Saturday, February 28, 2015

Molitor's cell phone restrictions

Paul Molitor has instituted a clubhouse ban on the use of smartphones and tablets starting a half-hour before gametime. While this may seem commonsensical to those of us of Molitor's age. it's drawing a rather different reaction from some younger observers:

Molitor's rule echoes something I saw in the immediate wake of the Kevin Garnett trade, before the prodigal forward reported to the Timberwolves. Supposedly one of the veterans was warning the younger players: If KG sees you on a smartphone in the locker room, he'll flush it down the toilet.

There are other workplaces that limit Internet access to what is necessary for the job. I would think that a player with a problem with being cut off from social media immediately before or during the game is also a player with an attention problem.

That said, there has been many a manager who set out at the start of his tenure to establish stricter rules who ran aground on player resistance to those rules. I don't expect Molitor to be one such, but it's hardly impossible. These players, after all, are from a generation much more Internet attuned.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Another try for Johan Santana

The Minnesota Twins have two Santanas -- Danny and Ervin -- on their roster and in training camp. They won't have a third, despite some speculation about five weeks ago,

Johan Santana signed a minor-league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays this week. For the Jays, it's a lottery ticket; for Santana, it's yet another attempt to resurrect his once-brilliant career.

I will always want Santana to succeed. I don't think it's particularly likely, and as I said last month, Minnesota in 2015 doesn't seem like a good fit for him. No team is a good fit if he can't keep his shoulder attached, of course, but the Twins already have too many veteran starters clogging the way for the prospects.


In another bit of ex-Twins news, Nick Punto decided last week he'll sit out the 2015 season. He had signed a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he opted against reporting to major league camp.

Supposedly Punto is leaving the door open to a return in 2016, but really: He's 37 now, and this was the first offseason since he left the Twins in which he wasn't getting offers from contenders. Taking a year off will neither make him younger nor sharpen his skill.

So I assume he's done. Which is a bit surprising. I always figured Punto would be one of those guys who would play until absolutely nobody wanted him. Instead, he pulled his plug before the D-backs could.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

TK, back and gone

Tom Kelly, some five months after a stroke, showed up at training camp this morning ready to go.

That's the good news. The bad news is that he's giving up the part-time Fox Sports North gig.

Maybe so. But at least he has a point, not vague, out-of-date cliches.

It's his life and his health, and I'm in no position to tell him what to do with either. But I'll miss his occasional turn as analyst next to "Richard."

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Two days of bullpens ...

J.R Graham is wearing No. 62 in camp.
... and no reported injuries. That's a plus. All 29 pitchers in camp have thrown now, and we'll see if any have issues coming back.

It's silly to try to glean any meaning beyond that from the first mound work of the spring. But people try to extract something anyway.

So we get stuff like Phil Hughes (who threw his bullpen on an adjacent mound) talking about how much more Ricky Nolasco's sinker was moving than he remembers it from last year. Maybe that's a good sign; maybe it's meaningless. The Twins certainly expected more from Nolasco last season than they got.

Mike Berardino, in one of those pieces bursting with spring training optimism, suggests that the Twins' revamped rotation could provide 1,000 innings. I'll be surprised if that happens. If it does, this team will be pretty good.

There was chatter about J.R. Graham. the Rule 5 draftee. He comes with a reputation as a high-velocity arm with injury problems. As a Rule 5 pick, he has to spend the year on the 25-man roster or be offered back to the Atlanta Braves. The Twins see him as a bullpen option, but he's unfamiliar to the organization and the window to decide is small. His first bullpen probably got a bit more attention because of that, but when the time comes to say yea or nay to him, nobody in the room is going to cite what he did in his first bullpen session.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Neil Allen and the changeup

If we're looking for something specific that new pitching coach Neil Allen brings to the Twins, it might be this: a commitment to the changeup.

Mark Simon of ESPN back in November tweeted a ranking of MLB teams by percentage of changes thrown during the past three seasons (2012-14). Tampa Bay led the way by a wide margin -- 18.1 percent of  their pitches were changeups, and the next highest figure was 14.2 percent. The Twins were 17th, at 9.3 percent, a bit more than half the Rays' rate.

Allen, of course, wasn't the Tampa Bay pitching coach during that period, But he was their Triple A pitching coach and had a hand in the development of almost every every pitcher the Rays developed -- and the Rays developed almost every pitcher on their roster.

It seems odd to think of the Twins as a below-average change-up team. It wasn't that long ago that the Minnesota staff boasted some of the best changeup artists in the game -- Johan Santana and Brad Radke, for certain, and Francisco Liriano's change was often touted even through he seldom tried to actually get outs with it with the Twins.

But this stat fits with the current reality of the Twins. We tend to associate strikeouts with velocity -- the overwhelming fastball overpowering hitters. The reality, at least in the majors, is that the fast ball can get you to two strikes, but strike three most often comes on something else -- a breaking ball or the change. The Twins staffs with the outstanding changeups ranked high in strikeouts; the Twins staff without did not.

If in fact Allen is a stronger advocate of the changeup than Rick Anderson was, let us hope he's not going to force the issue on Phil Hughes. Part of Hughes' turnaround last year came from discarding his changeup almost completely. If Kyle Gibson and Hughes don't have effective changeups -- and I believe they don't -- it's not a good idea to make them throw it.

Anderson does leave behind a couple of starting candidates who rely heavily on their changeups. Tommy Milone ranked 13th in MLB in 2014 in percentage of changeups thrown (100 LP minimum), according to Simon. And the change is regarded as Trevor May's most effective offering.

Of course, right now it's difficult to imagine the Twins rotation with both Milone and May in it.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Throwing and watching bullpens

Time to get back on the hill for Glen Perkins and the
rest of the Twins pitchers.
The first official workout of Twins camp is today. The full squad stuff is still a week away, but the pitchers get to start throwing now. (There are, certainly, plenty of hitters in camp as well, but they don't have to be and the formal workouts for them come later.)

In a very real sense, some of the most important developments of the spring will occur this week as pitchers find out what their arms are capable of -- especially the guys who are either coming off surgery or who put off surgery in hopes that rehab would suffice.

Pitchers are pitchers. They are all injury risks by definition. But here are four names to monitor in the early bullpens:

Glen Perkins, the All-Star closer who was shut down last September. The expectation is that rest and rehab will "fix" his shoulder problems. If he's hurting, the bullpen plans will require a major makeover.

Mike Pelfrey, who had elbow surgery in June and was throwing bullpens late in the season without any chance of getting back onto the roster. He figures to be on the outside looking in for a rotation berth, but the Twins have a much larger financial commitment to him than to the other candidates and Terry Ryan has repeatedly deflected questions about Pelfrey as a reliever.

Ricky Nolasco had a miserable season to debut his four-year contract, and he spent about a month on the DL in midsummer. He avoided surgery and actually pitched well in September (one true clunker of a start in five outings that month), The Twins have a sizable investment in the 32-year-old, and the only way he won't open the season in the rotation is if he is injured.

Tommy Milone, the lefty acquired in midseason from Oakland who had a benign tumor removed from his neck. Milone's record with the A's is much better than he showed in his handful of starts with Minnesota, and he is probably the favorite to come out of camp with the fifth starter's job.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

As pitchers and catchers report this weekend, let's close up this winter's Sunday Funnies with a spring training quip.

Dick Schofield Sr. had a lengthy (19 year) but undistinguished (.227 lifetime batting average) career as a utility infielder.

He appeared in games with seven teams, but this story concerns a team he didn't make, at the tail end of his career. He was in camp in 1972 with the then-California Angels, wearing number 58 -- a high number for a position player even today, and a rarity at the time.

Veteran pitcher Eddie Fisher eyed the infielder's uniform number and inquired: "Is that your age, or the number of teams you've been with?"

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Twins by position: Designated hitter

Josmil Pinto: A DH
trying to be a catcher.
The Twins have long been reluctant to have a full-time designated hitter. The preference has been to rotate several players through the job, giving regulars a break from defensive chores while keeping their bats in the lineup. Jason Kubel came close in some seasons, but he generally got steady doses of outfield time.

The rotation system was particularly useful when Joe Mauer was the regular catcher. Catcher is a brutal position, and few last long catching 140 games and up a year. Having a rotation system at DH allowed Ron Gardenhire to give Mauer a weekly break behind the plate while keeping his bat in the lineup.

Last year, with Mauer now a first baseman, the Twins dabbled in a full-time DH for the first time since they dumped David Ortiz -- first with Kendrys Morales, and after dumping the veteran on Seattle, with Kennys Vargas.

Vargas enters camp as the presumptive favorite for the job. But he faded rather sharply in September -- August batting average .308, September-October batting average .228 -- as he displayed a rather surprising lack of command of his strike zone.

That was a point of emphasis for him in winter ball, and we'll see if his focus on patience carries over this spring.

If Vargas fails -- and there are those in the scouting community who doubt he can hit enough for the job -- the Twins have another option in Josmil Pinto, a "catcher" whose defensive chops are a genuine handicap. Vargas had, in his two months with the Twins, an OPS+ of 115 in 234 plate appearances; Pinto's OPS+ in 280 major league PAs over two seasons is 118.

Pinto may indeed be a better hitter than Vargas. But the lure of a good-hitting catcher is strong, and the Twins are less likely to let Pinto simply slot into a bat-only slot simply on that basis. Vargas will get the first crack at the job. But if he looks like the Vargas of September, the Twins shouldn't be reluctant to try Pinto in the DH role. They certainly don't seem inclined to trust him behind the plate.

And if they both fail, there's also Oswaldo Arcia, who seems better suited to DH than the outfield.

Friday, February 20, 2015

At the margins

Commenter Jim H writes of yesterday's post:

Defensive metrics are often very misleading especially at the margins. There are of important defensive attributes that either not measured by defensive metrics or not measured very well by them. Throwing, positioning, taking good routes, just making the plays you should make, are all things Hunter can still do.  Playing half of his games in a park that doesn't require great range will help as well.

Which is, simply, wrong. Let's take those four sentences in reverse.

Playing half of his games in a park that doesn't require great range will help as well.

Target Field is one of the more spacious outfields in the majors, particularly in the gaps. It does demand range from the corner outfielders.

Throwing, positioning, taking good routes, just making the plays you should make, are all things Hunter can still do.

If he is still doing them, where are the plays? They are going unmade. That's the conclusion of plus-minus (Hunter was -28 in 2014, -38 for 2012-14); of runs saved (-18 in 2014, -13 for 2012-14); of total zone fielding runs (-17 in 2014, -22 for 2014-14); ultimate zone rating (-18.3 in 2014, -11.2 for 2012-14) ... all different systems, all coming to the same conclusion. He's bad, and he's getting worse. 

There are of important defensive attributes that either not measured by defensive metrics or not measured very well by them.
If he's positioning himself better than other right fielders, he's still not making the plays. If he's throwing better than other right fielders, he's still not nailing base runners or making them hold their base. These are things the metrics include, perhaps imperfectly, but more accurately and objectively than the eyetest.

Defensive metrics are often very misleading especially at the margins. 
If Jim H is talking about playing time margins, he's right on one end (the lack of playing time, as exampled in Thursday's post by Danny Santana and Eduardo Escobar.) The more playing time, the more accurate the metrics figure to be. That's the playing time margin Hunter occupies.

If he's talking about the best and the worst rating, he's just wrong. That's where the action is.

There is a margin of error in all this. Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that the margin of error is three runs per 1,200 innings. A dead-average outfielder scores at 0. So he might be as good as +3, he might be as poor as -3, but he's in the middle.

Hunter's not there. Hunter's at -18. Maybe that overstates how bad he is by 3 runs. So he's minus 15 instead, Big whoop. He's still awful. There's just as good a change that he's really minus 21, which is even worse.

Hunter's metrics are, or should be, compelling precisely because he's on the outer edge.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Twins by position: Right field

Torri Hunter's hitting improved
after he left the Twins as a free agent
after the 2007 season. 
The most irritating aspect of the Twins offseason is the blithe assertion that Torii Hunter remains a good defensive outfielder.

Hunter, of course, was a perennial Gold Glove center fielder in his first go-around with the Twins. Now he's 39 and has played strictly right field since 2011, when he was with the Angels. The Twins will move Oswaldo Arcia to left to make room for the veteran.

Both Terry Ryan and Paul Molitor, during the press conference at which they paraded the signing, dismissed the defensive metrics that rank Hunter at the very bottom of regular outfielders. And they did so in a manner that suggests that they don't get it.

I am not claiming that the new-age measurements of defensive range and effectiveness are perfect. They aren't. But the flaws in the various systems are, if anything, minimized in the case of Hunter.

The metrics won't tell us much about the Twins shortstop contenders. The most devoted adherents of the metrics say the numbers need time -- three years of regular play. Neither Eduardo Escobar nor Danny Santana have enough time to make the numbers meaningful as an evaluation tool. In their cases, the eyeball test remains necessary.

Hunter is a different case. He has had three years of regular play -- three years of steadily declining proficiency. In 2012, (this is Baseball Info System's runs saved measurement) he was four runs to the good; in 2013, he gave away nine runs; last season, he was 17 runs worse than the average right fielder.

Ryan and Molitor don't care what the numbers say. We watched him play 30 or so games, the new manager said at the press conference, and he made the plays.

What the new manager is saying, in effect, is: We trust our subjective judgement in a fraction of the games more than an objective measurement over the full season. That makes little sense to me.

Nor does Ryan's insistence that the Twins outfield defense last year was acceptable or even good. It wasn't. The objective numbers tell us that, of course, but so did the eyeball test. It makes me wonder if the Twins have gone so long playing slow and awkward corner outfielders -- Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Josh Willingham, Chris Parmelee, Arcia, Chris Colabello -- that they've lost track of what a good corner outfielder looks like.

Outfield defense was, emphatically, part of the problem last year (and the year before that). The day is long past when Hunter could repair that. He may not look as misplaced in the field as Willingham did, but he will still be part of the problem.

And the problem won't be solved until the general manager and manager acknowledge that there's a problem.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The story of three PED users

The A-Rod letter of apology.
Andy Pettitte admitted using performance-enhancing drugs. The Yankees announced this week that they will retire his number and honor him with a plaque in Monument Park.

Jason Giambi admitted using performance-enhancing drugs. When the 44-year-old former MVP announced his retirement this week, there was an outpouring of respect and affection around the game.

Alex Rodriguez on Tuesday released a hand-written letter of apology to "the fans" for "mistakes" that led to his season-long suspension last year. He is drawing near-universal scorn.

There are differences among these three, not least of which is that A-Rod continued to use even after the game's culture shifted. I am much more forgiving of players who used steroids in the heart of the Selig era, when there was no real rule against using and a culture that essentially expected use. That's when Pettitte used. That's when Giambi used.

A-Rod used then too. But he also used after the rules changed.

Does the apology matter? Not to me. Rodriguez is a baffling figure; he had every baseball gift a player could ask for, and it was never enough. I cannot pretend to understand what drove him to use even after it became anathema. Unlike Barry Bonds, Rodriguez seems to want to be liked; he just doesn't know how to get there. I don't think he can get there -- at least, not without opening a vein of humility and detailing not just the what but the why in a way that isn't self-serving and defensive.

He doesn't have to do that, and I don't expect him to. Giambi and Pettitte didn't either, and they still have the admiration around the game -- certainly from the media -- that has eluded Rodriguez for years and probably always will.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jarod Burton and the bullpen he leaves

Jarod Burton spent three years in the Minnesota bullpen with steadily worsening ERAs: 2.18 in 2012, 3.82 in 2013, 4.36 last year. The Twins declined his option early in the offseason, and it took him until the week before camps open to land even a non-roster deal (with the Yankees).

I don't know how likely Burton is to land a roster spot with the Yankees, but I find it noteworthy that the guy elevated to the closers role when Glen Perkins was shut down last September didn't find a market.

I had expected Burton's departure to be just the start of a larger bullpen shakeup this winter, and the Twins did also jettison Anthony Swarzak (who also wound up with a non-roster deal). But Brian Duensing and Casey Fien return as the presumptive setup men to Perkins. and the free-agent signing of Tim Stauffer does not suggest that the Twins intend to push some of their young live arms into the bullpen.

Which is too bad. Duensing and Fien are not high-end arms. Fien was, according to the Bill James Handbook, the non-Perkins reliever used in the highest-leverage situations last year, and he wouldn't be one of Kansas City's top four right-handed relievers. If Fien and Duensing are the guys Paul Molitor relies on in the seventh and eighth innings, the bullpen will not be a true strength,

Monday, February 16, 2015

Ball Four

Jim Bouton's basic Strat card
with the Seattle Pilots, 1969.
I promise, I'm not going to go into detail here about my Strat-O-Matic project. Nothing is more boring than somebody else's fantasy team, except perhaps somebody else's solitaire fantasy league. (If' you are for some reason interested in the project, click here.)

But I did want to comment briefly on why the 1969 season appeals so strongly to me. That was the summer I discovered baseball. The Twins were good (there's a argument to be made that, even though they didn't get to the World Series, the 1969 Twins were the best team in their Minnesota tenure).

And it was the season that provided the grist for Ball Four, a truly marvelous book. A sensation and a scandal when it came out in 1970, it was an insider's version of professional baseball by a player with an outsider's viewpoint. Jim Bouton had been a star pitcher on the Yankees in the final years of their dynasty; he was, as he compiled the diary book, a marginal pitcher trying to hang on.

The powers that be didn't appreciate the book. Its publication probably helped shorten Bouton's career, although a 5.40 ERA didn't help much either. But it played no small role in making the young me a baseball fan.

What a book. There's stuff on the Mantle-Ford-Maris Yankees of the early-mid 1960s, there's the one sub-glorious year of the Seattle Pilots, and there's the constant ferment of the culture. Race, Vietnam, changing sexual mores, the rise of the players union -- Ball Four isn't just baseball, it's baseball in the context of America in a specific time.

If you haven't read it, you should. And if you have read it, it's worth the re-read.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

Another Rocky Bridges story: In 1958, he was somehow selected to the American League All Star team as the sole representative of the Washington Senators. (He hit a whopping .263 that year.)

"I never got in the game," Bridges recalled years later, "but I sat on the bench with Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Yogi Berra. I gave 'em instruction in how to sit."

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Back to the future

Harmon Killebrew's best season, as portrayed by
My set of 1969 Strat-O-Matic super-advanced cards arrived Friday, and I expect to be rather entranced by baseball past for quite a while.

I make no apologies for being, at least for now, more interested in baseball seasons far removed from today. I'm not impressed with the team the Twins are likely to take north a few weeks from now, and as I started going through the 1969 cards I had a sense of being reunited with some old friends.

There are all kinds of ways to be a baseball fan, and nostalgia is one of them.

Back to the future. There's talk of tightening the current strike zone, a move that, if it happens, will parallel 1969.  I'll expound on that subject if and when something actually happens. I suspect it will, and I'm not opposed.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Jorge Polanco's winter

Jorge Polanco had a
pair of brief callups
last summer but figures
to open 2015 at
Double-A Chattanooga.
Baseball America's Matt Eddy had this item Thursday on potentially significant winter ball seasons. While he didn't mention Oswaldo Arcia, he did have Kenny Vargas at No. 4.

And another Minnesota prospect whose winter has flown under the radar at No. 3: Infielder Jorge Polanco.

Unlike Vargas and Arcia, Polanco's winter hasn't featured signs of a breakthrough in a problem area. But unlike Vargas and Arcia, Polanco's never exhibited difficulty commanding his strike zone. His numbers in the Dominican League looks like his numbers in the minors to date.

But, as Eddy notes, the interesting thing is that Polanco's been playing second base this winter. Last summer he was at shortstop; the previous two summers, mostly at second.

I'm not inclined to read anything of significance into that. Not yet. The Twins have a little say in how their players are deployed in winter ball, but the Caribbean teams do have their own interests (winning) first, and Escogido had Pedro Florimon playing shortstop. Even if the Twins did have veto power over where Polanco played, they might well have decided that it's advantageous to keep him sharp at the keystone.

I really like Polanco's game. I think he has a better chance of being a consistently productive hitter than Danny Santana has, because he has consistently displayed better walk-strikeout ratios. (Look at the numbers in Eddy's chart: 12 BB, 15 Ks.) What I don't know if if he's going to be a second baseman or a shortstop. Part of that decision depends on whether his athletic ability (agility, throwing arm) is pitched high enough for shortstop. Part of it will depend on where an opening is (or can be created).

Right now, Brian Dozier is at second and the Twins have a mystery at shortstop. But either can change.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Twins by position: Center field

Jordan Schafer hit .285 for the Twins
in the last two months of 2014.
If we ignore Danny Santana, who enters spring training a presumed shortstop, the Twins will open camp with three center fielders with multiple seasons of major league experience: Aaron Hicks, Shane Robinson and Jordan Schafer.

Hicks is 25 and a .201 career hitter in 538 plate appearances spread over two years.

Robinson, a non-roster invitee signed after the Cardinals let him go, is 30 and a .231 career hitter (five seasons, less that 500 plate appearances)

Schafer is 28 and a .229 hitter (five years and nearly 1,400 plate appearances).

You can draw up various platoon possibilities out of these three. Schafer is left-handed, Robinson right-handed, Hicks a switch hitter. You might still envision Hicks as a regular, although that notion is increasingly dubious. No matter how you deploy this group, you get inadequacy. These are, at best, bench guys,

The best center field talent in camp (and this is true even if we count Santana as a center fielder) are two prospects coming off disappointing 2014s and ticketed for Double A: Byron Buxton, who had repeated injuries, and Eddie Rosario, who served a 50-game drug suspension.

Despite his 2014 stall, I still believe that if the Twins simply handed the center field job to Buxton this spring and let him play all year, his floor is something like .260 with 10 homers, 30 steals and Gold Glove caliber defense (assuming, of course, that he stayed intact). Rosario would probably put up a better batting average but with fewer steals and lesser defense.

You know to a dead certainty that the three "major leaguers" aren't going to come near those numbers. Not a dead certainty, but close to it, is that the Twins front office won't let Buxton sniff the majors until the second half of the year at the earliest, and Rosario isn't going to be fast tracked either.

The Twins have reasons to slow play Buxton and Rosario. They would do better to look for reasons to play the kids, not to look for reasons to keep them in the minors. Let the kids play.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Jack Morris, in-demand analyst

Jack Morris will join the Detroit Tigers broadcast team as part of a three-man analyst rotation with incumbent Rod Allen and newbie Kirk Gibson.

My initial reaction to that news Tuesday was a combination of pleasure at the notion of being rid of Morris' old-school commentary and sorrow for Tigers fans, who will get the same. (I don't know Allen's work enough to speak to the quality of it, but he seems off my blog browsing and Twitter feed to be well-liked.)

Then I learned that Morris isn't leaving the Twins broadcasts. The idea seems to be that Morris will work on the Tigers broadcasts in midweek and the Twins broadcasts on weekends. And he will continue with his "special assistant" duties for the Twins as well.


I'm well-aware that I'm not the viewer the Twins and/or Fox Sports North worry about capturing. Teams and broadcast outlets tend not to trust the game to entertain the fans and want the announcers to be at least a fall-back for that purpose. For me, that just gets in the way. I'm going to be watching the games no matter who's on, and if the game is bad an announcer's shtick is merely annoying,

So I'm very likely to have the sound off, and Morris' vapid "analysis" (and, to be sure, that of Bert Blyleven) is very much a reason to regard the mute button as a blessing.

At least the Twins broadcasts haven't embraced the three-man booth concept, which is apparently part of the Tigers' plans. Three announcers is at least one too many, frequently two too many.

A quality major league announcer is good on his own. Vin Scully works alone; Bob Uecker's sidekick is apparently expected to stay out of his way during Uecker's innings. I have no doubt that Cory Provus would be a good soloist.

But nine innings is a long time for one man to keep up a stream of constant chatter, especially in an era when hitters stroll around the home plate cutout between pitches and Mike Pelfrey takes a half-minute to work up the nerve to throw his next pitch. There's going to be two announcers. That's reality.

I just wish they'd show me the game and get out of the way,

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Draft order set

James Shields came to terms with the San Diego Padres, which means the order for June's draft is set.

The Twins draft, as detailed here by Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press, 6, 73 and 80. They surrendered the 47th pick when they signed Ervin Santana.

Also via  Berardino, Baseball America estimates the Twins will have a draft pool of $7,691,684. They figure to have the 12th largest pool.

Berardino echoes the conventional wisdom, that giving up that second round pick is worthwhile if Santana stays healthy. That's a sizable if. Santana is 32 and has quite a bit of mileage. Long-term contracts for pitchers have a tendency to sour quickly. I was neutral on the signing at the time but concerned about the number of veterans blocking the prospects. Nothing's happened this winter to change that.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Twins by position: Left field

Oswaldo Arcia has struck out in more than
30 percent of his major league plate appearances.
Oswaldo Arcia took a step forward in 2014, but that step still left him a bit shy of being an established, reliable major league regular.

His slash line of .231/.300/.452, while good enough for an OPS+ of 108 (or 8 percent above league average), was marred by an ugly walk-strikeout ratio of 31 BB, 127 K. Coupled with what has become his customary shoddy defense, it's difficult to see that he was any real help last year,

The Twins are shifting him to left field this year so Torii Hunter can play right, and I have seen suggestions from the Twins front office that he should be better in left than in right, apparently in part because they believe he was (my term, not theirs) spooked by the overhang.)

But the Target Field overhang doesn't seem like that big a deal to me. It certainly shouldn't be an issue in road games, Arcialooked pretty poor in left when he played there in 2013. (He was playing left field when a foul ball hit him in the head.)

In truth, I don't know of any reason for Arcia to be as poor defensively as he is, but I don't know why Delmon Young is as bad as he is either.

There are three obvious, and significant, areas for Arcia to improve:

  • Defense. See above.
  • Strike zone judgment. This piece by MLB,com's Jesse Sanchez suggests that, as with Kennys Vargas in Puerto Rico, this has been a point of emphasis for Arcia in winter ball (in his case, in his native Venezuela).
  • Hitting left-handers. Arcia's OPS last year against righties was .848; against southpaws, a dismal .574. 

Arcia turns 24 in May, so there's room for growth. Right now, he's looking like a Latin version of Jason Kubel: A lefty best fit for DH duties and a candidate for a platoon. Kubel was a useful player for a few years, but the Twins didn't do a particularly good job of highlighting his strengths and masking his flaws. Maybe Arcia can at least negate some of his flaws. This year may go a long way toward determining that.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

Rocky Bridges, who died on Jan. 27, was a well-traveled utility infielder-minor league manager-raconteur, a baseball lifer who always had a cheek bulging with chaw and a funny story on his lips.

Eleven seasons in the bigs split among seven teams, a lifetime batting average of .247 and probably 247 ancedotes. I'm surprised, really, that I've done the Sunday Funnies for four winters and never used a Rocky Bridges story.

So let's rectify that ...

Bridges is managing in El Paso, and he's coaching third base when one of his players, Ethan Blackaby, hits a home run. As Blackaby rounds third, Bridges extends his hand in congratulations -- and presses his well-chewed wad of tobacco into Blackaby's palm. Blackaby took the chaw in stride -- and passed it on to on-deck hitter Tom Egan at home plate

It was Egan who nearly got sick.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Al Michaels' Metrodome paranoia

It's always good to have a reason to run a photo of the
1987 Twins celebrating.
Al Michaels was at the Metrodome for all four World Series games in 1987; he was doing the play by play for ABC, the network telecasting the games in that bygone era.

He believes the Twins pumped in artificial crowd noise.

I was at those games too, as a paying customer. I'm quite certain the noise was genuine.

Now, I've been at a couple of Vikings games -- I go about once every 12 years or so just to remind myself how horrid NFL games are to attend -- at which I was certain the crowd noise was fake. Why? Because there was a certain level of sound and then an instantaneous burst of noise, with no buildup -- and because when I looked around my section, there was almost nobody yelling.

That was emphatically not the case in the 1987 Series. When I looked around while in full-throated roar, everybody else was doing the same thing. There were a lot of hoarse Series attendees exiting the Dome after those games.

And the Twins made it easy for us to yell and keep on yelling. In several of the big innings there were strings of first-pitch hits. The crowd gets excited about a hit, and the next guy immediately smacks a line drive, and things just keep escalating.

Look, I'm under no illusions about the 1987 Twins. They weren't the best team in baseball that year. Over the course of the full season, St. Louis was better, and Detroit was better, and Toronto was better, and several other teams were better. But the Twins got into the tournament and were the team that won eight games, so they are the champs.

I understand the impulse to suspect gamesmanship for a weaker team winning the title, whether it's the air-intake vents blowing in the opposite direction or recorded crowd noise. There's an easier, less conspiratorial reason: It's baseball. The weaker team can win a short series. That doesn't require skulduggery. And I don't believe the 1987 Twins used any.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Kennys Vargas and the base on balls's Rhett Bollinger reports that Kennys Vargas had a goal while playing winter ball in his native Puerto Rico: Be more patient at the plate.

So he drew 33 walks (with 30 strikeouts) in 37 games. Which is nothing like his MLB ratio last season: 12 walks and 63 strikeouts in 53 games (234 at-bats).

Obviously, there is a big difference between the pitching in the American League and the pitching in the Puerto Rican winter league. But just as obviously, he did take a more patient approach.

I hardly expect him to have more walks than strikeouts. But I do think he should be expected to draw more walks. He certainly did in the minors. Last year in Double A before his call up, he was averaging about a walk for every 10 official at-bats (43 BB, 405 AB); in 2013, in high A, 50 walks, 520 at-bats. But after his call-up it was closer to one walk for every 20 at-bats, and that's just not sustainable.

Better strike-zone judgment is an imperative for the big guy. His minor league record suggests he has it. His winter league emphasis suggests he gets it.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The last big free agent

Last month, when Max Scherzer settled on the Washington Nationals for his next team, I opined that none of the compensation pick free agents had gotten burned this winter by deciding against taking the qualifying offer.

A couple of weeks later, James Shields is still out there.

I have a difficult time believing that he's going to get truly burned. I still expect that he'll land a multi-year deal, and probably at an annual rate higher than the $14.6 million of the qualifying offer.

But the chatter earlier this winter -- that he'd turned down a $110 million offer -- has faded away, and the current rumors have him likely to settle for something under $100 million total, maybe less than $80 million. Which would be darn good money for thee or me, but something of a disappointment for him.

Is there an opportunity for the Twins to swoop in? Probably not. In the abstract, I'd rather have Shields than Ervin Santana, but Santana was willing to sign in December and Shields wasn't, and even at $80 million Shields would be considerably more expensive than Santana, I certainly wouldn't sign Shields unless I was dead certain I could move Ricky Nolasco's contract, and I can't see that happening.

Still, it's a curiosity that Shields remains on the market. His durability may be working against him; he's entering his age 33 season, he's topped 200 innings each of the past eight years, and teams may suspect that sooner or later some body part is going to give out. He's likely being picky about where he goes (there's chatter that he's more interested in pitching for a California team, and he's probably not interested in a building project.)

Whether it's his choice or that of the individual teams, he's still out there. And until he signs, we can't close the door on the compensation pick issue for this offseason,

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A difficult sell

This tweet floated across my timeline Tuesday morning and made me laugh.

Of course there was no interest expressed by the Twins. Pitching an outfielder to them on the basis that they need outfield gloves? The Twins, at least for public consumption, profess to believe that

  • Their 2014 outfield defense wasn't bad and
  • Torii Hunter is still a good outfielder.

Neither belief is backed by objective evidence, of course. The objective evidence says that the Twins had the worst defensive outfield in the majors and that Hunter was the worst regular outfielder in the majors.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have a problem. The Twins aren't there yet.

Even if they were there, Tony Gwynn Jr. isn't a reasonable solution, He gives them nothing they can't/won't get from Jordan Schafer, Aaron Hicks and Shane Robinson. He's a backup outfielder, a glove and legs who can't hit well enough to be a 140-game starter.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Twins by position: Shortstop, part two

As I see it, the Twins this spring have a choice between a adequate but unspectacular shortstop (Eduardo Escobar) and a slightly younger one with a higher ceiling and a lower floor (Danny Santana.)

I also see signs that other teams see Escobar as better suited to a reserve role than as a regular.

During the winter meetings, both Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan described Escobar as having hit 40 doubles. Which he didn't. He hit 37. (Had he been the regular shortstop all year he probably would have gotten to 40, but he sat behind the punchless Pedro Florimon in April.)

The inference I drew from this modest puffery of a player they are inclined to bench: They were trying to drum up a trade market. Historically, a bona fide regular shortstop is worth a starting pitcher, and that was a likely goal.

But nobody bit, and with spring training just a bit more than two weeks away, it appears the Twins will have both Escobar and Santana.

If Santana is to be the regular shortstop in 2015, this winter was probably the peak of Escobar's trade value. Instead, he's likely to serve as an insurance policy for Santana.

And given the genuine questions about Santana's defense at a defense-first position, that might sound like the wisest course -- except that the Twins also have Jorge Polanco climbing the ladder rather rapidly. Polanco might be better suited for second base, but he was named the best defensive shortstop in the high A Florida State League in Baseball America's annual poll of league managers.

I beleive in Escobar more than I do in Santana. But I do see a logic in giving the superior athlete a clear shot at the job -- this is, after all, a building project, not a team likely to lose the pennant by screwing up the shortstop position. If Santana fails, there's not only Polanco but Escobar to turn to.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Twins by position: Shortstop, part one

Eduardo Escobar turns a double play last season.
Shortstop is one of two positions at which the Twins won't enter camp with an obvious starter.

Or maybe the starter is obvious and I just don't want to admit it.

Danny Santana is going to play somewhere. He was too good last year -- .319/.353/.472 slash line, OPS+ 30 percent above league average -- not to. But there are buts: He never performed anywhere near that level in the minors, and ought not be expected to match that level of production.

He did that hitting while playing mostly centerfield, an unaccustomed position. He was mostly a shortstop in the minors -- short with a little second base, and he hadn't played second in more than a year.

Paul Molitor has been pretty emphatic about Santana this offseason: He wants to return Santana to his accustomed role as a shortstop.

There are three problems with that plan in my eyes:

  • Santana is, as long as Bryon Buxton is ruled out of the majors after his injury-riddled 2014, probably the best of a sorry set of choices for center field;
  • Santana has never been regarded as a good or even average defensive shortstop in the minors;
  • Eduardo Escobar, who emerged as the regular shortstop last season, did nothing to suggest that he needs to be replaced.

I'll discuss the center field situation in a future post, so set that aside for now.

Escobar hit .275/.315/.406 last year with 37 doubles. His OPS was 102, two percent above league, which is perfectly acceptable for a shortstop.

Question: How sustainable is that level of production for Escobar?

The general view seems to be that he's not really a league average hitter. I'm not quite so dismissive. It's easy to lose track of this fact: He spent basically a year and half rotting on the bench for two teams (White Sox and Twins) in his age 23-24 seasons. The Twins sent him to Triple A for the second half of the 2013 season, and he mashed: .307/.380./.500. He opened 2014 on the Twins bench, got a chance to play when Pedro Florimon flopped, and performed well enough that Ron Gardenhire never worked up the nerve to pull him for Santana despite hints from the front office.

Question: How good is his defense compared to Santana?

This is a case in which I hesitate to turn to the defensive metrics. Even the most avid defenders of the various systems will readily concede that it takes three years to get a sufficient sample size for the numbers to measure ability, and we don't have even a full year at short for either in this case.

For what it's worth, the runs saved system rates Escobar for his career as -2 as a shortstop per 1,200 innings, meaning he costs his team two runs compared to an average defensive shortstop. It puts Santana at -4.

What that is worth isn't much. This is truly a case in which the eyeball test is relevant. And I know of nobody who has watched much of Santana in the minors who's been impressed with his defense. The tools, yes. The use of them, no. I watched him some in spring training last year before they sent him down, and he was giving away outs.

I can't say that Escobar looked like Ozzie Smith, or even Florimon, in the field last year, but I'm comfortable with asserting that he's an average defensive shortstop. He doesn't have great range, but he's not giving away an out a game.

An average defensive shortstop who can hit a bit is not to be idly discarded. Which is something I'll explore in a followup post.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

Wilcy Moore had one big year as a major league pitcher, but it was for one helluva team: The 1927 Yankees. Moore, a 30-year-old rookie, went 19-7 and led the American League in ERA that year. In his other five seasons, Moore was 32-37 with a 4.33 ERA.

Moore was also a dreadful hitter, and before the 1927 season Babe Ruth put up $300 to Moore's $100 that Moore wouldn't get three hits all season. Moore got six hits (batting average of .080), and Ruth paid off.

That winter, Moore sent Ruth a note from his farm: "The $300 came in handy. I used it to buy a fine pair of mules. I named one Babe and the other Ruth."