Thursday, February 23, 2017

Molitor's misplaced notion on Polanco

Paul Molitor once again this weekend aired his discontent with the handling last season of Jorge Polanco -- specifically that the young infielder played not an inning of shortstop at Triple A.

The implication is that Polanco's play at the position when he was called up was damaged by rust. Nonsense. His shortstop play was poor because he lacks the tools to be even an average major league shortstop.

Polanco has, according to Baseball Reference, played more than 3,348 professional innings at shortstop, more than 2,145 innings at second base. He was essentially a full time shortstop in 2014 and 2015 -- and he wasn't any better a shortstop at the end of 2015 than he was at the beginning of 2014. Two or three more months at shortstop wasn't going to change that.

I doubt that Molitor is delusional enough to believe otherwise.

Earl Weaver was famously the sole believer in 1982 that Cal Ripken Jr. was a shortstop. But Ripken -- who had played third base in the high minors and for a half season in Baltimore -- took to the position immediately. He never resembled a pinball bumper out there as Polanco has.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Automatic intentional walks? Boo on that

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

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

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



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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Bulk numbers of starters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

Roster spot competiton

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

Let's assume that


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

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

Start with a list of givens:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pic of the Week

Eduardo Escobar is having a good day at spring training.

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

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Gardy's cancer

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

How hard to work Castro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The state of the Twins farm system

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

Each gave me something to grump about.

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

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


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Perkins pitches (kinda)

There were no official workouts in Twins camp Tuesday, reporting day for pitchers and catchers. But Glen Perkins had his first post-surgery bullpen session: Fifteen pitches off a mound at about 75 percent effort.

And the initial report was that all was well with his surgically reconnected left shoulder.

Fifteen pitches is about an innings worth. 75 percent is something short of maximum effort. But it was Feb. 14, and nobody expected -- or wanted -- Perkins to throw like he needs to get Mike Trout or Jason Kipnis out.

We may well pay too much attention to Perkins' bullpen sessions this month. He has been a stellar relief ace in the past, and a successful return to that status would be a significant boost to the team. But we should monitor Perkins patiently and realistically. He'll be ready when -- and if -- he's ready.

The shoulder apparently passed this test. There are many more ahead.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Pitchers and catchers report

The forecast in Fort Myers, Florida, for today: Highs in the low 80s with sunny skies.

And baseball.

Ptichers and catchers report today. The first official workouts are Wednesday -- spring training is starting early this year because of the World Baseball Classic -- but there have been unofficial workouts already, with reports of Byung Ho Park batting-practice heroics and robot lawmowers traversing the berm behind Hammond Stadium's left field wall:







One may be relevant to the 2017 Twins. Perhaps neither is. But man, I'm happy to have baseball back.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Tigers after Mike Ilitch

Mike Ilitch in 2014.
Mike Ilitch, the beloved and big-spending owner of the Detroit Tigers (and the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL, and the founder of Little Ceasar's pizza), died Friday. He was 87.

Ilitch's death raises the genuine possibility that the Tigers will pull back from the win-now philosophy that has reigned there the past decade or so. Ilitch, who played minor league ball in the Tigers chain before knee injury forced him to find a different (and ultimately more lucrative) occupation, wanted a World Series title before he died. He didn't get it.
The word out of Detroit in the wake of Ilitch's death was that

  • the Ilitch family will retain the teams; the Tigers and Red Wings will not be put up for sale;
  • an Ilitch son has been the effective owner of the Tigers the past year or so and was the one who made the decision at the start of this offseason to stay the course with lots of veterans and a large, luxury-tax inducing payroll.

It seems possible to be that a different decision may have been made had the elder Ilitch died in, say, August. Mike Ilitch may not have been as active an owner as he once was, but I doubt there was any appetite for telling him to abandon those championship dreams.

Yet the odds were getting worse for the Tigers every year. The Tigers' arrow is pointed down. Miguel Cabrera and Jason Verlander are still outstanding players, but they are a bit less than they were five or six years ago, and they aren't getting younger.

Mike Ilitch fired Dave Dombrowski two summers ago when Dombrowski concluded that it was time to jettison some veterans and get younger. Ilitch didn't have time for a retrench and rebuild approach. Christopher Ilitch may conclude otherwise in the next year -- only he won't have Dombrowski, one of the most adept team builders in the game, making the moves.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Sunday Funnies

Alvin Dark managed one team (the 1974 Oakland A's) to a World Series title. He managed another (the 1962 San Francisco Giants) to the World Series and a Game Seven loss. And he managed some really bad teams in Kansas City and Cleveland as well.

"In Oakland," Dark once said, "we won by relying on speed and pitching. In San Francisco, we won by relying on power and pitching. In Cleveland, we relied on acts of God."

(This concludes the Sunday Funnies for this offseason; pitchers and catchers report on Tuesday, and I expect to resume the Pic of the Week feature next Sunday -- and the Monday print column the following day.)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

In Deed, Ed: My Ray Christensen story

The death of Ray Christensen, legendary radio voice of Gopher football and basketball, is a bit stale now as news, but the Twins keep making moves as spring training nears, and that's provided fodder for this blog all week. Better late than never, however.

Since this is a baseball blog, I want at least some tie-in to baseball, and here's the tie-in, tenuous as it is: Christensen was part of the Twins radio crew for three seasons or so in the early 1970s. (Most of the obituaries say three years, but Herb Carneal's autobiography says they worked together four years.)

But Christensen did many other things for WCCO back in the day besides sports. One of them was cohosting (with Steve Edstrom) an evening trivia game called "Honest to Goodness," which aired on weekday nights during the non-baseball season (and on nights when there were no Gopher or North Stars games on the Good Neighbor).

Listeners sent in postcards with their name and phone number, and a card would be pulled, and the number called, and Christensen and Edstrom would chat with the contestant and pose the question. The prize started at $8.30 and rose in increments of $8.30 (for 830, obviously).

I sent in a card. It was probably 1973 -- maybe 1972, but I think '73 -- and one night, with the amount building, I was called.

The puzzle was something like this: "A six letter word that consists of two letter, each used three times." It might have been "verb" rather than "word" -- I'm a little hazy on some of the details. And I did not have the answer.

I don't remember much of the conversation. I remember hanging up, excited about having been called and being on the air, and disappointed that, despite a pretty extensive vocabulary, I didn't win,

And I remember that within minutes of being on the air, the answer came to me.

The decades have passed. But still, I cannot see the word "deeded" without thinking of Ray Christensen.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Notes, quotes and comment

Byung Ho Park cleared waivers and was outrighted Thursday to Rochester. He'll be in training camp as a non-roster invite.

I had thought that somebody (Tampa Bay came to mind) might see a chance to pick up some right-handed power on a long-term but reasonable contract. It didn't happen, and Chris Carter illustrates why I was wrong.

Carter led the National League in homers last year, but the Brewers cut him loose anyway, and it took months before he found a new team: the Yankees, at $3.5 million for one year. (I'm not really sure why the Yankees wanted him, but they apparently figured the price was right.)

I suspect that, assuming Park is recovered from his hand/wrist issues, that he's at least as good a hitter as Carter, and I'm confident that Park is a better defensive first baseman. But Carter has established that he's a genuine major league power hitter -- flawed but genuine -- and Park has not. And Carter isn't going to get paid much more than Park in 2017.

There has been no market for right-handed first base-DH types.

---

Right handed reliever Pat Light, who like Park had been designated for assignment by the Twins, was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Light was awful in his 14 innings with the Twins last year (15 walks), and there are probably a dozen arms in the minor league system I'd rather see in the majors this year than Light.

---

Bad news on the Glen Perkins front: He felt something in his shoulder and has pushed back his first scheduled bullpen session. I never really expected his return to be glitch-free. Patience. If he's going to make it back, it won't be immediate.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The return of Craig Breslow

Wednesday's news: Left-handed reliever Craig Breslow, aka "the smartest man in baseball," agreed to a minor-league deal with the Twins

This minor deal is intriguing because it has a past, present and future.

That was then


I promised myself years ago that I would stop relitigating (to borrow a current favorite of political spin doctors) the Twins' handling of Breslow in 2008-09, but I remain certain that the Twins lost the 2008 division title because Ron Gardenhire refused to use Breslow in meaningful situations.

The Twins picked him up on waivers from Cleveland in 2008, and even though he was the most effective non-Joe Nathan reliever the Twins had that year (at least until Jose Mijares was called up), Gardenhire didn't trust him with games on the line. Breslow got five holds and one save, but the save came in a three-inning stint in a game won 12-2. He coughed up only one lead all season, but of his 13 September appearances, nine came in games the Twins lost.

He had a 1.63 ERA in 2008, and the Twins lost out on the divisional title in a Game 163 -- a winnable division lost because of repeated multi-reliever meltdowns involving almost any arm in the pen except Breslow. Gardenhire viewed him strictly as a second LOOGY and mop-up man; he could have, should have, been more prominent.

He had a rough start in 2009, and the Twins waived him after just 14.1 innings. Oakland scooped him up, and he's had a pretty good run since -- although with a noticable decline in performance the past three seasons. Breslow is 36 now, so that's not a great surprise.

This is now


Faced with obsolence, Breslow has re-engineered his delivery, moving to a lower arm slot. In theory, this should make him tougher on lefties. Even though he has often been deployed as a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY), his platoon splits have generally been pretty even: .705 OPS vs righties, .693 vs. lefties. He hasn't been helpless against righties, and he hasn't been a true lefty killer either.

If the new delivery does what it's supposed to, Breslow might actually fit the way managers keep trying to use him. 

But the Twins have plenty of other LOOGY possibilities -- Ryan O'Rourke, Taylor Rogers, Buddy Boshers -- on their 40-man roster, not to mention Glen Perkins, a lefty reliever who might be on the roster but not in the closer role. It's not a given than the new delivery will work, and it's not a given that Breslow will make the roster even if it does.

What might be


Breslow told Ken Rosenthal that he had better offers elsewhere but chose the Twins with an (implied) eye to a post-playing role:


“The thing that resonated the most with me was the idea that I could impact the culture and impact the direction of the organization for longer than potentially my stay there might be,” Breslow said. 
“Derek (Falvey) is a really engaging and bright guy with a great vision for the organization. I’ve got no doubt that he’ll be able to be able to bring sustained success. The opportunity to be part of that at this stage of my career is one that is really compelling.”

Breslow has academic credentials unmatched in baseball (Yale degree, majored in molecular biophysics and biochestry). It's easy to imagine him in some sort of future role merging analytics and coaching.

But that's in the future, if at all; for now, the smartest man in baseball is trying to figure out how to get the next hitter out, how to extend his playing days.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Shaking the glove tree, Day 2

The Twins on Tuesday signed veteran outfielder Drew Stubbs to a minor league contract with invite to major league camp.

That makes two days in a row that the Twins came up with a player more known for his glovework than his hitting.

Stubbs was once regarded as a promising prospect with power and speed. In 2010 he hit 22 homers and stole 30 bases for Cincinnati. He followed that up with a 205-strikeout season, and things pretty much deteriorated from there. He hasn't been a regular since 2014, and he split last year among three different organizations. He has a career slash line of .244/.314/.394, which isn't strong for an outfielder, and he's on the wrong side of 30 now.

Still, one can imagine a scenario in which Stubbs emerges with a share of an outfield job. He could be the right-handed complement to Eddie Rosario in left field -- a platoon with some offensive liabilities but featuring two players capable of playing center field. He's a better fit for that role than J.B. Shuck, who was signed earlier in the offseason to the same kind of contract.

The new front office has added some defense to the roster options, starting with Jason Castro, who is assured of the job of primary catcher, and continuing through Chris Giminez (catcher), Ehire Adrianza (infielder) and now Stubbs (outfielder). It remains to be seen, of course, how many of these guys make the team, and if they do how much Paul Molitor, whose lineup choices have tended to emphasize hitters, will play them.

But as one who has maintained for years that the best way to improve the pitching is to improve the defense, I applaud this direction.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Shaking the glove tree

The Twins shook the proverbial glove tree Monday, claiming infielder Ehire Adrianza on waivers.

Adrianza has been up and down with the Giants the past four seasons, amassing 331 plate appearances and not doing much with them (slash line .220/.282/313). He is said to be a very adept gloveman, however, and apparently at least some of the advanced metrics agree:




As a solution to the Twins shortstop question, he has the same problem as Engelb Vielma: Teams in the 1970s would play a slick fielding shortstop who can't hit. They don't in the 2010s.

This is the second time Adrianza has been claimed on waivers this year; the Brewers claimed him on Jan. 31, then tried to get him through waivers themselves. I wouldn't be surprised if the Twins tried waiving him. He's got to be out of options, which means that if he's not on the major league roster he has to go through waivers to be outrighted.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Matt Belisle, new Twin

Matt Belisle, the pitcher signed late last week by the Twins, is a 36-year-old right-hander with a 13-season resume in the National League.

Most of his 4.20 career ERA has been compiled with the hitters havens of Cincinnati and Colorado as his home parks. The past two seasons -- pitching with lighter workloads for better teams and less difficult home parks -- he has put up ERAs of 2.67 (2015, St. Louis) and 1.76 (2016, Washington).

We can safely assume that Belisle isn't as good as that 2016 ERA suggests; if he were, he would not have been a free agent into February.

According to the Bill James Handbook, last season Belisle threw 56 percent fastballs, 33 percent sliders, 10 percent curves and 1 percent changeups. His fastball, the book says, averaged a bit under 91 mph. Not overpowering stuff (less than seven strikeouts per nine innings) but a strike thrower (just four unintentional walks in 46 innings). He's had a few injury issues the past two seasons.

The results are comparable to Brandon Kintzler, but he gets there by a different route. Kintzler throws a lot of fastballs, and Belisle is pretty heavy with breaking balls.

Dusty Baker didn't trust him. Belisle worked a lot of long relief and had the lowest leverage score on the Nationals staff, at least as Baseball Info Systems calculates it, and the Nationals left him off the playoff roster.

I expect Belisle to make the Opening Day roster for the Twins. I don't expect him to get an important bullpen job. He's a threat to Michael Tonkin's role on the staff, not to Ryan Pressly's.

And, to restate explicitly what was perhaps implied from Saturday's post and today's, I would not give up Byung Ho Park for him. It's possible, of course, that the Twins won't lose Park. But I would not have taken that chance.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Sunday Funnies

For a time during World War II, radio broadcasters were forbidden from mentioning the weather. This was on the theory that such information could aid enemy pilots.

The edict posed a problem for baseball broadcasts during rain delays. On one occasion, Dizzy Dean and his booth partner killed more than an hour with chatter during a delay without ever mentioning why they weren't describing the game.

Finally Ol' Diz had had enough.

"If you want to know why they ain't playing, just stick your head out the window,"

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Park in DFA limbo

Byung Ho Park
hit 12 homers last
year but stuck out
80 times.
The Twins on Friday signed veteran relief pitcher Matt Belisle. They made room for him on the 40-man roster by designating Byung Ho Park for assignment.

I'll comment sometime next week on Belisle and his implications for the bullpen. Today I want to beef about the Park move.

Taking the public comments of Derek Falvey at face value, the Twins apparently expect Park to slide through waivers unclaimed, in which case they can outright Park to Rochester and bring him to spring training as a non-roster invitee. I suspect they think that will happen in part because there are right-handed sluggers of accomplishment (Mike Napoli, Chris Carter) still on the free-agent market and that the $8.75 million remaining on Park's contract will discourage teams from claiming him.

I see it differently. I see a genuine possibility that such teams as Tampa Bay will see Park as a source of cheap power (less than than $3 million a year) with signficant upside (he played at least part of 2016 with a hand injury and was transitioning to a new culture).

I have higher hopes for Park than I do for Kennys Vargas, who remains on the 40. Or for a couple of pitchers on the 40 (Pat Light, Buddy Boshers), or Danny Santana ... or even Belisle.

Well, at least I know niow that I'm not so ga-ga over the new front office regime that I accept their every move without skepticism.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Engelb Vielma solution (which isn't a solution)

Every once in a while as I consider the Twins shortstop conundrum, I think of the example set by Earl Weaver in the 1970s with the Baltimore Orioles.

He had a shortstop, Mark Belanger, who was a marvelous gloveman but simply could not hit -- career batting average of .228, career slugging percentage .280. But The Blade was a fixture in Weaver's lineups for more than a decade because he helped keep guys like Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Flanagan in the game for seven innings.

If the O's had the lead late, great; if not, Weaver had a raft of pinch-hitters he could deploy.

One could imagine the Twins trying the same approach in 2017, with Engelb Vielma in the Belanger role. Vielma is a scrawny gloveman -- everybody who has been exposed to him raves about him as a fielder -- who last year hit .271 at Double-A Chattanooga, albeit with no power (just 11 extra base hits). He was added to the 40-man roster this offseason,

The Twins have, depending on how one views Danny Santana, three or four shortstop options on their 40 -- Eduardo Escobar, Jorge Polanco, Vielma, maybe Santana (listed on the team website as an outfielder). I'm confident that Vielma is the best defensive player of the four, and just as confident that he is by far the weakest hitter.

You may remember that last month I published a post about a Baseball America piece about the growing demand for power from shortstops. The idea was that a major league regular has to project to "45" power, fringe average on the 20-80 scouting scale. Vielma, listed at a mere 155 pounds, is almost certainly a 20.

Paul Molitor has shown in his two years as manager little inclination to shake the glove tree. He plays guys he thinks can hit for him. But he's also managing in a different era than Weaver. There were a lot of shortstops in the 1970s with 20 power. That's not the case today. Playing Belanger then wasn't sacrificing as much offense relative to the league as playing Vielma would today.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Whither Jorge Polanco

I am trying to reconcile myself to the likelihood that the Twins will at least open the 2017 season with Jorge Polanco at shortstop. It's not easy.

Only part of this is their inability to find a reasonable trade for Brian Dozier. Trading Dozier would have opened up second base for Polanco, and second base is a better fit for Polanco's skill set than shortstop (just as it was and remains for Dozier).

But the fact remains that, unless a Dozier trade included a major league-ready shortstop -- and that was always unlikely -- somebody currently on the roster figured to wind up with the shortstop job. If either of Dozier or Polanco were (or are) traded, the front-runner would be Eduardo Escobar by default.

I'm pretty sure I like that option more than Paul Molitor does, and I say that fully aware that Escobar is at best a fringe average fielder at the position. Polanco is worse afield, which is no small matter given the looming and lumbering presence of Miguel Sano at third and the need to support the pitching staff.

But Polanco promises to be a superior hitter to the man LaVelle Neal dubbed "Eddie the Stick" a few years ago, and we return to the metaphorical balancing act: Will Escobar's glove save more runs (compared to Polanco) than his bat will give up (compared to Polanco)? My guess is yes, but I can't prove it, and neither is ever likely to be the shortstop of a playoff caliber team.

This is not to equate Polanco and Derek Jeter, but the fact remains: Jeter was never, by the defensive metrics, a truly outstanding defensive shortstop. He got by at the position, and his bat made him a great player, and there is no shortstop of my lifetime I'd rather have for the length of his career than Jeter  -- not Cal Ripken, not Ozzie Smith, not Barry Larkin, not Robin Yount or even Alex Rodriguez.

It's possible for Polanco to be a good enough hitter to make up for his problems afield. But for that to happen, he's not only got to hit; he's got to get closer to fringe average as a fielder. If he were as good with the glove as Escobar (which, again, is not to say that Escobar is good), I'd have no problem with Polanco as the Twins shortstop.

He's not, or at least he hasn't shown that he is. Molitor appears to believe that he can be.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Yogi Berra, Willie Mays and Tug McGraw

Jim Rueda, the sports editor of the Free Press, grew up in the Queens borough of New York, and last night, talking about a different topic, he mentioned how painful it was to watch Willie Mays in 1973-- a 42-year-old Mays, a shell of himself, in his final major league season.

Which led me to something I've thought about off-and-on for a while: the proposition that Yogi Berra, who managed Mays and the Mets that year and got a massively flawed roster to the seventh game of the World Series, may have turned in the most underrated manageral  job ever.

Consider Mays, for example. He was, after all, Willie Mays, one of the handful of players with a legitimate claim to being the greatest player ever. He was playing, in 1973, because he needed the money, and he was never paid more than the Mets paid him that year ($165,000, according to Baseball Reference). The Giants traded Mays to the Mets, according to Mays biographer Charles Einstein, because Giants owner Horace Stomeham


  • loved Mays
  • knew he needed the payday
  • and couldn't afford to pay him that much.


The Mets traded for Mays because they figured he'd goose their attendance.

So here's Berra in 1973. He has to balance the financial imperatives from his bosses, who want Mays to play because he's supposed to draw fans, with the demands of a pennant race. An ancient centerfielder who hits .211 -- that ain't helping.

This may have been one case when having a great player as manager was a benefit. Mays was accustomed to deference from his managers. In Berra, Mays had a skipper who was a true peer, one of the great players in history. A scrub or busher might have been cowed by the task of actually managing Mays, and even if not cowed, may not have gotten the respect from Mays he would have needed.

Berra gave Mays enough time to show that he didn't deserve more time -- and did so without sabotaging his team in the standings and postseason.

Then there's Tug McGraw, the relief ace. In 1972, McGraw put up a 1.70 ERA. This matched his 1971 figure. That's consistency at a high level. But in 1973, McGraw was awful. His ERA after pitching on July 13: 5.85, and that's not even the worst it was that month.

Berra responded with something no current manager would dream of doing: He started his short reliever. McGraw, Berra reasoned, needed to throw a lot of pitches to figure out what he was doing wrong. So McGraw started on July 17, working six innings and giving up seven runs (And 10 hits, including four homers, and four walks, and a hit batter -- it was gruesome). Then he sat for almost two weeks, and started again on July 30: 5.2 innings, one run. Four days later, McGraw was back in his accustomed late-inning relief role -- and the rest of the way, his ERA was 1.65.

I think about that episode at least once a year as a manager wrestles with a relief pitchers' slump. No skipper today would prescribe a 120-pitch outing for a struggling bullpen ace. It was, as far as I know, a unique approach even then. But it worked. And Berra deserves credit for an innovative solution,