Sunday

10-4-15 Twins Blog: 8 Things We Watched For


Six months ago, we here at the WCCO.com Twins Blog brought you "8 Things To Watch" for as the 2015 Twins season rolled along.

Now that the season has come to a conclusion, it’s only fitting we go back and review what did – or didn’t – happen as the 2015 campaign progressed.

Let’s dig in!

1 – The Outfield

When 2015 began, the outfield consisted mainly of Oswaldo Arcia, Jordan Schafer and Torii Hunter, with Shane Robinson as the fourth man on the bench. By the time it was over, only Hunter and Robinson remained.

Arcia flamed out early, appearing in just 19 games for the Twins in 2015. He struggled in Spring Training, but it was hoped he’d kick things into gear once the season started. He certainly kicked things, unfortunately they were usually fly balls to left field.

On May 4, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a right hip flexor strain. On May 25, he was assigned to Triple-A Rochester on a rehab assignment. On June 3, he was officially optioned to Rochester, from whence he would not return in 2015.

Part of the reason he didn’t return was due to the emergence of Eddie Rosario, who was called up when Arcia hit the DL on May 4. With most of the prospect focus centered on Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, Rosario flew somewhat under the radar (unless you read our April column that told you to keep an eye on him). That lasted until the first pitch of the first at-bat of his major league career. It was a pitch he promptly deposited in the left field seats for his first big league hit and first big league home run, becoming the 29th player and first Minnesota Twins player to accomplish the feat.
Rosario went on to hit .267/.289/.459 with 13 homers, 18 doubles, a league-leading 15 triples and had 11 stolen bases in 453 at-bats in his rookie season. There’s another Twin who’ll finish higher in the Rookie of the Year voting, but still, it was a solid rookie year for Eddie.

Jordan Schafer appeared in just 27 games for the Twins before being granted his release on June 18. His release was made possible by the remarkable resurgence of Aaron Hicks. Hicks was given every opportunity to make the club out of Spring Training, but failed, earning him a ticket to Rochester.
Hicks played in 27 games for the Red Wings and found something. He ended up hitting .336/.415/.561 for Rochester with two home runs, 10 doubles, four triples and 14 RBI, earning him a call up to the big leagues on May 12.

He spent the rest of the season in the majors – minus a rehab stint – hitting .256/.323/.398 with 11 homers, 11 doubles, three triples and 13 stolen bases in 352 at bats and fixing himself as a part of the Twins outfield going forward.

Torii Hunter met – and in some respects exceeded – the expectations most folks had of him coming into the season. No, he wasn’t a defensive stalwart in right field. And he only hit .240/.293/.409 – which is pretty pedestrian – but he also added 22 homers, 22 doubles and 81 RBI in 521 at bats.

Perhaps more importantly, Torii brought leadership and a sense of unity to the clubhouse that had been lacking the last few years. Sabermatricians are scoffing as they read that, and they’re right to point out that “clubhouse presence” is something that’s impossible to measure. But Twins players have consistently credited Torii with changing the atmosphere in the clubhouse. And Tigers and Angels players have commented that they miss having him around. Too many comments for it to be mere coincidence.

Hunter was on a 1-year contract, and one of the Twins off-season priorities is determining whether to bring him back, if so for how long and at what price. With Hicks and Rosario emerging, and Buxton certainly being a part of the mix, it’s unclear how many at-bats there’ll be for a right-fielder who’ll turn 41 years old in 2016.

Speaking of Buxton… well, we’ll get to him in a little bit.

2. Will Ricky Nolasco Bounce Back?

There’s no question that starting pitching was the big question mark coming into the season. It’s been the Twins Achilles heel for the last four seasons and needed to improve in 2015 for them to compete.
It was thought that a resurgent Ricky Nolasco would have to be part of that equation if the Twins were to succeed.

As it happened, he wasn’t, and they still did.

In year two of his 4-year, $49 million deal, Nolasco got rocked in his first start but came back to earn the win in his next five straight. Unfortunately, those games belied the value of the “Pitcher Win” as he lasted no more than 5.2 innings in four of those five, meaning that in only one of the wins did he qualify for a “Quality Start.”

Nolasco lasted just one inning in his May 31 start against Toronto before leaving the game with what would turn out to be a “right ankle impingement,” which landed him on the DL for the bulk of the season. Nolasco wouldn’t return to game action until September 30, and that was out of the bullpen.

It’s entirely fair to say that the Twins haven’t gotten any kind of value out of the first two years of Nolasco’s deal. It’s equally fair to suggest that due to injuries, Nolasco hasn’t had a chance to get into any kind of groove and show what he can really do.

Whether he can do just that in 2016 will go a long ways towards determining whether his contract is salvageable, or a complete bust.

3. Ervin Santana Back in the AL

Well this one got short-circuited quickly.

On April 3 – just three days before the season was set to begin – the Twins were forced to place Santana on the Restricted List after he received an 80-game suspension from Major League Baseball for a violation of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Specifically, he failed a drug test for PED use.

Like Nolasco, a good season from Santana was thought to be a key to the Twins being an above .500 team for the first time in four years. Like Nolasco, that turned out not to be the case.

Santana made his Twins debut on July 5 and the results after that were decidedly mixed. Starting with his July 29 start, Santana lost four of his next six starts – earning no-decisions on Aug. 13 and Aug. 25 for his only non-losses. Over that six-game stretch, he averaged just 5 innings pitched per start, his opponent’s batting average was .356, he walked 15 to only 14 strikeouts and amassed an ugly 9.20 earned run average.

But from his next start on Aug. 25 on, it was clear that Santana had finally found something. Down the stretch, he was one of the Twins most reliable starters. Over his last seven starts of the season, Santana went 5-2 with a 1.62 ERA, giving up just nine earned runs over 50 IP, with 47 strikeouts to only 14 walks. His opponent’s batting average for balls in play was just .279, slightly below average, so maybe there was some luck involved. But in the bad stretch he had in July and August it was .354, so maybe things were just balancing out as well.

He didn’t have the impact the Twins had hoped for in 2015, but there’s clearly reason to hope that he’ll have that opportunity in 2016.

4. The Bullpen

We knew coming into 2016 that Glen Perkins and Casey Fien would be key cogs for Minnesota’s relief staff. But there were nothing but question marks after that.

Mike Pelfrey was slated to join the bullpen out of Spring Training, but that plan was aborted after Santana’s PED suspension.

The Twins went 1-for-2 with the “new guys.” Blaine Boyer pitched exceedingly well in the early goings – earning the nickname “Boyer the Destroyer.” But he struggled through the middle of the season, before bouncing back to “serviceable” status late in the year.

Tim Stauffer? Not so much. He appeared in just 13 games for Minnesota before being designated for assignment. He actually ended up in the Independent Leagues for a bit before landing back in MLB with the Mets.

You never know how things are going to go for a Rule-5 draftee. Rookie J.R. Graham certainly started shaky, plunking Kansas City’s Alex Rios in his first appearance, breaking a bone in Rios’ hand and sending him to the DL. But Graham settled into big league life and became a serviceable part of the Twins bullpen – even making a spot start for the club on June 6 against Milwaukee.
Graham finished 1-1 on the year, with a 4.95 ERA. He struck out 53 batters and gave up 21 walks. His WHIP was a too-high 1.49, and he gave up 10 home runs – the most among Twins relievers.

It’s tough to know what the Twins will do with him going forward. He may spend some more time in the minors, but it won’t be surprising to see him in a Twins uniform again at some point next season.

Perhaps the biggest impact on the Twins bullpen came from a converted starter, and their lone trade deadline move – acquiring Kevin Jepsen from the Tampa Bay Rays.

Trevor May began the season in the Twins rotation, starting 16 games before injuries and struggling arms forced the Twins to move him to the bullpen. The Twins have consistently said that they view Trevor’s future as a starter, but his success as a late-innings arm can’t be ignored. After moving to the bullpen, Trevor appeared in 32 games, amassing a 4-1 record with a 2.87 ERA. He struck out 37 batters while surrendering just 8 walks. And what doesn’t show up in the stat line is the number of high-leverage situations he pitched in out of the bullpen. His ability to handle those situations is what will tempt the Twins to move him back out there should there not be room for him in the rotation.

Jepsen had a rough debut in Minnesota, but settled down to become a rather reliable late-innings reliever, even filling in as the teams closer down the stretch as Glen Perkins battled back – and control – issues. There’s no telling how things would’ve gone had Jepsen not been there to help the Twins.

Perkins had an All-Star first half, earning his second-straight trip to baseball’s mid-summer classic. But his second half has become the elephant in the room. He blew his first save opportunity of the season after the break, and things went downhill from there. He had lower-back issues, resulting in a cortisone shot. That seemed to calm his back down, but it was clear that Glen never fully regained whatever mojo he had in the first half.

The Twins hope that a full off-season of rest and back exercises clear up the issue. But thankfully, they have Kevin Jepsen under control for another year… just in case.

5. How Will Danny Santana Fare at SS?

The short answer: Not well, not well at all.

We knew coming into the year that he was due to regress at the plate. His 2014 baBIP of .405 was entirely unsustainable.

What we didn’t know is that he’d regress to the point of hitting just .215/.241/.291 with 67 strikeouts to just six walks and 15 extra-base hits in 261 at bats.

Twins coaches said time and time again that it was a matter of getting Santana some confidence, and him sustaining it. But that never seemed to materialize.

Eduardo Escobar ended up shouldering the bulk of the duties at shortstop with Eduardo Nunez filling in occasionally.

Escobar held his own, but shortstop is clearly a spot where the Twins can look to upgrade going into 2016.

6. Is Joe Mauer at a Crossroads?

We asked at the beginning of the year whether Twins fans will need to accept that a .275-ish hitter with doubles-power and mediocre defense is simply what Joe Mauer has become.

His 2015 season didn’t really do anything to challenge that notion.

For the season, Mauer hit .265/.338/.380 with 10 homers, 34 doubles, 2 triples and 66 RBI. That’s nearly 60 points lower than his career batting average, OBP and SLG.

Yes, Mauer set a new team record by reaching base in 43 straight games, and his health was as good as it’s been in years, evidenced by him playing in 158 of the Twins 162 games.

But if that’s what we’re clinging to at this point – on-base percentage and simply being available on a day-in and day-out basis – it’s fair to wonder if Mauer will need to bat elsewhere in the line-up and be open to yet another position change should the Twins decide to try Miguel Sano’s hand at first base.

7. How Will Paul Molitor Manage?

As much as we wanted to believe that it was time for a change in the manager’s office, and hoped Paul could breathe some new life into a seemingly moribund clubhouse, there was really no way to answer that question coming into 2015.

Now we have 162 games worth of data to analyze.

Grantland recently published their second-annual “Manager’s Meddling Index” which attempted to analyze how aggressively – or with lack of aggression – managers managed (pitching changes, shifts, different lineups, defensive substitutions, etc.).

To put it simply, Paul Molitor was almost one full standard deviation more aggressive than the average MLB manager in 2015. Compare that to Ron Gardenhire’s final season with the Twins, in which he was over three full standard deviations LESS aggressive than the average MLB manager.

Aggressive managing isn’t in and of itself predictive of success. Of the 10 most-aggressive managers by that index, only four of them managed teams into the post-season in 2015. But if we’re going to go with the “sometimes you just need a different voice” narrative, then Molitor certainly changed things up for the Twins.

Like we discussed with Torii Hunter, it becomes near-impossible to objectively measure a manager’s impact on the mood/tenor of a clubhouse. As much credit as Torii received – deservedly so – Molitor’s name was mentioned nearly as often.

So perhaps a “different voice” was just what the baseball doctors ordered.

8 – When Do The Kids Get Here?

This was perhaps the most exciting question on everyone’s mind in April.

Byron Buxton… Miguel Sano… Alex Meyer… Names we’d been hearing for a few years. Was it time for them to finally emerge with the big league club?

The results were decidedly mixed.

The first rookie to get the call and make an impact wasn’t on that list at all. As we mentioned earlier, Eddie Rosario got the call in May and never left.

Byron Buxton was next, making his debut on June 14. Things certainly didn’t go as hoped for the Twins top prospect in 2015. He hit just .189/.231/.270 with only two extra base hits and two walks against 15 strikeouts in his first ll games before sustaining a thumb injury that sidelined him for almost two months.

His speed and defense were certainly Major League ready, but his bat plain wasn’t. Buxton finished the year hitting .211/.252/.328 with two homers, seven doubles and one triple. He stole two bases and was caught stealing twice. Most alarmingly, he struck out 44 times while walking only 6 times.
It will be interesting to see if Buxton starts 2016 with the big club, or in Triple-A Rochester to try and get his bat going before heading back to Minnesota.

As buzz-killing as Buxton’s debut was, Miguel Sano lit the Twins fan base on fire with his sheer power. Sano made his debut on July 2, and just started hitting. Over his first month in the big leagues, Sano hit .297/.424/.541 with four homers, six doubles and 14 RBI in just 74 at-bats. He also had a completely unsustainable .450 baBIP, as well as 31 strikeouts. But the pop he showed at the plate was like nothing Twins fans had seen since Jim Thome was knocking them off flag poles at Target Field.

Sano finished at .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers, 17 doubles, one triple and 52 RBI in just 278 at bats.
He also played just 11 games in the field – nine at third base, two at first. That presents the Twins with a challenge headed into 2016. Will Sano be a regular in the field? If so, who gets moved to make room? It’s a good problem to have, in a sense. But it will need to be addressed.

Alex Meyer? To say his 2015 was a disappointment is an understatement.

He struggled with consistency as a starter in Rochester and was eventually moved to the bullpen, where he found moderate success. He made his debut with Minnesota on June 26, but appeared in just two games for the Twins before being shipped back to Rochester on July 4. Not being a part of Minnesota’s September call-ups was the exclamation point on a forgettable 2015 for the right-hander.

He’s seemingly been replaced by Jose Berrios as the Twins top pitching prospect. Meyer was thought to have the higher upside when compared with Trevor May, who was brought into the organization during the same off-season as Meyer. But there’s no question that May’s brought more value to the big league club so far. That can still change, but so far, Meyer hasn’t been close to “as advertised” when the Twins dealt Denard Span for him in 2012.

Few, if any, pundits had the Twins finishing 83-79 in 2015. So the season really should be looked on as a success. Yes, it stings to get that close to a playoff berth and not get there. But the twists, turns, successes and surprises in 2015 has to leave folks salivating for the 2016 season.


Is it April yet?



Friday

10-2-15 Twins Blog: It All Comes Down to This...


Ten teams make the playoffs in baseball. Nine of those spots have been decided. But the final AL Wild Card spot is still up for grabs.

Nobody – and I mean nobody – predicted back in April that the three teams vying for the final spot would be the Astros, Twins and Angels. But the beauty of baseball is its unpredictability. And that's exactly where we find ourselves with three games to go.

Here are the current Wild Card Standings in the American League:

NYY +3 (x)

HOU ---

MIN -1

LAA -1

(x – The Yankees have clinched one of the two Wild Card spots, though technically, Houston could still catch them for the first spot, and therefore host the AL Wild Card Game.)

So the math could be very simple. If Houston wins out, they're in. But if they lose a game or two, things could get complex in a hurry.

If you go by opponents record, Houston also has the easiest path over their final three games. Here's how the three teams finish:

Houston at Arizona (78-81)

Minnesota vs. Kansas City (92-67)

Los Angeles at Texas (87-72)

But that evaluation isn't all that simple either. Houston is 31-47 on the road. Combine that with the loss of the DH in a National League park and maybe that makes things tough on the Astros. Although to be fair, they are 14-3 in Interleague Play this season, so maybe it doesn't.

Los Angeles has already lost the opener of their 4-game series with Texas. One more win for Texas (or an Astros loss) will clinch the AL West for Texas locking them in as the 3rd seed among division winners and will be on the road for their AL Division Series match-up regardless of whether they play Kansas City or Toronto.

The Twins hoped to have a “resting” Royals club come to town this weekend. Alas, Kansas City is in a dogfight with Toronto for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (y). So instead of the Royals trying to set up their rotation for the Division Series, they're scheduled to throw Chris Young, Yordano Ventura and Johnny Cueto at Minnesota over the weekend.

(y- Toronto and Kansas City are currently tied at 92-67, and with the AL having won the All-Star Game – don't get me started – whomever comes out on top between them would have home-field advantage not only through the AL playoffs, but also in the World Series.)

Then, of course, there are the tie-breaker scenarios.

If Houston and Minnesota tie, they'd play a Game 163 at Target Field on Monday. If Los Angeles and Minnesota tie, they'd play a Game 163 at Angel Stadium on Monday. If Houston and Los Angeles tie (z), they'd play a Game 163 at Minute Maid Park on Monday. The winner of those games would go on to play the Yankees on Tuesday in New York.

(z- Since you're likely a Twins fan, you probably don't care about this scenario, but in the interest of fairness, it's been included.)

If all three teams tie? While that's never happened in the Wild Card era, there IS a procedure in place that would determine things. Since Los Angeles has the best combined record against the other two teams, they'd have the choice of hosting two tie-breaker games, or they could play a single game on the road. And since no team in their right mind would force themselves to win two games instead of one, the likelihood is that the Twins would host the Astros on Monday, with the winner of that game hosting the Angels on Tuesday, with Tuesday's scheduled AL Wild Card Game (Yankees vs. TBD) being bumped to Wednesday.

Got all that? Take an aspirin, clear your head. It'll all sort itself out.

The bottom line for the Twins is: just keep winning. They don't control their own destiny. They'll need help from Arizona. But as long as they keep winning games, they have a shot.

For Twins fans? Well it doesn't get a whole lot more fun than this. After four consecutive 90+ loss seasons, being this close to a post-season berth is baseball-nirvana (the Buddhist state-of-mind, not the band... though the band was awesome too).

The tension, the drama, the excitement – this is why people love sports so much. Sunday could be a day of elation at Target Field, or it could be a total buzz-kill. You just don't know. Which is what makes the ride so enjoyable.

It's supposed to be near-perfect Fall weather all weekend long. So grab a light jacket (and even a blanket if you're prone to the chills), head on out to Target Field and partake in some of the best drama baseball has to offer.

Oh, and maybe have a “personal day” on standby for Monday... just in case!