Thursday, February 22, 2018

Let the games begin

The Twins today play their first exhibition game, versus the University of Minnesota. Exhibitions by definition don't count, so this might be termed a double exhibition, since it isn't even an official Grapefruit League game. (Any injuries count, though.)

There are just three names in the posted lineup that mean anything to me: center fielder Zach Granite, shortstop Nick Gordon and starter Stephen Gonsalves. Everybody else is a non-roster invitee or org player. Which is fine. It's not vital for the Joe Mauers and Brian Doziers to play on Feb. 22.

The game will be on TV here though (FSN Plus). Finally something to get me off the Olympics telecast at work.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Contemplating Anibel Sanchez

The Anibal Sanchez signing, criticized here when the news broke last week, became official Tuesday. (For the record, the Twins opened spots on the 40-man roster by putting Michael Pineda and Trevor May on the 60-day DL. In the past teams had to wait until cusp of the regular season to make that move, but neither was going to pitch in April or early May anyway.)

The Twins are describing their addition of Sanchez as "analytics driven." This makes me feel a little guilty, or at least discombobulated, rapping his signing. I've been waiting years to see the Twins employ sabermetrics in forming their roster, and when they do all I can do is gripe.

So the question is, what numbers suggest that a pitcher with an ERA over the past three seasons of 5.67 is usable in a major league rotation?

To begin with, his walk rate is still quite good (over that same three-season span, 2.8 walks per nine innings) and his strikeout rate is respectable (8.2 K/9 in 2015-17; his K rate last season, 8.9, was better than that of any of the six most-used Twins starters). Those "leading indicator" stats are encouraging.

Then there is the notion that changing Sanchez' pitch selection can make him more effective. From Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com:

Opposing batters hit just .125 with a .188 slugging percentage against his splitter last season, but .337 with a .579 slugging percentage against his fastball, per Statcast.

There's a deceptively simple formula implied there: Stop throwing the fastball, throw more splitters.

I say deceptively because pitch selection isn't done in a vacuum.  Pehaps the splitter has been so overwhelmingly effective because the hitters are waiting for the very hittable fastball. Scratch the fastball, the hitters will start looking for the off-speed, and ... suddenly the splitter/change isn't so overwhelming. (Plus there is more stress on the forearm in particular with the splitter.)

Last year, according to the Bill James Handbook, Sanchez threw 49 percent fastballs, 21 percent changeup (his splitter), 12 percent sliders, 10 percent curves and 9 percent cutters. (I can hear Bert Blyleven now: "He throws all five pitches.") That's already a fairly low fast-ball usage rate, and a fairly high rate of off-speed stuff. How low (and high) can he go? It appears the Twins want to find out.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Gary Sanchez rule

MLB on Monday announced new limits on mound visits, by players or coaches, in a effort to speed pace of play.

Just as the rules established to protect catchers and middle infielders from collisions quickly got nicknamed for the stars who "inspired" the rule (the Posey rule for catchers, the Utley rule at second base), this one should bear the name of Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez, who wore a path out to the mound during playoff games last fall, changing signs with every hitter and sometimes during at-bats.

That stagnant approach was almost certainly been more manager Joe Girardi than Sanchez. Girardi had his strong points as a manager, but his uptight, controlling persona was very football-like, and that is not a complement.

So -- six mound visits per game without a pitching change. This includes coaches and managers, catchers changing signs, shortstops coming in to offer their advice on throwing strikes. There'll be no pitch clock this season.

Another, less obvious, related change is supposedly stricter limits on communication between replay rooms and dugouts. This is intended to make it more difficult to relay stolen signs, which had been cited as a reason for all the mound visits. A better move, in my opinion, would be to ban the replay rooms. If a missed call isn't obvious to the naked eye, it shouldn't be appealed to New York anyway.

The players aren't overjoyed with the new rule and are even less happy with the notion of pitch and batter clocks. But if they continue to lollygag, dawdle and stall, that will -- and should -- change. Play ball, fellows.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Hello, Odorizzi

The Twins on Saturday traded for Jake Odorizzi, an established right-handed starter, from Tampa Bay.

A bit less than a month ago I tried to imagine what Odorizzi would cost the Twins. I would have massively overpaid. So I have to like this trade for the Twins.

The Twins get two years of Odorizzi for a Class A shortstop, Jeramine Palacios. Palacios had a big first half at Cedar Rapids and was markedly less productive at the plate after moving up to Fort Myers. Fort Myers is a more difficult environment for hitters than CR, but not enough to account for the dropoff. 

Palacios was the fourth-rated shortstop prospect in the Twins organization (behind Royce Lewis, Nick Gordon and Wander Javier), so the Twins were dealing from depth here. I don't have an objective reason to believe this, but I actually think Palacios has a better shot at being a regular major league infielder than Gordon does.

So, the Twins rotation now has Jose Berrios,Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson as locks, Ervin Santana recovering from his finger surgery and returning probably in May, and one or one-and-half open slots to open the season, with Aldaberto Mejia and Anibel Sanchez probably the front runners for those places.

That's not a top-shelf rotation. But it's better than the rotation the Twins used most of last season.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Pic of the Week

Ron Gardenhire is notably trimmer this spring
 than he was in his final years with the Twins.
Many challenges await Ron Gardenhire as manager of the Detroit Tigers. I was and remain dubious that this job is a good fit for him. The Tigers are all-in on a tear-down and rebuild project, which means play the kids, and Gardy's consistent pattern with the Twins was to prefer an experienced player to fix problems.

But I suspect the biggest problem is lifestyle. Managing is a stressful job, and it was pretty obvious to even the casual onlooker that Gardenhire was getting much heavier and less healthy with every passing seasons in Minnesota.

Three seasons and a bout of prostate cancer have passed since Gardenhire was fired by the Twins. I didn't think he'd get another opportunity to manage, but the Tigers hired him, and he's largely reunited his old coaching staff (Rick Anderson, Steve Liddle, Joe Vavra). He sounds happy this spring. Let us hope that the likeable Gardenhire isn't going to resume killing himself with the stress this time around.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

He's low-risk until you put him on the roster

The Twins on Friday reportedly signed Anibal Sanchez to a major-league deal. The signing has not been made official pending a physical.

Sanchez was good -- years ago. Last season he put up a 6.41 ERA for the Tigers. The year before that, 5.87. The season before that, 4.99. I think you see the pattern.

When word broke Friday afternoon I figured it was a minor league deal, and while I wasn't enthused about that, it was acceptable. But the devotion of a 40-man roster spot, and the $2.5 million base with $2.5 million in incentives, suggests that the organization is serious about him for the rotation. (Apparently, despite the major league roster spot, the base salary isn't guaranteed.)

LaVelle Neal tweeted (and then deleted the tweet) that the Twins aren't done looking, but they thought Sanchez was an acceptable low-risk flier. But once Sanchez starts pitching, he's no longer low-risk. He's just a risk, even if he finished 2017 with four respectable starts.

Maybe the Twins' evaluators are correct. Maybe there's something left in Sanchez. I'd rather give somebody like Aaron Slegers the opportunity.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Spinning the rotation

With Ervin Santana sidelined for more than a month to open the season and the Twins' search for rotation depth frozen in the free-agent standoff, Paul Molitor this week hinted at the possibility of skipping a starter with frequency in the early part of the season.

As he and his pitching advisors see it, the Twins could get through April only using the fifth starter twice.

It's easy to see the rationale behind paring the rotation back to something like 4.5 starters. As Earl Weaver said, it's easier to find four starters than five. And at this very moment, the Twins have two pitchers they consider locks for the rotation to open the season, Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson. The other slots are undetermined.

But there are reasons to avoid doing that. In the heyday of the four-man rotation, most teams used early-season offdays to skip their fourth starter with frequency, but not Weaver. He recognized that he would need his No. 4 sharp in the following months, and figured that more rest between starts in the early season chill was better for his aces.

And that's pretty much how I expect Molitor and pitching coach Gavin Alston to conclude this internal debate. I expect they would rather have Berrios, who turns 24 in May, make 30 starts than 34, and would rather not push him in 40-degree temps. And he's the high-ceiling starter, the guy who gives them any advantage to pushing. (There is little obvious gain to skipping, say, Aaron Slegers to give another start to Adalberto Mejia.)

What may lead to some rotation juggling is the April 17-18 series in Puerto Rico against the Cleveland Indians. Molitor recognizes that those games have an emotional resonance for Berrios, and I will be very surprised if Berrios doesn't get one of those starts. Not only does the setting matter for Berrios personally, but these are the top two teams in the AL Central, and having the Twins most talented starter pitch against Cleveland makes sense.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Trevor Plouffe and the New Reality

#OldFriend Trevor Plouffe this week signed a minor league deal with major league invite with the Texas Rangers. This figures to be some tough sledding for him, since the Rangers have Adrian Beltre at third and powerful Joey Gallo splitting time at third and first. If they're healthy, that doesn't leave a lot of at-bats at Plouffe's positions.

One of the oft-heard complaints in this winter of free agent discontent is that the chill has been felt on all levels. Players who expected superstar offers haven't drawn what they wanted; players who expected major league deals are getting minor league offers; players seeking minor league deals are getting frozen completely.

Or so the agents say, and maybe they're right.

My inclination is to view this as the market correction I've been expecting for years. At the top of the market, it's never made any sense to me that 32-year-old free agents got six- and seven-year contracts. J.D. Martinez is just in the unfortunate position of being the first one to find that pretty much every front office now recognizes the fallacy.

Well down the pyramid in Plouffe's specific case: The man is in his 30s, he was miscast as a foundation piece as a regular with Minnesota, and he hit .198/.272/.318 last season with two teams. There are no arrows pointing up with him.

Plouffe's career is being squeezed by multiple forces.

As a regular, he's being squeezed by his declining production and the embrace of analytics. Five years ago there were still a few GMs -- including the one in Minnesota -- who at least said a player's peak is in his early 30s. That's not the case now. Today's front offices are stuffed with people who've read the studies -- or conducted their own -- and know 31 is about four years past peak.

His OPS is under .600? We can get that from so-and-so out of Double A, and pay less in the process.

As a bit player, Plouffe is being squeezed by roster trends. The "deep depth" managers of the 1960s and '70s could probably not only carve out 250 at-bats for him but focus them on the pitchers he can do damage against. That's simply not happening in today's game, with half the roster spots going to pitchers.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Contemplating Miguel Sano

The big topic around the Twins as the opening of camp nears is the starting rotation. But Miguel Sano casts a big shadow over the coming season, and that deserves more acknowledgement that it gets.

Sano is coming off surgery to put a rod in his shin after the stress reaction that sidelined him for much of September. He is being investigated by MLB after a creditable allegation of sexual assault and seems likely to get some sort of suspension. 

And this weekend, for the first time I know of, somebody in the Twins hierarchy specifically and on the record put his work ethic on question. That came from Paul Molitor this weekend in this illuminating sit-down with the Pioneer Press' Brian Murphy.

We've gotten hints of this before, notably from Jim Souhan's controversial column last September that implicitly blamed fouling a ball off Sano's shin on Sano's weight. It contained one attribution that was so vaguely worked that it could have been a ticket taker. (I typically avoid Souhan's "work," but that one raised such a fuss that I read it, then dismissed it as his usual slop.) Murphy's piece is, in contrast, sourced, with direct quotes, and thus far more creditable. It's far more meaningful that Molitor had doubts about Sano's work ethic than that Souhan or Patrick Reusse do.

Questions of journalistic competence or intent aside, the question for Molitor and the organization is: What do they do with Sano? He's clearly a talent capable of being a force in the lineup, and two-and-half years into his career, the Twins still are waiting for a full season of his best. Molitor concedes in Murphy's piece he's had mixed results getting to him. That he voices those concerns for print may signal a turning point.



Monday, February 12, 2018

Yu don't say: Thoughts on missing out on Darvish

First, a short explaination for my relative silence the past four days: I've been playing rope-a-dope with the influenza bug, and as Bert Blyleven might put it, it's been kicking my butt-TOCKS.

Somewhere in all that it registered with me that Yu Darvish had agreed to sign with the Chicago Cubs. Count me as disappointed but not surprised. The longer it went, the less likely he was to sign with a non-major market team. I suspect a large part of the delay was waiting/hoping for the Dodgers and/or Yankees to climb into the bidding.

The Darvish deal, as reported, contains items that could justifiably been deal-breakers for the Twins. First the sheer length (six years), and second the opt-out clause, in which Darvish can declare free agency after the 2019 season. That's sort of a "heads I win, tails you lose" provision for the player, and the Twins have made no secret of their dislike for that kind of provision.

I am not privy to what the Twins offered Darvish, of course. They are said to have been among the suitors offering in excess of $100 million. I suggested some weeks ago that a higher annual average value over a shorter time span -- say four years for $100 million -- was preferable the same money in  a longer duration. It's a reasonable guess that the Cubs came up the winners by agreeing to a sixth year.

So ... what next for the Twins? Their need/desire for a head-of-the rotation starter has only grown in the past week with Ervin Santana's finger surgery.

The immediate speculation has focused more on a trade with Tampa Bay for either Chris Archer (expensive) or Jake Odorozzi (less talented and less pricy) than on the Jake Arrieta/Lance Lynn/Alex Cobb trio of remaining free agents.

Arrieta is the one of the five with the most impressive track record, and he is also the riskiest. (Note that the Cubs, who know him quite well and aren't run by dummies, made no apparent effort to retain him.) And he and agent Scott Boras probably think Darvish's deal is too small. Scratch him.

Lynn or Cobb would cost the Twins their first-round pick in June. That's an acceptable price for either, but neither is a particularly good bet to contend for a Cy Young Award. They're on the level of an Ervin Santana, not the Johan Santana of memory. Odorozzi is step or so below that.

So the best chance to land a "true ace" is a trade for Archer, whose results have not yet matched his talent. That trade, should it come to pass, will probably be quite the blow to a farm system that is a bit short of major-league ready talent.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Lefty Gomez was good enough at pitching to make the Hall of Fame, and self-deprecating enough that you wouldn't know it from his stories.

Another Hall of Fame hurler, Robin Roberts, heard a number of Gomez's stories over the years and summed them up:

"Just once I'd like to hear Gomez tell a story in which he got someone out."

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The non-roster invitees

A few hours before the Ervin Santana finger surgery news broke, the Twins announced 13 non-roster invitees to spring training:




Thirteen seems a pretty light number. Most springs in the past decade or so the Twins have had 60 or so players in major league camp; as matters stand, there will be 53 this year.

But just as the free agent market has been frozen at the top of the food chain, there hasn't been a lot of movement at the base of the pryamid. The Twins list is noteworthy for the kind of NRI that isn't there -- the guy with major league service time with a genuine opportunity to crack the openng roster.

Last spring, for example, the Twins had Chris Gimenez make the squad as a NRI. They also had the likes of Ryan Vogelsong, J.B Shuck and Drew Stubbs in camp. Catcher Bobby Wilson is the closest thing to that kind of player on this year's list, and he's not Gimenez. He probably needs an injury to one of the two catchers on the 40 man roster (Jason Castro and Mitch Garver). 

It's certainly possible that the Twins will add to this list, of course; in fact, I would be surprised if they don't.

Also missing and thus noteworthy: Kohl Stewart, once a highly regarded pitching prospect. The No. 4 overall pick in 2013 isn't on the 40-man roster, was ignored in the Rule 5 draft and not tendered a camp invite. 

There are three "genuine" prospects among the 13: reliever Jake Reed, infielder Nick Gordon and outfielder LaMonte Wade. I don't see any of the three as having a clear chance at making the roster in camp, but they have a chance to be seen.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Twins rotation gets the finger

Ervin Santana had surgery on the middle finger of his pitching hand and isn't expected to join the Twins rotation until mid April at the earliest, perhaps not until May.

One can almost feel the panic rising among the fans. Even with Santana, the Minnesota rotation isn't particularly strong or deep. Even with Santana, the Twins had signaled their intent of adding at least one, preferably two, established starters who could slot into the first three spots in the rotation.

Reality check: Santana's finger doesn't add significantly to that urgency. It feels like it does because we focus on that Opening Day roster, but reality is that pretty much every team is going to use about 10 starting pitchers over the course of the season. Santana won't make 34 starts in 2018 as he did in 2017, but he's hardly out for the season. The Twins have to dip into their depth? We knew they would anyway.

And having said that, the April rotation now projects to be something like:


  • Jose Berrios
  • Kyle Gibson
  • Aldaberto Mejia
  • Phil Hughes
  • somebody from the prospects pile of Aaron Slegers, Felix Jose, Stephen Gonsalves, Dietrich Enns and Zach Littell
The 1970 Baltimore Orioles or mid-90's Atlanta Braves, that ain't.

I listed Hughes in the fourth spot because he's a veteran with a sizable contract, but the Twins may have him in mind for the bullpen in the wake of his latest bout of surgery. He may actually belong in the last group fighting for a rotation spot -- which is where I figured he was when I thought Santana was healthy -- or he may not be in the running at all. (Trevor May is tweeting optimistically about his rehab progress, but he's not expected back until May at the earliest, and, like Hughes, may be viewed more as a bullpen piece as he returns from his ligament replacement.)

But I do not believe that will indeed be the April rotation. There will be an addition. There may be some subtractions. Rotations are almost always a work in progress, even before spring training begins. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

From the Handbook: Bill James leaders

Over his long career as a pioneer of sabermetrics, Bill James has concocted a number of analytical stats. Some. such as runs created, have become foundation pieces for further metrics; some never caught on in the sabermetric community.

Win shares is one of the latter. I took note earlier this offseason of the philosophical debate on social media over WAR -- wins above replacement -- which has the same goal as win shares (to put one all-encompassing number on a given player's contributions). James' criticism of the various formulas for WAR is that, despite its name, the stat is disconnected from wins. Win shares is not.

In the leaderboard section of the 2018 Bill James Handbook, following the traditional stats (common and obscure) comes the Bill James Leaders. And I see that Joe Mauer is nestled between Robinson Cano and Chase Utley in career win shares, 290, seventh among active players. The top 10 is, really, made of guys I expect to get to the big stage at Cooperstown some induction Sunday down the road -- Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, Ichiro Suzuki, Joey Votto ... and, yes, Mauer. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Jim Thome's Hall of Fame plaque

Jim Thome late last week said that he'd prefer the "block C" cap on his Hall of Fame plaque over the "Chief Wahoo" logo that he wore during his stellar tenure in Cleveland.

A colleague suggested this weekend that the solution is for him to have the Twins' TC, but I'm pretty sure he knew that isn't happening.

Thome spent all or part of 13 seasons in Cleveland and no more than four in his other stops (Philadelphia, White Sox, Dodgers, Minnesota,  Baltimore). He hit the majority of his homers for Cleveland, gathered the majority of his RBIs for Cleveland. His slash numbers were better for the Tribe than for any of his other teams. There's no real question that he's going in as an Indian, even though he and the Hall haven't discussed it yet.

Somebody said on Twitter that nobody in the Hall has Wahoo on his cap. There's a fairly large crop of Indians from the 1940s and '50s enshrined -- Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Larry Doby, Lou Bordreau, Early Wynn -- but most of their plaques have a 'horseshoe C". Wynn appears to be the exception; he appears to have a cap that combines the horseshoe with Wahoo. After that generation, there's a lack of Indians in the Hall. A few guys who played briefly for the Tribe, such as Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar, but nobody who truly identifies as a Cleveland Indian.

I don't know that Thome ever voiced an objection to Wahoo as a player; if he did, he did so privately. Historical accuracy says his plaque should have Wahoo; the commissioner now declares the logo unfit "for on-field use." Theres always the Catfish Hunter blank cap solution, but I don't think Hunter's two teams dilemma is the same as Thome's logo-in-disgrace issue. Thome will want to be identified with Cleveland. He'll get the block C.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Let's go for four in this sequence of stories, even if we start wandering away from Zeke Bonura and Jimmy Dykes.

This one is from the creation of Connie Mack's support staff in his dotage. Mack and former star Al Simmons are talking contract.

The elderly Mack: "You know, Al, that there will always be a place for you with this team."

Simmons: "Yeah, but would you make sure your sons know that?"

Friday, February 2, 2018

What are Yu waiting for?

The calendar keeps sliding closer to the opening of spring training camps, and the free agent market remains agonizingly frozen. And breaking up the jam probably starts with the top pitcher of the market, Yu Darvish.

The Twins have made no secret of their interest in the Japanese right-hander. For a variety of reasons they appear to prefer him to the other top starters on the market (Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb).

Only those directly involved know what has been offered or demanded. My sense of it, which may be misplaced, is:


  • Nobody is offering him what he wants, in contract duration or annual average value.
  • The Twins may well have made the most lucrative offer but aren't bidding against themselves.
  • Darvish may prefer a city with a larger Japanese community.
Well, the first one is almost certainly true. The other two are reasonable inferences from scant evidence.

There are occasional whispers that the Yankees and Dodgers are each trying to clear payroll so they can both meet their goal of resetting their luxury tax payments AND sign Darvish. I don't know how possible that is. For the Yankees, that probably means unloading the Jacoby Ellsbury contract, but:

  • Nobody wants Ellsbury even as a gift.
  • If the purpose of trading Ellsbury is to clear payroll space, a big buydown of it defeats the purpose.
  • Ellsbury has a no-trade clause and apparently would rather be a reserve for the Yanks than a starter elsewhere.
Turning that triangle into a square is pretty difficult geometry, even for Brian Cashman. But it may be that Darvish and his reps are waiting on that possibility.

How long the Twins want to wait on a decision is a good question, one only they have the answer to. One factor may be how antsy the other free agents are getting. There was a report this week that Arrieta is considering holding out into midseason if he doesn't get his price (he's a Scott Boras client). If there's no inclination among the Darvish-Arrieta-Lynn-Cobb foursome to grab the best current offer and be done with it, this standoff may last a while.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

RIP Oscar Gamble

Oscar Gamble and his magnificent Afro in 1974. Also
evidence that the Cleveland team didn't always use Chief Wahoo.
Oscar Gamble played for a lot of teams, but Minnesota wasn't one of them. He was a poor defensive outfielder, and he spent most of his career as a platoon player. But if you were a baseball fan in the 1970s, you knew about this guy.

There was, for one thing, the hair. Gamble sported, as teams permitted, perhaps the most spectacular Afros ever to grace a major league field. (A reasonable rival belonged to Jose Cardenal, another outfielder of the same period.)

There was the card. When Gamble was traded to the Yankees for the 1976 season, Topps, as was its custom, airbrushed a Yankees logo onto his cap and pinstrips on his Indians jersey. As as frequently the case with Topps' photo alterations in that pre-Photoshop era, the results were amusingly awful. And the Mickey Mouse effect of the Afro made it all the cheesier.

And there was his perfectly ungrammatical description of  the Yankees clubhouse during one of his two tenures in the Bronx, a description useful for other scenes of chaos and dysfunction: "They don't believe it be like it is, but it do."

But most of all, there was the bat. Gamble was a dangerous hitter against right-handers. He bopped 200 homers in his 17-year career, which is a lot for a platoon guy. He drew more walks than strikeouts over his career. The totals were seldom all that impressive, although he did hit 30 homers for the 1977 White Sox "South Side Hitmen", but his at-bats were usually limited.

I highly recommend this Joe Posnanski piece on Oscar Gamble and Buck O'Neil, who found and signed the teen-aged Gamble for the Cubs in the 1960s. If nothing else, it stands as a depiction of the romance of scouting.