Monday, December 31, 2018

Where they stand: Catcher

The Twins have not yet made the signing of Nelson Cruz official. Presumably they are waiting for the results of his physical; they are, quite likely, also looking for the best way to open a roster slot. They would probably like to trade Tyler Austin, but there may not be a market for him. Remember, they got him on waivers last summer.

But assuming that Cruz is indeed signed, the Twins have their Plan A lineup in hand for 2019. Let's go though that set of regulars, position by position, starting with catcher.

Presumed regular: Jason Castro.

Others on the 40: Mitch Garver and Willians Astudillo

Nonroster contenders for the active roster: none

One of the many things that went wrong for the Twins pitching staff last season was Castro's prolonged absence from the lineup. He played just 19 games and hit .143 in 74 plate appearances before having knee surgery that took him out for the remainder of the season.

We know the drill on Castro: Strong defensive catcher, marginal hitter. (It's hard to believe that he routinely hit third for Houston in 2013.). He's expected to be fully ready for spring training and the third and final year of his contract.

Garver is pretty much Castro's mirror image: A good hitter for a catcher but with noticeable limitations behind the plate. He was charged with nine passed balls and was involved in 33 wild pitches; that's way too many pitches being chased to the backstop. He threw out just 18 percent of basestealers (league average was 28 percent). He didn't catch in September after sustaining a concussion.

I think Astudillo is the better player -- a superior defensive catcher and probably equally productive at the plate, although the production is in a different shape than Garver's. Astudillo is also a lot more fun to watch play ball than pretty much anybody on the roster. But he's unlikely to be on the active roster unless and until either Castro or Garver gets hurt.

The biggest problem for Astudillo's chances of making the roster is that Garver is out of options and thus cannot be readily sent to the minors, and that's not a problem for Astudillo. The Twins aren't likely to discard Garver, and I'm not sure that Astudillo is going to convince the decision makers that he's a guy they want to carry as a multi-use player, although that is a possibility.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Art Fowler was Billy Martin's preferred pitching coach, following the oft-fired manager from job to job. His most significant qualification appeared to be the ability to match Martin drink for drink.

A struggling pitcher once approached Fowler with a theory, that he was dropping his arm during his delivery after a few innings. Keep an eye on me and look for that during this start, the pitcher suggested.

A few innings into the outing the pitcher's control started to wobble. After he walked two men and fell behind a third, Fowler ambled out to the mound.

"Am I dropping my arm?" the pitcher asked.

"Ah, I don't know about any of that," Flowler replied. "But you're walking people and Billy's pissed."

Friday, December 28, 2018

Cruz control

Plenty of reports Thursday that Nelson Cruz has agreed to a one-year contract with club option with the Twins. While the Twins have yet to officially announce the free-agent signing, Cruz has changed his Twitter avatar to an image of himself at bat wearing a Twins jersey and helmet.

Taken as an individual move, I have no real quarrel with this. Cruz is 38 -- turns 39 in July -- so there is a risk, but he has shown little falloff as he ages. In his four seasons with the Mariners, "Boomstick" has hit between 44 and 37 homers each year. And that production, as you probably know, came in one of the more difficult hitting environments in the game.

Yeah, Cruz can hit. He's pretty much useless afield or on the bases, but he's going to be the DH and he is a legitimate force in the middle of a lineup. As long as they don't try to force him into the outfield ala Josh Willingham, he'll help.

But I continue to be uneasy with the organization's offseason trend away from on-base percentage. The Twins have added three right-handed thumpers in Cruz, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and first baseman C.J. Cron. They all have power and they all swing and miss a lot. Cruz's on-base percentages with the M's were better than they had been with Baltimore or Texas, but on the whole, this lineup looks like the goal is to lead the league in solo homers. That is NOT a productive offense.

That said, the reality is that Cron, Schoop and even Cruz aren't the keys to the Twins 2019 lineup. The Twins will rise or recede on Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler. If two of those three play at an All-Star level, the Twins are serious contenders. 

They have the talent to do that; they don't have the track record of doing that. But if two -- or better yet, all three -- turn into the players we've been dreaming on for five years or so, then a supporting cast of Cruz, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, Schoop, Cron and Jason Castro makes for a dangerous and deep lineup even with their flaws.

If Schoop, Cron and Castro hit 7-8-9, things are good. If either Schoop and Cron wind up in the first five spots of the order, it's going to be another disappointing season.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Some Christmas reading

Yeah, it's been a while since I actively posted (the Sunday Funnies are set up well in advance, or at least most of them are). But here I am on this holiday with a couple of links that should be of interest to Twins fans.

First: Jonah Keri, writing for on why the Twins are positioned to take a big leap forward:

If both Sano and Buxton play to the best of their abilities and stay healthy for a full season, that alone could add 10 or more wins to the Twins' ledger. The good news is that the Twins have upside sprinkled all over their roster. Eight of the nine projected starters in the 2019 lineup are 29 or younger. The same goes for the rotation, which is topped by exciting 24-year-old righty Jose Berrios and features additional potential in the form of post-Tommy John surgery right-hander (and former strikeout fiend) Michael Pineda.

You know the old saying about "can't see the forest for the trees." I think we Twins fans have been too close to this team and too frustrated/impatient with the slow development of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. And maybe the fans are right and Keri wrong. Maybe Buxton and Sano will never manage to stick in the lineup. But for 2019, at the very least, the best option for the Twins is to build around those two talents.

There is one thing Keri says in that piece that I quarrel with: his assertion that Sano's power is his only useful tool. His arm is of quality also, and it is why the Twins aren't planning on him as a first baseman-DH, which is what Keri sees him as (at best).

The other piece I wanted to call to your attention is from Phil Rogers, writing for Forbes, on the value of payroll flexibility. 

No fan base figures to be in for a more interesting ride between now and Opening Day, 2020. We’re not saying Minnesota will be a postseason team — although it was as recently as 2017 — but the combination of young roster team and financial flexibility stokes the imagination. ...
(H)ere’s the unique part about the Twins’ situation: They have exactly zero dollars in guaranteed commitments for 2020 and beyond. 

These are two outside observers who are intrigued, and optimistic, about this team and its direction -- more so than most of us in Minnesota. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Rickey Henderson was born on Christmas, which is why I post a Rickey Henderson story for the Sunday Funnies that week. And there are a lot of Rickey Henderson stories, some true, some not (but all of them plausible).

This year's:

Henderson once fell asleep on an ice pack and got frostbite, which forced him to miss three games — in mid-August.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

No. 7

The Twins announced Tuesday that they will officially retire the number 7 in honor of Joe Mauer during the 2019 season, specific date undetermined. This is not a surprise.

Mauer and Hocking are far from the only No. 7s in Twins history, of course. Baseball Reference lists 17 players as having worn 7 for the Minnesota Twins, 35 including the Washington Senators years. (One of the Senators bearing the number is a Hall of Famer -- Al Simmons, who wore it in 1938, well after his prime seasons.)

The Twins' No. 7s include some notable names in Twins history -- such as Greg Gagne, Frank Quilici and Jimmy Hall -- and at least as many who-dats -- Greg "Boomer" Wells, Dave Meier and Paul Ray Powell.  

The Star Tribune's Phil Miller pointed out on Twitter that the Twins are a shortstop away from a lineup with the retired numbers. Getting there requires playing a few guys at suboptimal defensive positions, but they are all positions they had considerable time at, so it's legit:

C: Mauer (7)
1B: Kent Hrbek (14)
2B: Rod Carew (29)
3B: Harmon Killebrew (3)
SS: vacant
LF: Jackie Robinson (42)
CF: Kirby Puckett (34)
RF: Tony Oliva (6)
P: Bert Blyleven (28)
Mgr: Tom Kelly (10)

Basically, the Twins retire two kinds of numbers:

  • Cooperstown inductees who are chosen for their Minnesota accomplishments (Killebrew, Carew, Blyleven, Puckett)
  • Really distinguished figures who spent their entire career with the Twins (Oliva, Hrbek, Mauer, Kelly)
Robinson's in a different class, of course, and Puckett fits in both groups. Someday, I expect, Mauer will fit in both also.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

When less is more

Habitual visitors to this site have probably noticed that I'm skipping days without posting with some frequency. That's by design; I decided this offseason not to force myself to think of something to say when I have little to react to. And the nature of the baseball offseason is that there are a lot of days with little to react to.

Of course, I'm not relying on this site for my income. I'm in a different position than the guys on MLB Network on my cable or MLB Radio in my car. They have to talk about something, even if there's nothing new and specific to talk about.

This, I believe, is why the talk show guys constantly cry for more trades. If nothing else, they want moves just for the sake of making moves, because that gives them something to blab about. Even the former general managers -- who should well know the merit of the old adage Some of the best trades are the ones you don't make -- embrace the fallacy of mistaking motion for progress.

The Twins have not been truly idle this offseason, but they had a quiet winter meetings and haven't made much of a peep since. That's OK with me. Idleness is preferable to their discernable pattern of power over on-base percentage.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Former Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson, on why he was married in a ball park:

"My wife wanted a big diamond."

Friday, December 14, 2018

Wrong again, Eddie

It says something that no team thought Tyler Jay was worth a Rule 5 selection. I was pretty sure that he would be too attractive a target, that somebody would take a flier on him.

It's not that his work in the minors has justified the opportunity. It's that the talent -- a live, left-handed arm -- to be at least a LOOGY is there.

So Jay remains in the Twins organization. And we have to consider his drafting -- the sixth overall pick in 2015 -- a painful mistake. After all, the next man taken, by the Boston Red Sox, was Andrew Benintendi.

Anyway: the Twins took nobody in Rule 5, as anticipated. And they lost nobody either. That was not what I expected.


Another missed call: I correctly anticipated that Seattle would send Carlos Santana on his way. I hardly expected it to be back to Cleveland, which made little obvious effort to retain him as a free agent last offseason.

It was a three-way trade that sent Edwin Encarnacion to Seattle, Santana and Jake Bauers (from Tampa Bay) to Cleveland and a hard-hitting Cuban infielder named Yandy Diaz to Tampa Bay.

Encarnacion may not be long with Seattle either. But remember my complaint about the C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop additions: they lack the ability to reach base consistently. Encarnacion is of the same ilk.

Santana is much more the kind of hitter the Twins need than Encarnacion is. Or, for that matter, Nelson Cruz, who has been linked to the Twins all week in the rumor mill.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Thanks for (not) playing

With a full 40-man roster, the Twins won't be drafting anybody in this morning's annual Rule 5 draft.

I have mixed feelings about that, largely because the minor league geek in me loves the idea of spotting the player in somebody else's system that deserves a major league opportunity. The reality is that the current rules make it exceedingly rare for anybody worth devoting a roster spot to be available, Ryan Pressly being the exception. (Johan Santana, perhaps the most famous Rule 5 pick of this century, was plucked from the Astros system before teams were granted an extra year of minor league control.)

The Twins have in recent years tried hard, probably too hard, to make a Rule 5 pick pay off. It's probably better not to play that game at all.

I do expect the Twins to lose at least one player -- Tyler Jay, left-handed reliever and former first-round draft pick -- today, and quite possibly more. The Twins in the final years of the Terry Ryan administration spent a lot of high draft picks on college relievers, and many of them, like Jay, are now Rule 5 eligible and unprotected. Relievers are prime targets for Rule 5, since pretty much everybody carries at least 12 pitchers all season and pretty much everybody needs a mop-up man.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Notes, quotes and comment

Thad Levine, the No. 2 in the Twins baseball operations hierarchy, strongly implied during an MLB Radio interview Monday that the Twins were now set at second and first bases with Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron.

Maybe he was sincere, maybe he was posturing. I continue to hope that the Twins recognize the significant drop in on-base ability in this lineup as currently projected. It will be difficult for them the address that problem and still have both Schoop and Cron in the lineup.


I closed the Monday post by suggesting that the outcry over the election of Harold Baines might prompt the Hall to again revise the "Veterans Committee" process. Having considered the question for another day, I doubt it.

The Mazeroski selection, which prompted the drastic revision of 2001, came from an open slate of candidates; the committee could consider literally anybody officially eligible for the Hall but not under the perview of the writers.

Baines was selected out of a list of 10 candidates chosen by some mysterious process by the Hall. It does not figure that the Hall, having specifically presented the committee with the opportunity to chose Baines, would now recoil in horror because the committee did just that.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Smith, Baines and the Hall of Fame

The news Sunday night that Lee Smith and Harold Baines had been selected for the Hall of Fame was a puzzler.

Smith is hardly a huge surprise. His candidacy always had some legs with the writers, although not nearly enough to get him over the 75 percent of the vote hump. Smith's qualifications hinge heavily on the save statistic; for a good while he was the career leader in saves, and while the stat savvy among us know the fallacy of the save, the panel that put Smith in includes a number of ... the non stat savvy. (Hello there, Bert Blyleven.) I won't defend Smith's selection, but I understand the case for it.

The shocker was Baines. A long career, to be certain; a great deal of respect around the game, just as certain. Nothing in his statistical resume, distinguished as it is, suggests he should be in Cooperstown. Baines led the league in just one category, one time -- slugging percentage in 1984. He never finished higher than ninth in an MVP vote. And he spent most of his career as a designated hitter, so you know he wasn't helping his team afield.

If Baines is in, why not, say, Vada Pinson? Everything Baines has, Pinson has -- and more, when you figure in the pitching-dominated era of Pinson's career.

The immediate suspicion is that "Today's Game" panel was rigged in Baines' favor, with a former manager (Tony LaRussa), a former GM (Pat Gillick) and a former owner who so loved Baines that he retired Baines' number before his career ended (Jerry Reinsdorf). Of course, the other 13 members didn't have go along with their nonsense.

Ah, well. Baines won't be the worst player with a plaque in that hallowed hall. But he's a good candidate for that status. The last time the "veterans committee" process mucked up a selection this badly -- Bill Mazeroski in 2001 -- it resulted in a good bit disgruntlement among the already-enshrined and led to a heavy revamping of the selection process. Maybe that will happen again.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Former big league shortstop, manager and scout Eddie Kasko, asked about the best signing during the period when he was running the Red Sox scouting department:

"Probably the biggest one was Roger Clemens. We were drafting, I think, 19th at the time and we didn't think we would get Clemens. Clemens didn't throw that hard when he was at the University of Texas. He threw hard enough, but Calvin Schiraldi was at Texas at the same time and if you put the two of them next to each other, Schiraldi probably had a better pitcher's body; he threw harder, and probably had better stuff at the time. Our scout at the time—Danny Doyle—the way he put it, 'I'm not sure what Schiraldi's got behind his belt buckle, but that Clemens boy will fight you.' So we got to 19 and Clemens was still there, so I took him. When I called Danny Doyle, I told him, 'Well, I took Clemens for you. Now go out and sign him.' 'Oh, I'll get him signed, all right.' He really liked him.

"He called back within, I think, two days and said, 'I signed the Clemens boy.' I said, 'What did you give him?' He says, '$121,000.' I said, '$121,000? Why not 120 or 125?' He said, 'Well, 21's his lucky number.' I said, 'Well, did you try offering him $21,000?'

Friday, December 7, 2018

Schoop and Torreyes

The Twins on Thursday signed a pair of infielders.

The big name is Jonathan Schoop, a second baseman who hit 32 homers while making the AL All-Star squad in 2017 with Baltimore only to see his 2018 season crater.

The smaller name is Ronald Torreyes, who spent the 2016 and '17 seasons as the Yankees' primary backup middle infielder and spent most of 2018 in the minors. The Yanks waived him at the start of the offseason; the Cubs claimed him, when waived him themselves, and now the Twins have signed him.

Torreyes has hit for decent averages in his limited major league at-bats, but with little power or strike zone judgment. He has an option left, so he might spend 2019 in the International League again. Or -- I think this more likely -- he may supplant Ehrie Adrianaza as the Twins backup middle infielder.

Schoop figures to be the starting second baseman. There's obvious upside to him despite his horrid 2018 season. He has power, he's a good fielder and he's only 27, in his theoretical prime. He signed for one year and obviously hopes to have a season more like 2017, then try to cash in.

But even in his good seasons, he had terrible on-base percentages. The Twins have already lost their two best hitters at reaching base (Joe Mauer and Robbie Grossman). Schoop and C.J. Cron are both hackers; they have terrible walk-to-strikeout ratios but occasionally "run into one," as the saying goes. (The same is true of Tyler Austin, at the moment the most significant challenger to Cron for the first base job.)

Solo homers is not a sound foundation for an offense. Adding one of these guys is defensible; adding two, especially to a lineup that already features a number of impatient hitters, is a bad sign. The Twins lineup as it currently stands has too many easy outs.  There's time to correct this, of course.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Thinking first base

I doubt that the Twins view C.J. Cron as their 2019 first base solution. This may be wishful thinking, but I doubt it anyway -- first, because he's not the kind of hitter a analytically inclined operation should be coveting anyway, second because adding him while subtracting Robbie Grossman (nontendered), Joe Mauer (retired) and Logan Morrison (free agent) leaves them short an established bat to share first base and the DH slot.

Yes, they have Tyler Austin still, and yes, they have Brant Rooker in the farm system, but

  • Rooker needs more minor league time and
  • Between Cron, Miguel Sano and Austin, there is way too much right-handed swing-and-miss going on. Too much of the same set of tools-and-flaw for one lineup.
Morrison ended his 2018 season early for hip surgery. He had a disappointing season and there's no telling from the outside what his medicals look like, but he hits left-handed, and that's at least a different ingredient for the mix. I don't really expect the Twins to re-sign him, but I wouldn't rule it out.

So I expect the Twins will do something, either in trade or free agency, to acquire a left-handed (or switch-hitting) first baseman/DH. One of the names that came readily to mind as I pondered this while dealing with a weekend virus was Carlos Santana. The Phillies shipped the former Cleveland standout to Seattle on Monday, but he's probably still available, as the Mariners are selling pretty much any player of immediate value. 

I really like Santana. Even whne hitting a disappointing .229 in 2018, he still popped 24 homers and took 110 walks. I am surprised, looking at his career stats in the above link, that he's never hit for average. But he's never been a truly poor hitter, and he's become a good defensive first baseman after years of being a bad catcher and a truly misbegotten attempt to play third base.

There are two drawbacks to Santana: He turns 33 in April and he's got some $40 million coming over the next two seasons. 

Still, considering the obvious teardown in Seattle, his main purpose with the M's is as to be turned into something of future value. There is a deal to be made there.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Goodbye, Grossman

The Twins on Friday -- the deadline to offer contracts to arbitration-eligible players -- signed recent waiver-wire addition C.J. Cron to a one-year deal ($4.8 million)and cut loose Robbie Grossman.

Cron and Grossman are both bat-first guys, but their hitting success comes in different shapes. Cron has the power; Grossman is an on-base percentage guy. I don't dismiss 30 home runs, but Grossman is the better hitter.

But there's a catch, or lack of them. Grossman is a poor defensive outfielder, and the Twins have four outfielders ahead of him (Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Jake Cave). Cron isn't as good as Joe Mauer at first base, but he doesn't damage the pitching staff when he's in the field -- and with Mauer retired, the Twins don't have an incumbent at the position. Cron fits the roster better than Grossman does.

Of course, there is arguably room for both in the Minnesota lineup -- Cron at first base, Grossman at designated hitter. That was a road the organization choose not to take. Had Cron not been available, perhaps the Twins would have kept Grossman. More likely, his time in Minnesota was expired anyway.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Baltimore outfielder Al Bumbry was in a slump, and mentioned to manager Earl Weaver that he was going to a chapel service.

Replied Weaver: "Take your bat with you."