Thursday, December 19, 2019

Bells and Boones

The Twins needed a new bench coach after Derek Shelton left to become manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the weekend they landed Mike Bell, who had been the farm director of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

I would imagine that the vacancy was eyed by a number of wanna-be managers. It was opened, of course, when Shelton landed one of those jobs. The Twins new regime is developing a reputation for forward thinking -- not, I would think, on the level of Tampa Bay or Cleveland, but getting into that territory -- and a struggling organization might well look to poach somebody from such an operation.

Bell, who played briefly in the majors (31 plate appearances with Cincinnati in 2000), is part of one of a pair of three-generation baseball families that are oddly parallel. The other is the Boones.

Patriarchs: Gus Bell and Ray Boone

Gus Bell was a distinguished center fielder with Cincinnati in the 1950s. He made four All-Star teams in five years (1953-1957), not bad in a league that featured Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Stan Musial and Richie Ashburn throughout that period and had the likes of Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron for parts of it.

Ray Boone was a distinguished infielder in the American League in the 1950s -- started as a shortstop with Cleveland, moved to Detroit and third base, played his declining years at first base bouncing from team to team. He didn't make as many All-Star teams as Bell did, but he drew move MVP votes.and got votes in more seasons.

Second generation: Buddy Bell and Bob Boone

If you really work at it, you can make a Hall of Fame case for either of these guys, but neither is in and that's quite acceptable. Boone's case was more plausible during the brief period when he held the record for games caught. The Two Pudges, Rodriguez and Fisk, have long since passed Boone, but Boone is the only one of the top four all time who doesn't have a plaque in Cooperstown (the other is Gary Carter).

Boone won seven Gold Gloves (mostly after he was no longer competing with Johnny Bench for that honor) and made four All-Star teams, but nobody ever constructed a batting order around him.

Bell was primarily a third baseman, with six Gold Gloves in the middle of his career and several seasons of down-ballot MVP votes. Eighteen years in the majors and no postseason appearances; that might be a record, at least for the divisional era.

Both these guys were managers as well, and neither was successful. Which is a bit of an understatement. Bell got 1,243 career games as a skipper with three different teams (Detroit, Colorado and Kansas City) and racked up a .418 winning percentage. Boone had a shorter managerial career (815 games, Kansas City and Cincinnati) and a .468 winning percentage, with no .500 seasons.

Third generation: Bret and Aaron Boone; David and Mike Bell

The two Boones were the more distinguished players of this generation, and Bret in particular. He was a good second baseman who developed notable power in his 30s and drove in 141 runs in 2001. He finished his career with the Twins and was later named by Jose Canseco as a steroid user, which Boone has publicly denied.

Aaron Boone's playing career was less than Bret's but he hit a famous playoff homer for the Yankees and, of course, is now their manager.

David Bell was a teammate of Bret Boone with the Seattle Mariners, including their marvelous 2001 season when the M's won 116 games and then flopped in the playoffs. He's now the manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

And Mike Bell ... well, as a player he's least distinguised of this bunch, but miles better than the rest of us. And his new job might put him in line to join his brother in the managerial ranks.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Sergio Romo and the 2020 bullpen

The Twins are bringing veteran reliever Sergio Romo back for 2020. This is a keep-the-band-together move (as was the earlier retentions of starters Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda) and not, strictly speaking, an upgrade.

Bullpens are always a work in progress. I've written that sentence, or variations of it, repeatedly over the years. The 2019 Twins bullpen was much different at the end of the season than at its beginning. And Romo, a well-traveled veteran, was part of that restructuring -- and a unique piece of it.

The bulleon early last season featured a number of pitchers discarded by other big league teams. Matt Magill and Mike Morin were signed as minor league free agents. Blake Parker was simply released by the Angels, a team with chronic bullpen problems, despite a couple of quality years for the Halos. Parker had the most significant role of the three, but all three were gone by the end of July.

The Twins traded at the deadline for Romo and Sam Dyson. Dyson, injured and ineffective, didn't pitch much the last two months, but Romo was prominent in Rocco Baldelli's usage patterns.

Pretty much everybody else in the late-season bullpen -- most prominently Taylor Rogers, Trevor May, Tyler Duffey and Zach Littell -- are 20-somethings who have pitched in the majors only for Minnesota. Romo was the exception.

Rogers, Romo, Duffey, May, Littell -- those five figure to be the key figures in the Twins bullpen in the coming season. I wouldn't mind seeing them add a second lefty to that mix, but it's a quality group -- and maybe one that won't need a midseason remake.

Monday, December 16, 2019

On MadBum and the Klubot

Word broke Sunday that Madison Bumgarner had reached agreement with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Snakes didn't give him the $100 million total that was supposedly his ask, but they did go five years, and the Twins reportedly wouldn't do that.

I am neither surprised nor disappointed. Not surprised because the Twins were almost certainly not high on Bumgarner's wishlist, not if, as Jon Heyman tweeted last week, location and league were obstacles. The lefty stays in the NL, where he can hit, and he gets to be in the Phoenix area, where he apparently owns property and horses. Not disappointed because, while he would certainly be welcome in the Minnesota rotation, he is clearly not the pitcher he was about five years ago. His arrows are pointing down.

Speaking of pitchers whose arrows are pointing down: Cleveland traded Corey Kluber to Texas on Sunday in what appears to be a salary dump. Kluber didn't pitch well last season before a suffering a broken arm on a line drive, and he never made it back with the Tribe.

The return -- a part-time outfielder and a minor league reliever -- seems pretty light for a two-time Cy Young winner, even one on the wrong side of 30. Presumably the Rangers are taking on all of Kluber's contract. And, also presumably, nobody -- at least nobody to whom Cleveland was willing to trade Kluber -- was willing to top that offer.

The Cleveland operation has been pretty good in recent years at turning out quality young pitchers, and I suspect that Delino Deshields Jr. will be an outfield upgrade for them even if he couldn't attain regular status in north Texas. But not having the Klubot at the head of their rotation feels like a big loss, even if it can be rationalized.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Random winter meeting takeaways

*The Twins neither took nor made a selection in the Rule 5 draft, which essentially closes baseball's annual winter meetings.

That they skipped making a pick was no surprise. They're not eager to devote a roster spot to a developmental project, even with 26-man rosters next year. And they shouldn't be.

That nobody else took somebody out of the organization was at least mildly surprising. There are so many tanking teams that I figured somebody would take an arm and figure they can hide him in the bullpen -- and again, the expanded rosters figure to make that easier to do.

* The Twins likewise were quiet on the free agent and trading fronts. Lots of rumors but no announcements. They did formalize the signings of Michael Pineda and Alex Avila, but those are already old news.

Derek Falvey, in a Thursday appearance on MLB Network Radio, said they were happy with the progess they made in talks with free agents and potential trade partners. Whether that's meaningful is to be seen.

We know the Twins still need to bolster their rotation. And we saw some eyebrow-raising price tags for what I described in an earlier post as "disposable" veteran starters. Martin Perez, cut loose by the Twins, signed with Boston for $6 million. Martin Perez. The Boston deal is less than the option the Twins declined last month, but still: 160 innings carries a lot of value.

* The MLB-sponsored research on the rabbit ball was ... unsatisifying. Which is probably to be expected. First off, there should always be a mistrust of research paid for by an entity that has an interest in a specific finding. MLB would much rather have us believe that it doesn't tinker with the baseballs. Surprise: That's the finding!

But secondly, even if the research is indeed completely independent and the findings unedited by the commissioner's office, there are so many variables that it's truly ludricious to point to one thing and say: That's the reason for the homers.

There is science -- physics -- behind the long balls. But there is art as well. I have heard too many veteran pitchers -- men who have held hundreds of baseballs over the years -- talk about the differences between the 2019 ball and, say, the 2014 ball to buy the notion that there has been no genuine change between them.

And the research doen't explain why using the major-league ball in Triple A last year lead to a major spike in homers at that level, while homers were flat or down at other levels.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The MadBum rush

The Twins were most likely never seriously in the Gerrit Cole market, but now that the right-hander has signed the most lucrative pitcher contract in history, the top pitchers left in free agency are guys the Twins have been pursing. Which brings us to this:


And there's nothing the Twins can do about either of those factors.

I'm not particularly optimistic about the Twins' chances to sign either Madison Bumgarner or Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Dodgers and Angels, having failed to land Cole, will probably be after those two, and at least for the Dodgers, neither league nor location is a drawback. Nor will I be upset if the two lefties sign elsewhere.

I suspect the Twins' most likely route to a name addition to their rotation is via trade. The Red Sox are eager to dump David Price's contract, and I'd just as soon have Price as either Bumgarner or Ryu. And Price's price in a trade might not be that high if the Twins are willing to take on most of the money. He is to make $32 million over the next three seasons; if MadBum's signing point is indeed  $100 million, three years of Price -- seriously -- is a bit cheaper.

All three of these lefties are on the wrong side of 30, and all three have medical histories. None of them are sure bets. But the Twins seem eager to take this sort of plunge. Whether any of them are eager to take the Twins' money is another matter.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Talking rotation

Derek Falvey at the winter meetings Monday:


Clear as mud, right? Presumably the Twins rotation now looks like

  1. Jose Berrios
  2. Jake Odorizzi
  3. Michael Pineda
  4. (veteran to be acquired)
  5. (rookie to emerge)

Except that we know Pineda's not pitching in April. He's got the rest of his suspension to serve yet. So maybe Falvey means the "early in the season" rotation projects as:

  1. Berrios
  2. Odorizzi
  3. (veteran to be acquired)
  4. (veteran to be acquired)
  5. (rookie placeholder for Pineda)
One of the hallmarks of the Terry Ryan era was the placeholder veteran starter. The Twins regularly brought in an older arm on a disposable contract to fill a back-of-the-rotation slot for a while. Sidney Ponson. Ramon Ortiz. Livan Hernandez. They were usually gone by mid May, but in the meantime a prospect had marinated a bit longer in Triple A. And sometimes the veteran was effective enough to last a while longer.

That's an approach I can see Falvine taking here. So yet another potential meaning of Falvey's quote:

  1. Berrios
  2. Odorizzi
  3. (veteran to be acquired)
  4. (veteran placeholder for Pineda)
  5. (rookie to emerge)

No. 3 in that scenario would, ideally, be somebody along the lines of Madison Bumgarner or Hyun-Jin Ryu -- somebody they're counting on to be a season-long starter. No. 4 would be a different matter.

Theoretically, of course, the veteran placeholder could do well enough to remain in place (as Martin Perez did last season), but that would probably mean that none of the prospects are faring well, and I think that's unlikely. They won't all emerge, but they won't all fail either.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Two for the Hall and one for the plate

This year's version of the Veterans' Committee -- which included Rod Carew and Terry Ryan, so two guy with Twins connections -- on Sunday selected Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller for the Hall of Fame.

Long overdue for each, frankly, although Miller's dead and can't enjoy the honor.

Simmons is one of the best hitting catchers in baseball history -- seven seasons with a batting average over .300 -- and it was always a bit of a mystery why he was one-and-done when he came up for consideration by the writers. My answer to that puzzle has several facets:

  • He was a direct contemporary of, and in the same league as, Johnny Bench, and Bench was better. Simba wasn't getting to start any All-Star Games.
  • He was pretty much finished as a catcher by the time he got to play in the postseason.
  • He wasn't a great defensive catcher.
  • He left St. Louis on bad terms with Whitey Herzog, who was seldom shy about sharing his opinions with the baseball press.
  • He hung around for a few years as a pinch-hitter/scrub at the end of his career, so the final memories of him weren't particularly strong.
Simmons was essentially finished as a regular catcher in his early 30s, which is typical of big-hitting backstops. Managers don't like taking one of their very best bats out of the lineup, but catcher is a punishing position.

Which sorta leads us into the news entering the weekend that the Twins and Alex Avila had agreed on a contract.

It's pretty clear what the Twins have in mind here. They split the catching duties last season between Mitch Garver and Jason Castro, with a sprinkling of Willians Astudillo. It wasn't a true platoon, and Garver got more playing time, but there were stretches in which nobody caught two games in a row. Castro is a free agent, and Avila, like Castro, hits left-handed.

My perception of the two is that Castro is the better defensive catcher and Avila the better hitter. That sense is not necessarily supported by the metrics. Avila's deal is apparently less than Castro was paid last year, and if you regard the two as essentially the same set of skills -- a reasonable assessment -- this sets up a 2020 reprise of the 2019 time-share behind the plate.

My one significant concern with Avila mimics my one significant concern about Garver: Concussions. They both have a history of head injuries. As I said about Simmons, it's a punishing job.

Friday, December 6, 2019

The return of Pineda

The Twins and suspended starter Michael Pineda have agreed on a two-year contract. I approve.

Presuming the oversized righty passes his physical, the Twins have accounted for three of their five rotation slots, although Pineda will have to sit the first five weeks or so of the 2020 season to finish his suspension for a drug-testing violation.

The 2019 Twins had a remarkably stable rotation, but they entered the offseason with four vacancies. Two of the four free-agents are back, and they are the two best of the four, Pineda and Jake Odorizzi.

Somebody said on Twitter last night that the fan base would be more excited about Odorizzi and Pineda if they were coming from outside. Since they were here in 2019, they don't have the appeal of a new bright shiny object. But we've seen them be effective. But I'd rather have either of them than Zack Wheeler, who the Twins reportedly had as a top priority but who is going to be a Phillie.

Meanwhile the speculation about Madison Bumgarner continues. The longtime Giants ace was widely expected to be the next prominent free-agent starter to pick a suitor, and the Twins are prominently connected with him. I'm lukewarm on the sjbject, in large part because I think people see that name and think of the postseason stud of the first half of the decade. Those years are past. Bumgarner would still help this rotation, but he's no longer the Cooperstown-caliber ace of those three San Francisco championship teams.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Good-bye (presumably), Cron and Hildenberger

The Twins "celebrated" the contact-tender deadline by turning first baseman C.J. Cron and reliever Trevor Hildenberger into free agents.

That the Twins declined to offer either a 2020 contract is perhaps mildly surprising, although there was plenty of speculation that Cron might be non-tendered. Hildenberger, not so much; the sidewinder isn't, or wasn't, even arbitration eligible. The Twins apparently put a higher value on the spot on the 40-man roster he was occupying than on Hildenberger himself.

I doubt very much that the old regime would have non-tendered these two, but teams are much more aggressive this year about non-tendering controllable players than even last winter.

Passan implicitly sees this as a logical development. I am inclined to view it as evidence that the arbitration system is now as broken as free agency appears to be. Arbitration is supposed to give established players who don't qualify for free agency some leverage. While teams frequently chafed at the large raises the system funneled to arbitration-eligible players, those salaries were generally still seen as lower than they would get on the open market. Non-tenders at this scale suggests that teams don't expect free agents in their upper 20s to be treated any more kindly in free agency than 30-somethings.

That said, there are individual factors in play with both Cron and Hildenberger. Cron is coming off thumb surgery; the public certainly doesn't know his physical status, and it's quite likely the Twins and Cron himself don't know yet how much the procedure will cure his problems. Cron certainly, and understandably, didn't hit much in the second half of 2019. And as a right-right first baseman, he's got to hit.

Cron was a better defensive first baseman than I expected but a step down from Joe Mauer with the glove. And, as I've noted before, right-handed power doesn't seem to draw the interest of current front offices. (Cron himself the last three winters has been traded for a minor leaguer, waived and now non-tendered.) The Twins certainly weren't viewing him as a long-term fixture at first base, but I don't know that  there is a clear front runner among the minor-leaguers who might be that someday -- Alex Kiriloff, Brent Rooker, Luke Raley. 

It may be that the Twins will fill the position out of free agency. It may be that Plan A is to fill first base early with a combo platter of the guys who played there in Cron's absence last year -- Marwin Gonzalez, Ehire Adrianaza (who was tendered a contract), Willians Astudillo, Miguel Sano -- and see if one of the young guys bashes the door down. I like that second route more, but I expect to see a veteran brought in,

Hildenberger has had stretches of utter dominance, and stretches of utter futility. He could re-sign as a minor league free agent, but I suspect his struggles last September after a strong finish at Triple A have put him too far behind other bullpen arms in the Twins arsenal.