pitch's movement. I'm talking about the ball before it's put into play.

The 1967 American League pennant race was a real doozy. Four of the 10 teams in the league -- Boston, Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago -- went to the final weekend for the pennant, and the first three teams were all still in it on the final day.

White Sox manager Eddie Stanky had a gifted pitching staff and a solid set of fielders but a lineup almost completely without power. This may sound odd to modern fans, used to the Sox as a collection of defensively challenged sluggers, but it was was typical of the White Sox back then; for decades, the franchise's operating philosophy was that if you never give up a run, eventually the opposition will make a mistake and give you one.

But even by White Sox standards, the '67 squad was challenged at the plate. Stanky, a disciple of Leo Durocher, came up with an inventive, if  unethical, solution for home games. The baseballs at Comiskey Park were stored in a damp storage room -- so damp, the story goes, that the balls (dozens of them) brought out for each home game had to be wiped clean of mildew and put in fresh boxes before being delivered to the umpires.

The soggy, moisture-laden balls didn't go far when struck solidly. Since the Sox didn't strike many balls solidly, that wasn't much of an issue for them, and the power gap with the opposition was thinned.

That may have worked for the Sox at home, but Stanky didn't have control over the baseballs for their road games. The Sox went 49-33 at home with the tampered balls, 40-40 on on the road. (I'm not sure how they wound up with an extra home game, but those numbers come from Baseball Reference.) As it turned out, the Sox had a better road record than two of the contenders, but they still finished three games out of first place.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Notes, quotes and comment

I skipped the Twins Caravan visit to Mankato Tuesday evening. Usually I have an excuse -- I work most evenings -- but this year I was off, and I still didn't go. I've seen enough of them to last a good long while.

So I missed Terry Ryan, who came down here to talk about the need for immediate improvement. I'm sure he didn't notice my absence.

The Free Press skipped the caravan visit entirely -- Tuesday is a heavy high school sports night -- but Rhett Bollinger of was there and filed this report.


And often is heard a discouraging word department: Johan Santana has been ruled out of the winter league playoffs with "discomfort" in the front of his left shoulder. It gets increasingly difficult to imagine him ever returning to a major league mound.


Here's something to make me suspect that MLB is serious about cutting the time of games; They intend to enforce the time gap between innings, which typically last longer than the rules allow.

This will disrupt TV producers more than the players. Which is fine by me. Baseball's attitude on TV should be: You're broadcasting the game, not controlling it. (Another one I'd like to see: If TV wants to show some between-innings thing, such as singing "God Bless America," fine -- but they don't get extra time to air their ads too.)

Don't take Price's complaint seriously, He is one of the slowest working pitchers in baseball. What's he going to do with those final 30 seconds? The same thing he does before every pitch. Nothing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

No players got burned this winter

The reported-but-not-yet-official signing of Max Scherzer by the Washington Nationals leaves just one qualifying-offer free agent left on the market, and nobody seriously doubts James Shields will get a multi-year deal to his liking.

Shields has been waiting for Scherzer, and Scherzer was waiting because that's what Scott Boras does. With Scherzer gone, Shields will be soon to follow.

Which means that nobody is is the compensation limbo that ensnared several players last winter and kept Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales out of action until midseason.

The Twins may have played a role in that by signing Ervin Santana to a four-year deal (and surrendering their second-round pick in June's draft). Last year Santana declined his qualifying offer from Kansas City and wound up accepting essentially the same money on a one-year deal with Atlanta. In March. He didn't take the financial bath Drew and Morales did, but it was hardly the bonanza he was expecting

I thought it possible, even likely, that he'd find himself again overpriced this winter. Didn't happen. Nor did it happen to Nelson Cruz, another late-signee last year.

I don't know if this signals a change in attitudes among the decision makers about the value of draft picks. It's possible there was concern from higher levels (like the commissioner's office) that another winter of stalled free agents would create labor unease. Rob Manfred, the incoming commissioner, has been Bud Selig's point man with the players association, and Manfred has done a pretty good job of picking his spots to weaken the union while still maintaining 20 years of labor peace. This, I suspect, would not the field he wants to provoke a battle on.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Twins by position: Second base (part two)

Brian Dozier was second among American League
second basemen in double plays turned in 2013, fourth in 2014.
In the first half of 2014, Brian Dozier was, by most advanced metrics, one of the better players in the league, approaching the levels of a MVP candidate. He tailed off a bit in the second half -- his slugging percentage was almost 50 points lower after the All-Star break.

But a big part of why he ranked highly in the first half was defense, and his defensive metrics by season's end were nowhere near where they were in the first half. (Baseball Info Systems's runs saved, for example, has him as a dead average defender last season.)

There are two possible inferences from this:

  • The first half sample size was too small. (Almost certainly true)
  • He was hampered in the second half by minor injury. (Quite possible.)

I know that, just watching games, I perceived plays not being made in August and September that were getting made earlier in the year.

Dozier turns 28 in May. It appears the Twins have turned away from the notion of Eddie Rosario as a second baseman, but Jorge Polanco is charging up the ladder, and he may be miscast as a shortstop. The conventional wisdom has Dozier as one of the foundation pieces for the Twins, but I remain a bit skeptical of that notion.

Monday, January 19, 2015

More money than brains

Out with the old, in with the new: Bud Selig and Rob
Manfred, outgoing commissioner and incoming commissioner.
Bug Selig, for years derided in my print column as "interim commissioner for life," is in his final week as commissioner. Rob Manfred, selected last summer as his successor, takes over on Jan. 25.

As part of the new era, the owners last week replaced almost all of the executive committee. The only holdover of the eight members is Bill DeWitt (Cardinals). Jim Pohlad of the Twins is one of the new members. Prominently displaced are last summer's three most vocal advocates of somebody other than Manfred for commissioner: Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox), John Henry (Red Sox) and Bob Castellini (Reds).

And, bizarrely, Fred Wilpon of the Mets was made the head of the finance committee.

Putting a pal-victim of Bernie Madoff in charge of the money is just deliciously stupid. Wilpon baked the expected returns from his Madoff "investments" into the Mets financial planning, and six years after the scam came to light, the Mets finances are still creaking.

Ah, the internal politics of baseball ownership. Baltimore was supposed to get the 2016 All-Star Game (the location generally alternates between leagues), but the Orioles and Washington Nationals are embroiled in a bitter dispute over how to divide the local television money. MLB (meaning Selig) is on the Nationals side, but Orioles owner Peter Angelos took the issue to court, and now the 2016 game will be in San Diego.

Selig is to be paid $6 million a year for life as "commissioner Emeritis" -- a title announced last week by Manfred that echoes the title for the retired Catholic pope. Meanwhile baseball is insisting in court that it cannot possibly raise the pay of minor leaguers to the level of minimum wage, and the Mets -- Mr. Wilpon again -- are reportedly extorting salary kickbacks from minor leaguers by charging them $1,000 to participate in "voluntary" workouts.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

The Yankees in the 1930s had a pitcher name Walter Brown, better known as Jumbo -- he was listed at 265 pounds, and regardless of the accuracy of that weight, he was clearly the biggest player in baseball.

Joe Mccarthy was reluctant to use the heavyweight -- except, for some reason, when the Yankees were in Philadelphia.

Asked why he used Brown more freely in Philly, Marse Joe replied: "It's the only way I know to fill Shibe Park."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Twins by position: Second base (part one)

Brian Dozier has
bounced between
the leadoff, second
and third spots in
the Twins batting
There may not be a more misunderstood talent on the Twins roster than Brian Dozier -- at least by the traditionalists in the team's broadcast booths.

I don't know how many times I have heard Dozier described on air by one of the broadcasters as "a prototype  Number Two hitter."

Set aside the sabermetric contention that the second spot in the lineup should be filled by the team's BEST hitter. What Dan Gladden and Bert Blyleven are thinking about is the traditional second hitter: a contact hitter, adept at the hit-and-run, generally not much power but a decent batting average.

That's not Dozier. Dozier is a pull hitter who strikes out 120 times a year and averages about 20 homers a season. He hasn't cracked .250 yet in his career.

It's the second-base stereotype. Teams generally find a lead off and/or No. 2 hitter from the middle infield because (a) shortstop and second base demand some mobility defensively and (b) speed is a desirable trait at the top of the order. (It is elsewhere in the order too, but tradition calls for speed at the top.)

Dozier's a second baseman who produces at the plate, just not in the way the traditional thinkers expect. If he were a third baseman with the same numbers, he'd make sense to them. (He'd also be Trevor Plouffe, but that's a future post.)

The Twins had a pretty productive lineup last season, and Dozier was no small part of that. He had 81 games -- half the season -- in the second spot, and it worked, but not because he's a traditional No. 2 hitter.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Contemplating Anthony Swarzak

Anthony Swarzak was a second-round draft pick in 2004,
the same draft in which the Twins picked Glen Perkins and
Trevor Plouffe.
The Twins jettisoned Anthony Swarzak back in November rather than offer him arbitration. On Thursday the Cleveland Indians announced that they had signed the right-hander to a minor league contract with the usual invitation to spring training.

When Swarzak went unclaimed in November, it signaled that no other major league team thought him worth his likely arbitration figure. Since he would presumably have taken a major league contract, the Cleveland deal tells us that no organization thought him worth a 40-man roster spot at any figure.

There are, of course, complications. For example, Swarzak is out of options, so a team that signed him to a major league deal would have difficulty sending him down. That's not an issue on this minor-league contract. A fringe player who has roster flexibility is more valuable than one without.

The Indians twitter account promoed the signing and highlighter Swarzak's strong suit:

Yes, Swarzak worked a lot of relief innings for the Twins the past three seasons. (I'm surprised there's somebody with more, frankly). They were generally low-leverage innings, and whenever the Twins tried to elevate his role, he was ineffective.

I suspect the Indians expect to have Swarzak in their bullpen this spring. I don't thinl he's going to make much difference.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Twins by position: First base

Joe Mauer turns 32 in April. His contract extends through
the 2018 season and no longer the longest committment
on the roster.
2014 was a year of high expectations at the plate for Joe Mauer. With the long-debated position switch from catcher officially in place, the three-time batting champ was expected to at least stave off the usual decline of age, and certainly to stay in the lineup more consistently.

Expectations were not met. It war arguably the worst hitting season of his illustrious career, and now he goes into 2015 with some question marks. Good hitting catchers, as an historic rule, fall off a statistical cliff early in their 30s, and Mauer was primarily a catcher though his age 30 season. Was 2014 the new normal for the veteran, or was it an aberration perhaps triggered by the serious concussion that put an early close to his 2013 season?

Even in 2014, Mauer was not a complete zero at the plate. He still led the team's regulars in on-base percentage, and his OPS-plus was still 7 percent above league average. He was still pretty good, but the Twins need more than pretty good from him.

In terms of depth behind him: Kennys Vargas remains and figures to enter the season as the primary designated hitter. Chris Colabello and Chris Parmelee were designated for assignment during the winter; Colabello was claimed by Toronto on waivers and Parmelee, who opted for free agency, is, as far as I know, still unsigned. Colabello and Parmelee got most of the first base time in Triple A; my guess is that a minor league free agent will handle the position for Rochester this summer.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Contemplating Johan Santana

Johan Santana threw two perfect innings Tuesday night in the Venezuelan winter league, his first "official" competition since 2012. He missed last season with a torn Achilles tendon and missed 2013 after a second surgery on his shoulder capsule.

The Daily News (New York) had reported that he was to throw three innings and up to 50 pitches. It wound up being two innings and 17 pitches.

Reportedly his velocity Tuesday was where it was last spring, when he was trying to launch a comeback with the Baltimore Orioles: upper 80s with the fastball, mid-to-upper 70s with the change. That's nowhere near the mid-90s velocity he displayed while winning two Cy Young Awards with the Twins a decade ago, but the separation between the fastball and the change-up is the key, and that separation is there if those velocity readings are correct.

I have a great deal of nostalgic fondness for Santana -- more than I do for Torii Hunter -- and I'll root him wherever he lands, but the reality is I don't think he and the Twins are a good fit. He's 35, 36 before the season begins, and far from a sure thing. He might make sense for a contender looking for rotation depth, but the Twins are not a contender and, in my opinion, have too many questionable veterans cluttering their rotation now.

If the Twins have a rotation spot available -- and I don't see it -- I would rather see it go to Alex Meyer or Trevor May. Invest it in the future, not in the past.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Arcia's achy back

I am generally loathe to get excited over wintertime injuries, but Oswaldo Arcia has been out for a while now in the Venezuelan winter league with back issues. He reportedly told his team last week that he was ready to return to action, but didn't report for duty during the weekend.

The outfielder had some back issues in September as well.

There's a lot of unknowns here: Is this the same injury, or a different issue? Upper back or lower back?

I have a certain amount of personal experience with back problems, and I am confident of this: If Arcia's having problems in his lower back, he also has -- or will have -- problems with his hamstrings.

At this point, I would think it wise for the Twins to get Arcia back to the States and find out what's going on with his core. That would be prudent, not an overreaction -- not after nearly two weeks and a promised return that didn't happen.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Twins by position: Catcher

Kurt Suzuki had a career
year hitting last season and
parlayed that into a two-year
contract extension.
I saw an item this weekend about the Arizona Diamondbacks' catching situation. Miguel Montero had been their No. 1 catcher since 2009, but his offense has been down the past two seasons, he has a sizable contract and he'll turn 32 this summer; the Snakes traded him earlier this winter to the Cubs for a couple of minor leaguers.

Now they're looking for catching help, and not getting anywhere. They have two on their 40-man roster: last's year's backup Tuffy Goeswisch, a 31-year-old with all of 55 games on his major league resume, and Oscar Hernandez, a Rule 5 draftee out of the Tampa Bay organization who was left off the Rays' 40 after repeating Low A ball.

It's not a promising duo. Yet when the Twins outrighted Eric Fryer -- their primary backup catcher for most of 2014 -- last month, Arizona didn't claim him. Presumably they didn't see Fryer as any sort of upgrade over Goeswisch or Hernandez, and certainly not as a guy they could start 125 games behind the plate.

Catcher is a unique position, the most supremely specialized of the non-pitching positions. Kurt Suzuki, the Twins No.1 catcher these days, doesn't do any one thing superbly, but he does everything well enough. If Suzuki stays healthy, the Twins are OK behind the plate.

Behind him ... well, there's Josmil Pinto, who hits better than Suzuki but is regarded as a poor receiver, and there's Chris Herrmann, who hits left-handed and has some positional versatility. In fact, the Twins list Herrmann on their 40-man roster as an outfielder.

Paul Molitor should already know this, but Herrmann doesn't hit well enough to merit sustained playing time in the outfield. If he makes the team, it's as a backup to Suzuki. Pinto hits well enough to merit sustained time at designated hitter, but Ron Gardenhire was reluctant to play him there without a third catcher on the roster, and now Kennys Vargas appears to have the first crack at the DH job.

And Fryer, while not on the 40, remains in the organization and remains the superior defensive option as Suzuki's caddy.

Were Gardenhire still the manager, I would assume Fryer will be the backup catcher. Who makes the roster figures to tell us something about Molitor's priorities -- how he balances hitting potential and defensive skills, and how he views the importance of the platoon advantage.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

Adrian Beltre, the superb third baseman of the Texas Rangers, is a rare species -- despite the wicked grounders and liners that are the usual fare at the hot corner, he doesn't wear a protective cup. He finds it too uncomfortable.

In 2009, playing for Seattle, he paid a high price when a wayward grounder nailed him in the worst place. Beltre hit the disabled list for more than a month with what was described as "lacerated testicles," a diagnosis that makes every male I know cringe.

When he returned, teammate Ken Griffey Jr. made suitable arrangements with the guy who plays the walk-up music at Safeco Field. Beltre was serenaded on his first trip to the plate with The Nutcracker Suite.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Still more Hall of Fame comment

Lest we forget: Craig Biggio
began his career as a catcher and made
the NL All-Star team at the position
the year before he moved to second base.
Let's see if I can't wrap this up and move on to other topics next week:

■ The BBWAA -- or at least past president LaVelle Neal -- seems pretty satisfied with the last two rounds of voting, and indeed the writers did select seven players the past two winters.

But six of them were first-timers on the ballot, and they only got four this year because more than half the electorate used all 10 ballot spots.

The key question moving forward is: Will the voters continue to cast deep ballots, or will they revert to voting for three or four rather than nine or 10? The 2016 ballot will include Ken Griffey Jr,, and he's a cinch, but the next first first-timer is Trevor Hoffman, and he's a more dubious candidate. There's an expectation that Mike Piazza will get in.

I'm a skeptic on the BBWAA voters, and will be until the body is pared back and/or the 10-candidate ballot limit is gone.

■ One reason John Smoltz may have vaulted past Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling is his three-and-a-half year sojourn in the bullpen. Smoltz racked up 154 saves in 2001-04 after having Tommy John surgery, then returned to starting in 2005 (and led the National League in wins in 2006).


This strikes me as faulty thinking. Position players don't get any additional love from the voters for making mid-career position switches. Craig Biggio, to cite another 2015 inductee, made the 1990 National League All-Star team as a catcher in 1991, In 1992 he was a second baseman. There were plenty of arguments put forward on Biggio's Cooperstown credentials, but nobody argued that he belonged because he could catch AND play second base AND outfield.

Smoltz, in a sense, followed the Dennis Eckersley track to the Hall. Smoltz was a better starter than Eckersley, and the Eck was probably a better reliever, but if you split Eckersley's career in two -- here's a starter, and here's a reliever -- neither's getting in. Do the same with Smoltz, and I'm not sure he does either. Those 154 saves tend to differentiate his stat line from Mussina and Schilling.

But nobody can seriously believe Mussina and Schilling couldn't have been just as dominant in relief. They weren't relief pitchers because they could start, and starters are more valuable. Smoltz spent those years in the bullpen because of his injury and surgery. It's more a weakness than a strength. He was good enough at it that he certainly didn't hurt his case with his bullpen years, but it shouldn't have helped.

The same is true for Biggio. He moved to second base in part because he wasn't all that good a receiver. His catching days aren't a part of his Hall of Fame argument. He was good enough to play there, not good enough to stick there.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Blaine Boyer, bullpen candidate

The Twins this week signed Blaine Boyer, a 33-year-old right-handed reliever who spent last season with San Diego, to a minor-league contract with the proverbial invite to major league camp.

Boyer's bounced around quite a bit. The Twins will be his fifth U.S, organization, and he spent 2013 in Japan. He has eight seasons (full or partial) in the National League -- yes, the Twins have signed yet another NL refugee -- with a career ERA of 4.63.

For the Padres last season he had an ERA of 3.57 while walking just eight men in more than 40 innings and hold right-handed hitters to a .178 batting average. These look like decent numbers. Yet the Padres cut him loose in November and he was unable to find anything better than a minor league deal in January.

There's no risk to this signing. There's also no real reward to it. Boyer's just organizational depth. If he's pitching in Target Field, something's gone wrong with the bullpen plans. I would much rather see someone younger, if less experienced, get the opportunity.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Curt Schilling vs. John Smoltz vs. Mike Mussina

John Smoltz was voted into the Hall of Fame on his first try. Curt Schilling, in his third year on the ballot, was not. Lagging even further behind was second-year candidate Mike Mussina.

Schilling responded by speculating that he is hurt in the balloting by being a Republican.

This notion brings to mind the adage about not attributing to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetency. Schilling should be particularly grateful for that adage, given the spectacular collapse of his electronic gaming enterprise, 38 Studios, and the $75 million hit that failure put on the state of Rhode Island's economic development fund. Adhering to that adage allows me to assume that Schilling was an incompetent businessman rather than that he was running a fraud.

And if something off field accounts for Schilling not garnering enough support for election, I think it more likely that the 38 Studios fiasco is responsible, not Schilling's politics. After all, Smoltz is a Republican too.

That said, I don't know why Smoltz drew instant enshrinement while Schilling and Mussina wait. It's one of those goofy BBWAA things, I guess.

Player A: 216-146 (.597), 3.46, 3,116 strikeouts. Postseason record 11-2, 2.23
Player B: 210-147 (.588), 3.26,  154 saves. Postseason record 15-4, 2.67
Player C: 270-153 (.638), 3.68. Postseason record 7-8, 3.42

Player A is Schilling. Player B is Smoltz. Player C is Mussina.

As far as I'm concerned, all three are deserving. I just don't see that Smoltz set himself apart from the other two.

And, for what it's worth, Player D, Jack Morris, now off the ballot:

254-186 (.577), 3.90, Postseason record: 7-4, 3.80. Mussina, Schilling and Smoltz are all clearly better.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Big Unit in Minnesota

Randy Johnson's 1990 Topps card. He
may be the ugliest great player in
baseball history.
I keep a mental checklist of the great pitchers I've seen in person.

Roger Clemens, at least three times. Greg Maddux twice. Tom Glavine and John Smoltz -- the latter one of four players elected Tuesday to the Hall of Fame --  in the 1991 World Series. I saw Jim Palmer and Steve Carlton with a foot out the door. I rearranged my schedule to see Pedro Martinez (another winner Tuesday) almost a decade ago. Curt Schilling. Bert Blyleven, of course. Jim Kaat started the first major league game I attended.

I never saw Randy Johnson. The Big Unit spent a big chunk of his career in the National League, and for a variety of reasons our schedules never meshed. The year Arizona came to Minnesota for interleague play, for example, Johnson was on the DL.

And, supposedly, when he was with the Mariners. Lou Pinella sought to avoid pitching Johnson at the Metrodome. The story was that Johnson's father was buried in Duluth and the pitcher, when the team came to Minnesota, would make the trip north to visit the grave, and Pinella thought that made Johnson emotionally unprepared to pitch.

True or false?

For his career, Johnson made 11 starts in the Metrodome, which sounds like a low figure but isn't hugely out of line with other AL parks (excluding Seattle and New York, the two AL teams he pitched for). He had, for example, 13 starts in Kansas City, 11 in Detroit and nine in the White Sox's two stadiums.

But presumably, if the grieving-son theory is correct, it took a few starts for Pinella to deduce a pattern. Johnson's Metrodome starts by year for Seattle:

1989: 2
1990: 2
1991: 1
1992: 0
1993: 2
1994 :1
1995 :2
1996 :0
1997: 0
1998: 0

It sure does look as if Pinella was avoiding using Johnson at Minnesota at the end.

For what it's worth. Johnson had a career ERA in the Metrodome of 4.11, more than a run above his career ERA. But it's worth remembering that he didn't become good, much less great, until 1993, and he had a big chunk of his Minnesota starts behind him at that point.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Hall of Fame prediction

Last year the BBWAA chose three players for induction into the Hall of Fame -- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas -- and thought it had really done something. But it was just standing still. The writers plucked the three best newcomers to the ballot, but still left themselves with a massive backlog of overqualified candidates.

There is a general expectation that three more first-timers will be in when the vote count is announced today -- Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. The real question is, will the writers make any progress on the backlog, or will they continue to run to stand still?

My expectation is that Craig Biggio will finally get in. He would have last year had it not been for the silly 10-player-maximum. He missed by two votes, and plenty more writers than that who had 10-player ballots left him off for space reasons. That mistake will not be repeated.

The folks who keep tabs on announced ballots say that Mike Piazza has a shot at being a fifth with the necessary 75 percent. My guess is that he'll fall short this year. The thing with the ballot tabulators is that they're dealing with public ballots, and the writers who reveal their ballots early are generally:

  • active baseball writers who need something to write about;
  • casting full, or nearly full, ballots

That's only a fraction of the electorate. The bulk of the electorate are retired or covering something other than baseball and voting for a couple of players a year, and aren't releasing their votes early or ever. Candidates shown by the tabulators to be drawing around 75 percent, as Piazza is this year, generally fall short of that figure in the end.

I hope Piazza does get in. A five-man induction crew would make a dent in the backlog. But I don't expect it.

Unit, Pedro, Smoltz, Biggio. That's my prediction.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Sutter and Quis: A Hall of Fame riddle

Dan Quisenberry appeared just
once on the BBWAA ballot, in
1996. He drew just 18 votes.
Here's a question that occurred to me over the weekend while playing Strat-O-Matic with the 1987 Royals:

Why is Bruce Sutter in the Hall of Fame and Dan Quisenberry not?

Pitcher A: 68-71, 300 saves, 2.83 ERA in 1,042 innings pitched. Led his league in saves five times, six-time All-Star, won a Cy Young, was the closer on a World Series champion, compiled 24.5 career WAR (by Baseball Reference).

Pitcher B: 56-46, 244 saves, 2.76 ERA in 1,043 innings. Led his league in saves five times, three-time All-Star, was second twice in Cy Young voting, was the closer on a World Series champion, compiled 24.9 career WAR (by Baseball Reference).

Pretty darn close, I'd say.

Pitcher A is Sutter. Pitcher B is Quis.

I think there are two reasons Sutter's in and Quisenberry isn't.

First: Sutter was the more influential figure. He played a major role in popularizing the split-finger fastball, "the pitch of the '80s." Sutter and Roger Craig, really, Craig a pitching coach and manager who taught the pitch to dozens of hurlers over the years and was really an evangelist for it. It's not entirely clear to me that Sutter's split-finger and Craig's were precisely the same pitch, but for about a decade it was one of the big topics in the game.

Sutter also marked a milestone in the evolution of the closer. He was the first relief ace who was actively held back for save situations. Before him, ace relievers were used in the late innings of close games. Ties, slightly behind, slightly ahead.

You can see this in the stats. Consider the Twins relief aces in the Gene Mauch years:

  • 1976: Bill Campbell was 17-5 with 20 saves in 167 innings
  • 1977: Tom Johnson, 16-7 with 15 saves in 146 innings
  • 1978: Mike Marshall, 10-12 with 21 saves in 99 innings
  • 1979: Marshall, 10-15 with 32 saves in 142 innings
  • 1980: Doug Corbett 8-6 with 23 saves in 123 innings
Sutter never had a 20-decision season in his career, and his career high in innings -- 122 -- essentially was the last good season of his career.

Bruce Sutter was inducted into
the Hall of Fame in 2006.
Sutter's workload was restricted by reserving him for save situations. Not, mind you, the ninth inning -- he still entered games in the eighth or even seventh innings at times. (The ninth inning refinement came with Dennis Eckersley in Oakland later in the '80s.) Sutter was really the first reliever whose workload was defined by the save rule.

Second, one of the major story lines in the 1985 postseason was how Kansas City manager Dick Howser hid Quisenberry, particularly in the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Quis had what was a typical season for him to that point. He led the league with 37 saves and threw 129 innings with a 2.37 ERA. But he started struggling more against left-handed hitters that season, and the Jays lineup featured a lot of platoons. Toronto's left-handed hitters -- particularly Al Oliver -- feasted on Quis in the first few games of the series. Howser worked around the problem in the final two games of the series by starting a righthander (thus getting the Jays lefties into the lineup), switching early to one of his left-handed starters (forcing the Jays to pinch hit for the lefties), which left the righties to face Quisenberry at the end.

In short, in one of the biggest moments of his career, Quisenberry was defined by a flaw. That memory had staying power, especially since his struggles with left-handed hitters only worsened from 1985 on.

I'm not entirely sold on Sutter's Hall of Fame worthiness, so I'm not exactly upset that Quisenberry isn't in. It just seems odd that Sutter was seen as markedly better than Quis. He wasn't.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

Yogi Berra was a coach for the Houston Astros in the late 1980s. One day he climbed into the whirlpool and yelped in mock pain.

"What's the matter?" asked a trainer. "Is the water too hot?"

"I don't know," replied Berra. "How hot is it supposed to be?"

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Berardino ballot

Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press has been taking considerable grief on social media over his Hall of Fame ballot, in which he games a flawed system.

He left both Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, admittedly worthy candidates, off his ballot, ont he grounds that they won't need his vote to get in, and used that space to include Larry Walker and Alan Trammell, candidates he believes need his vote more.

Berardino doesn't need my approval, but he's got it. His ballot isn't particularly close to my theoretical 10, but there's no joke votes cast. He didn't drop Randy Johnson from his list so he could vote for Eddie Guardado. He voted for legitimate candidates who wouldn't be out of place with a plaque.

I not only understand why he did what he did, I think his approach is inevitable because of the structural flaws in the process, in particular the maximum-of-10 ballot and the 5 percent-or-out rule.

Berardino's 10, alphabetically:

Jeff Bagwell
Craig Biggio
Edgar Martinez
Mike Mussina
Mike Piazza
Tim Raines
Curt Schilling
John Smoltz
Alan Trammell
Larry Walker

I not only had Pedro and the Unit on, but Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens as well. I left off Schilling, Walker, E. Martinez and, the one that irks me most to leave off, Piazza.

Berardino was reading the tea leaves and decided that votes for Johnson and Martinez would just be piling on for them, while votes for Trammell and Walker might be necessary to keep them on the ballot. Had I an actual vote, I would have been tempted to leave Johnson and Martinez off as well, and cast the "extra" votes for Schilling and Piazza.

There are just too many deserving candidates on the ballot and too many goofballs in the electorate to work through the backlog. The system needs an overhaul.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Not invited to the bullpen party

The six pitchers who will be in the Twins major league camp as non-roster players -- J.O. Berrios, Tyler Duffey, Mark Hamburger, Taylor Rogers, Ryan O'Rourke and Adrian Salcedo -- fall into two categories.

Three of them -- Berrios, Duffey and Rogers -- are starting pitchers, each of whom have reached Double A at least. They have no chance of making the major league roster out of camp; not only are they not on the 40-man roster, but there are at least seven pitchers in camp ahead of them and probably more.

Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, Ricky Nolasco, Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, Alex Meyer, Trevor May, Logan Darnell -- these guys have, at the least, all had big league starts. The three non-roster starters will be jockeying for position to sub in for the older arms as they fail or get hurt or both.

Hamberger, O'Rourke and Salcedo are more likely bullpen candidates, although both Hamberger and Salcedo got a few starts last season as well. They too spent 2014 in the upper levels of the farm system, and O'Rourke and Salcedo at least posted intriguing strikeout rates.

I've suggested before that the Twins need to shake up their bullpen, and they have discarded two staples of recent seasons in Jared Burton and Anthony Swarzak. But they also invested in veteran free agent Tim Stauffer. There are bullpen openings, but barring injury we should expect to see Glen Perkins, Stauffer, Brian Duensing and Casey Fien in the bullpen, That's four of the seven jobs already locked down, and probably the four most important roles to boot.

O'Rourke might compete with Caleb Thielbar for a LOOGY job. Hamberger and Salcedo might compete with the likes of Ryan Pressly, Lester Oliveros and others for a utility pitcher spot. None of the pitchers in this paragraph figure at this point to get high-leverage innings.

Left out of this equation are the Twins' high-end bullpen prospects: Nick Burdi, Zach Jones, Jake Reed, J.T. Chargois. This quartet of power arms haven't gotten out of High A ball, and two of them spent much of 2014 recovering from significant arm surgeries, but they represent a more significant opportunity for improvement.

They won't be in major league camp next month. But maybe new manager Paul Molitor and new pitching coach Neil Allen will hear the gloves popping on the minor league side and wonder what's going on.

Burdi in particular might be major-league ready right now, but the Twins are habitually cautious. In his specific case, I believe, too cautious.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year

I can't say, as 2015 opens, that I am particularly optimistic about the Twins chances -- or direction -- this season.

The best I can realistically hope for is that it becomes the bridge season -- the transition to a team built around Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano -- that 2014 was supposed to be. Injuries wrecked that hope for 2014. Now both megaprospects have to regain their status after a lost year.

I suspect this corner of the Internet will be more critical of the Twins management in 2015 than it has been in recent years. This is not a resolution so much as a growing sense that they've failed to keep up with the changes in the game. I'd like to be proven wrong on that, but some of the most significant moves they've made this offseason are simply dismaying to those of us who accept the insights of sabermetrics.

If there is a New Year's resolution in this, I suppose it's that I won't let another lousy record by my favorite team ruin the 2015 season for me. I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised, but I'm not expecting much.