Monday, February 13, 2017

If You Don't Have Any Pitchers, Do Just The Catchers Report? Your 2017 "Feelin' It in Fort Myers!" Twins Season Preview

Joe and Justin stop being polite and start getting real. Courtesy of SI.

Oh, how I long for the days of Johan for eight innings and Joe Nathan flappin’ his gums and slammin’ the door. How I pine for another year with Francisco Liriano’s garbage-pail filthy slider. Really, how I would tolerate a season of Brad Radke, Rick Reed, and Sweatin’ Out the Ninth with Everyday Eddie.

For someone who purports to be a keen Minnesota sports observer, I am grossly unqualified to write a Minnesota Twins preview this year. I can name three pitchers on the current team: Ervin Santana, Trevor May, and I Think We Still Have Glen Perkins. Is Ricky Nolasco still cashing checks that feature the Twins watermark? (Yes, but he won’t be pitching for us; the Twins will pay $4m of his salary while he blows chunks for the Angels.) Is Carl Pavano and his patented “Pav ‘Stache” still in the league? (Huh? No.) How about “Fireball Phil” Hughes, is he still in the rotation? (Yes.) Do we have a bullpen? (The physical structure? Yes. Pitchers to fill the structure? Debatable.)


I stopped paying attention to last year’s team on April 15, when the macabre, train-wrecky first two weeks of the season concluded with the first Twins win of the year. With that win, the Twins improved to 1-9, and I no longer had a reason to check in on the nightly updates from the hero fan who started the “Have the Twins Won Yet?” Twitter account.

Sano and manager Molitor's first high-five of 2016, on April 15. Courtesy of the AP.

Here we are, ten months later, and it’s time for us all to get reacquainted with the team that lost a Twins record 103 games last year. What are the chances that Minnesota will return to respectability in what will probably be a “down” AL Central this year? And will “respectability” equal higher watchability? Or are we all staring down the barrel of another boring baseball summer where the question on most of our minds is “Yeah, but when do the Lynx play next?”

INFIELDERS

Joe Mauer and two of Minnesota's richest babies. Courtesy of City Pages.

Former 3-time Most Eligible Bachelor in Baseball champion and below average first baseman Joe Mauer has two years left on his monster contract that continues to function as a useful albatross “preventing” the team’s billionaire owners from investing more in the on-field product. (It didn’t keep old GMs Terry Ryan and Bill Smith from handing out ill-advised contracts to the Mike Pelfreys, Tsuyoshi Nishiokas and Kevin Correias of the world over the past six years, but I digress.) The 13th-highest paid player in baseball, Mauer’s contract will eat up 23% of the Twins’ roughly $100 million Opening Day salary. In exchange for his $142,000 game checks, Mauer is projected to provide the Twins about 1.0 Wins Above Byung Ho Park (or Wins Above Replacement-Level Player—WARP) and an OPS around .720, which would have been good for 16th among 19 qualifying first baseman last year.

The rest of the infield should yield more positive returns, at least offensively. New Sabermetrics-approved general manager Derek Falvey rightly refused to accept some intriguing but ultimately lacking trade offers for Brian Dozier this off-season in the wake of his historically awesome 2016 campaign. Another 42-homer campaign for Dozier would be a surprise, but 30 dingers, a solid on-base percentage, and a WARP north of 3.5 seems reasonable.

The left side of the infield will be defensively lacking but could potentially provide a lot of offensive pop. The “Miguel Sano: Outfielder” experiment made for some great laugh track material for network TV’s next multi-camera comedy, but the continued logjam at the “power positions” may lead the Twins to move Sano back to third base, the position he manned as he rose through the minors. Sano’s power potential remains massive, but an astronomical strikeout rate and questions of his level of defensive focus and commitment dogged him in 2016. We may see super-utility guy Eduardo Escobar and promising prospect Jorge Polanco tag-team the shortstop spot, both have been slightly above average batting and below average fielding in their time as Twins.

A different person named Jason Castro. Courtesy of 25ccm.

An underrated source of improvement comes from the catcher position, where Kurt Suzuki has been replaced by new signee Jason Castro, who signed here on a 3-year, $25 million deal after spending parts of six seasons with the Astros. A more recent development within baseball analytics focuses on catchers’ ability to help pitchers out with their ability to frame pitches and coax favorable calls out of umpires.

Castro has been a below-average hitter with OK power the last three seasons. Suzuki could hit for pretty good average, but had little power and was considered one of the worst defensive catchers in the league. Both players rated at about 1 WARP on the offensive side, but through pitch framing, Suzuki cost the Twins seven runs last year, whereas Castro added 12.8 runs for the Astros. That discrepancy in runs is equivalent to about two extra wins—not a huge number, but hey, when your team’s base is a paltry 59 wins, you take what you can get.

The Twins will also pencil a DH into the lineup most days. Kennys Vargas? Sure.

OUTFIELDERS

Several of the most respected baseball projection services see Minnesota bouncing back to around a .500 record in 2017; PECOTA pegs the Twins at 79-83, while ZiPS has them at 81-81. One of the biggest reasons for that sizable improvement is a giant improvement expected in the team’s outfield defense. Sano and Robbie Grossman were unmitigated disasters roaming Target Field’s pastures last year, so simply replacing them with the above average corner outfield duo of Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler saves the Twins dozens of runs over last year’s performance. Both were average at the plate but showed plus power, and they’re still a couple years from hitting their primes—this will be Rosario’s age-25 year and Kepler’s age-24 year.

"Oh, hey. I'm Byron." Courtesy of WGOM.

And while Byron Buxton had major struggles with his bat in his first full-ish season as a pro, he’s already the Dominique Wilkins of the outfield, a regular Human Highlight Reel who, if we’re lucky, will be a Twin for a reeeeeeeally long time. And the bat will come around this season: I’m calling an .800 OPS for the kid along with, oh, let’s say 30 stolen bases, to make him a borderline All-Star.

STARTERS

Ervin Santana’s 2016 campaign was Exhibit A for why win-loss records are completely meaningless in determining starting pitcher value these days. He finished with a 7-11 record but posted an ERA+ of 124 and 3.8 WARP, good for 30th among all starting pitchers. Also, If Ervin was on the mound, there was a 45% chance that I would watch the game that night, compared to a 3% chance if any other starter was pitching.

Fun fact about Santana: He perspires like a canine. Courtesy of USA Today.

There’s been some turnover in the starter ranks compared to 2016’s Opening Day starting five, but I’m skeptical that the non-Ervin parts of this year’s rotation will make giant strides over last year’s unit. Kyle Gibson and Tyler Duffey regressed big-time from their promising 2015 campaigns—at a WARP of -1.6, Duffey had the 6th-worst figure of 742 pitchers last year. Hector Santiago mostly pitched like a sack of crap after he arrived in the trade that sent Nolasco to Los Angeles. And one of the five pitchers worse than Duffey…was Jose Berrios, the highly heralded prospect who bounced between shutting down AAA hitters in Rochester and getting lit up by every major league batter he faced.

So, I mean, there’s a law-of-averages, regression-to-the-mean-type argument for why those four guys won’t form a parallelogram of pain for those of us watching them. And former top starter prospect Trevor May has made some noise this offseason about wanting to try his hand at starting again—which, sure, go for it, but it’s not like Trevor’s 5.27 ERA from last year is THAT big of an improvement over Touchable Tommy Milone and the guys listed above. But, I mean, jeez. I’m no Bill James, but I don’t think you want 80% of your rotation to consist of whiplash sufferers. It’s hard to make the mental transition from “shell-able” back to “respectable”—just ask one of the other “Worst Six Pitchers of 2016,” former Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum.

BULLPEN

There’s been a renaissance of sorts where good teams are building dominant back ends so they can seal off wins after their starters get through six innings. And I kind of remember back in, like, 2006 when we could sort of bridge Juan Rincon Back When He Was Juicin’, Big Bad Dennys Reyes, and Pat Neshek into Nathan to close games out.

None of these guys will be in the bullpen this year. Courtesy of ESPN.

But, full disclosure: I don’t really know these guys in the Twins’ pen this year. I guess Brandon Kintzler was quite good closing in relief of Perkins last season. Michael Tonkin has been the “Quadruple A” bullpen version of Jose Berrios so far in his career. I think I made a joke about how generic and unrecognizable Ryan Pressly was a couple years ago, but I honestly don’t remember if the joke was about Pressly or someone else—that’s how generic and unrecognizable the joke was, too, I guess.

Who else was back there last year? OH MAN, I totally forgot that we gave Kevin Jepsen a contract before last season, too. Great use of company funds for that Matt Capps-ian 6.15 ERA right there. Ryan O’Rourke? J.T. Chargois? Buddy Boshers? Wasn’t that the full name of Will Ferrell’s character in Elf?

A quick glance at all of last year’s bullpen performances shows that our best back-end guy was shortstop Escobar, who pitched a scoreless inning in one game.

So, yeah, maybe they’ll be all right. They’ll probably be overworked because of the faulty starters. There are no Andrew Millers or Zach Brittons here, though. So that’s a bummer.

COACHES

Based on the Twins’ off-season coaching hires, I’m not the only Minnesotan pining for the return of the good times of the mid-2000s. Because Minnesota front offices are the coziest, most insular departments in major professional sports, the Twins decided that most of the coaching staff from last year’s league-worst 59-103 team deserved another shot. Hitting coach Tom Brunansky and first base coach Butch Davis were canned, but luckily (for them), manager Paul Molitor and the pitching coaches who taught our hurlers to allow a truly hurl-worthy AL-worst 889 runs allowed are all back in the dugout.

Tom Brunansky or Butch Davis? You make the call! Courtesy of Zimbio.

The Pohlads and team president Dave St. Peter thought they’d curry a little fan goodwill by bringing Michael Cuddyer, LaTroy Hawkins, and Torii Hunter back as special assistants in the baseball operations department. They’ll essentially be well-paid ambassadors that will show up to spring training and the minor league locker rooms from time to time throughout the year to tell younger guys to hold the bat this way, not that way, ya dummy. (Well, LaTroy and his 0-for-9-with-seven-strikeouts career batting performance might work with the pitchers, I guess.)

SO WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Man, I’m coming up on 2,000 words here again. I tell ya, you make a New Year’s resolution to get more pieces up on the website, and you think that’ll translate into shorter stuff. Apparently you can take the writer out of the long-form division, but you can’t take the long-form out of the writer.
I will write shorter, easier-to-consume pieces as the year progresses. Well, I’ll try.

...

So, baseball.

Target Field: Go see it! Courtesy of ESPN.

The Twins will likely significantly improve over last year’s won-loss record. But when you’re coming off a season as rotten as their 2016, you run the risk of displaying Timberwolves Mirage Syndrome, where a big improvement and progress among their promising young guns still only gets them to, like, a 72-90 season.

Hopefully, those ZiPS and PECOTA projections signal that we’ll be treated to the exploits of a much more competitive Twins team in 2017. Well, no, first things first: Hopefully, the Wild’s season will last into June this year, so we can all make educated decisions on how much time to spend closely following this year’s iteration of the Twins with two months of solid evidence already in the bag. But even if the Wild follow the unfortunately common Bruce Boudreau Path to Postseason Struggletown, it’ll probably still be worthwhile to make a couple trips to Target Field this summer, because it’s one of the finest ways to spend a summer afternoon on a lovely Twin Cities day.

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