Dear Future Twins General Manager,
Congratulations on your new job. It’s been a long half decade in the Twin Cities, where the former world champions amassed a 355-477 record, including four consecutive 90+ loss seasons since 2011. The pitching staff ranks ahead of only the Colorado Rockies in ERA over that span while Twins hitters rank 21st in wRC+, a stat that I hopefully do not need to explain. While the Astros, Mets, and Cubs have enjoyed success thanks to strong drafts and well timed trades over the last four seasons, the Twins’ ten first round picks since 2011 have produced .1 major league WAR. From the last five amateur drafts, the Twins have only received major league contributions from the 2012 draft which produced prospect phenom Byron Buxton (.7 WAR), 2016 rookie pitchers Taylor Rogers (31.1 IP) and Jose Berrios (15 IP) and starting pitcher Tyler Duffey, whose 1.7 career WAR ranks just .8 WAR ahead of the Twins’ only 2011 pick to deliver major league value, 40th round pick Kyle Barraclough. Barraclough did not sign with the Twins, as is often the case with 40th round picks, and now pitches for the Miami Marlins.
It’s been a very unproductive half decade in the win column but the talented young players in the organization could still form a core to reverse the team’s fortunes, assuming you can both make room for them and build enough talent around them. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Sports talk host Phil Mackey recently reported:
13.) As one person from a top org. put it to me recently, re: Twins: “I love those guys, but they’re in survival mode. Way behind the curve”
— Phil Mackey (@PhilMackey) July 18, 2016
You may feel pressure at this moment to do things the “Twins way”, to conform to the spirit of pleasing the fans, avoiding tearing down the team as constructed and hoping the minor league talent accumulated over the last 5 years of unintentional rebuilding will save your job. As a chronic anxiety sufferer, I’m here to promise you that ignoring your problems will not make them go away. Clinging to mediocrity while playing a strange game of whack-a-mole in order to fill perceived needs on a year-to-year basis dug this hole for the Twins and it’s going to take a lot of work to lead them out of it. Do nothing, and you’ll end up where you started. In fact, let me lay out for you the scenario in which you do nothing.
Scenario 1: Don’t Rebuild/Wait For [more] Prospects
The Twins’ farm system ranked 10th in all of baseball according to Baseball America entering 2016, one year after the prominent publication ranked the system 2nd. This slide was thanks largely to Miguel Sano graduating from prospect status to full time major leaguer and the diminished outlook for Byron Buxton after he struggled to hit in his first exposure to major league pitching. There is still plenty of young talent in the system, though, and the team could bide its time while it waits for young players to supplant the largely unremarkable veterans currently occupying the 25 man roster. Below is a hypothetical look at how the Twins’ position player roster could evolve through 2020. Players highlighted in blue represent recent top prospects the team will want to build around. Yellow highlights indicate players facing their final year on the roster thanks to a team option the Twins would be wise to opt out of. Red highlights represent a player’s final year on the roster before they become a free agent.
MLBTradeRumors.com reports the Twins were active in trade talks prior to firing Terry Ryan but the team has made very few trades in recent seasons, even while it was on pace to lose around 100 games, so, in this scenario, I’ll assume we’ll see most of their controlled position players back in 2017. The wildcard here may be catcher Kurt Suzuki. If the Twins do not trade Kurt Suzuki and the remainder of his contact and vesting option this season, they’ll possibly owe the veteran catcher $6 million in 2017. He’ll have to meet his 485 plate appearance vesting option, though, a feat he hasn’t accomplished since 2011. Six million dollars is a high price for a catcher who performed below replacement level in two of the previous three season, so I’ll assume next year’s starting job will default to John Ryan Murphy.
Byung-ho Park vs. Kenny Vargas presents another dilemma. Vargas and Park swapped places last month, with the 29 year old rookie from South Korea moving down to DH in AAA and Vargas moving to Park’s spot on the major league depth chart. Park’s contract extends through 2019 with a team option for 2020, so you can swap the players in the depth chart according to whichever of the enigmatic hitters you believe in more.
I’m also making the not-so bold prediction that Robbie Grossman will regress toward his career production and Max Kepler will continue to improve over the course of the remaining season. If my prediction proves correct and if Tyler Plouffe returns as the starting third baseman after recovering from injury, Grossman could get squeezed out of his starting job so that Kepler and Miguel Sano can stay in the lineup.
As seen above, the 2019 season represents the first hypothetical year in which, the team could free up enough space to field a starting lineup largely filled by the young players who once formed one of the best farm systems in baseball. The problem for you, Mr. or Ms. New General Manager, is that this hypothetical lineup might lack the kind of punch that could lead the team back to the top of the division. Only Sano and Polanco project to be above average hitters by 2019 according to PECOTA. Other projection systems, such as KATOH, think more of Max Kepler but the projections summarily expect the core hitters for the Twins face a lot of development ahead of them.
The Twins pitching staff also looks quite crowded in the near future. Once again, recent top prospects are highlighted in blue. Yellow represents players in the final year before a team option and red represents players in their final year before free agency.
With a combined ERA this season of 4.91 and a FIP of 4.47, the Twins’ pitching staff remains one of the worst collections of pitchers in baseball. While Phil Hughes managed to keep the ball in the park while recording a historically good K/BB ratio in 2014, he’s looked like his former self over the last season and a half and is now out indefinitely due to surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. He’ll earn most of the first season of his $39.6 million extension while rehabbing from the surgery.
Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco were brought in to offer stability and average performance for a dismal Twins’ rotation, but have done nothing to alleviate the team’s woes on the mound. Santana has managed a slightly above average park adjusted ERA this season (104 ERA+) but, at 33 years old and with a career 99 ERA+, is he really a building block toward a future championship team?
Kyle Gibson, while younger than most of his counterparts at 28, has never lived up to the potential offered by his 6’6” frame. In roughly three full seasons of major leagues starts (84 starts), he’s recorded only 488 innings pitched (5.8 IP/start), has never eclipsed 7 strikeouts per 9 innings in a season while walking over half the amount of batters he strikes outs.
This combination of lackluster veterans in the Twins’ rotation have also crowded out the team’s best starting pitching prospect, Jose Berrios, and prevented the team from giving Trevor May or Alex Meyer another shot in the rotation. And they aren’t going away anytime soon. Without any major changes, Nolasco will stick around through 2017 with a team option for 2018, Santana isn’t eligible for a buy-out until after the 2018 season and Gibson isn’t eligible for free agency until after 2018. Thanks to the premature extension handed to Phil Hughes, he’ll be part of the team through 2019. Other top pitching prospects, like Nick Burdi and Tyler Jay, could be fast-tracked to the majors ahead of the schedule above, but, in this scenario, the higher leverage spots in the bullpen may also be spoken for until 2018, thanks to the Glen Perkins extension and Alex Meyer and Trevor May’s possible futures in the bullpen.
If the scenario we’ve just covered doesn’t inspire you, it’s probably because bad sports teams seldom inspire anyone. Of course, since you’re now the general manager of a fan friendly team with a long history strong leadership, what I’m sure you want to do is build something the fans and employees of the organization can take pride in again. You don’t need to spend the long dark Minnesotan nights praying that this will all come together in the end. You have another choice.
Scenario 2: Focus on the Core, Trade everyone else
Imagine a world in which you’re still the general manager of one of the worst projected teams in baseball but never again will you subject your fans to watch the inevitability of another start by Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, or Kyle Gibson. Imagine a world where the Twins have enough depth on the major league roster so that they no longer have to rush prospects like Aaron Hicks, Byron Buxton or Eddie Rosario to the majors before they’re ready to face major league pitchers. I know it sounds like a long shot but I’m going to try to take you there.
Let’s start by trading away most of the dreary rotation.
If Nolasco, Hughes and Santana aren’t the solution for the Twins in their mid 30’s, they certainly won’t help the team in their latter-30’s. It’ll take some salary absorbtion by the Twins to move Hughes or Nolasco but, by moving the three veterans, the team opens the door to promote Berrios and Meyer back to the majors on a full-time basis and possibly stretch May back into a starting role. May’s 5.28 ERA may look scary but his 32.4% strikeout rate ranks 16th among relievers with 30 or more innings pitched this season and his 3.61 FIP, while not remarkable, points to better things ahead for the 25 year old.
I don’t have to tell you Alex Meyer hasn’t pitched since early May, so it may be a while before he can make another attempt at the rotation so maybe you can stomach a couple more months of Tommy Milone? The other current rotation member who might as well stick around is Tyler Duffey, who doesn’t reach arbitration until 2019. He has a lot of work to do if he’s going to stick in the rotation but he’ll have at least another season and a half to prove himself before other young pitchers like Stephen Gonsalves or Kohl Stewart could push him out of the rotation. Duffey’s managed a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio just over 3 this season (a great sign), in spite of his fairly low whiff rate (a bad sign). He relies heavily on his curve ball so he might need to learn to work more off his fastball if he’s going to pitching several innings every fifth day.
At 28 years old, Kyle Gibson can remain a Twin for 2 ½ more seasons through the end of his arbitration years, so the team could continue to try to mine the most out of the 6’6” right-hander. On the other hand, moving on from the organization’s former top pitching prospect would make room for 25 year old Jason Wheeler, who has earned a shot at the major league rotation based on his AAA stats (76 strikeouts against 22 walks over 95 innings), even if his stuff or the quality of his pitches doesn’t excite you. If all he has to do is keep his ERA under 5 to equal Gibson’s performance, is that too much to expect?
Furthermore, by freeing up as much of the money owed to the collection of Hughes, Santana, Nolasco and Gibson, the team could sign a potential rebound candidate, like Andrew Cashner, in free agency and flip the player if the team isn’t competitive by mid-season 2017. I know: that’s not how the Twins do things but, if you’re going to be successful, it’s hopefully obvious to you at this point that the “Twins way” needs to change.
It’s hard to imagine the team getting much worse by allowing the combination of Berrios, Meyer, and May the chance spend time in the rotation as 2016 winds down. More importantly, making way for these young players would give the Twins the chance to expose them to major league hitters before the team is ready to compete and give them the chance to grow at a time when one or two extra losses won’t cost the team a shot at the post-season.
Below is a chart comparing the two hypothetical rotations’ age and rest-of-season ERA according to PECOTA’s projections:
In a lost season, does the extra half run allowed by Wheeler matter, given the opportunity to find a pitcher who can help the Twins win in future seasons? Does the .13 higher ERA presented by Berrios make it worth holding onto Ervin Santana? Would Alex Meyer’s ERA as a starting pitcher, once he returns, actually be an entire run higher than his projection as a reliever? This strategy isn’t so much rebuilding as it is building around many players already in the majors or knocking on the door.
The Twins can’t afford to sign an ace on the open market, though, and the next Twins ace probably woun’t come through the Rule V draft like Satana so you’re going to need to make trades, trades and more trades. It’s the only way you’ll find your Jake Arrieta or Noah Syndergaard: that high ceiling pitcher that another org hasn’t been about to develop or is willing to trade if you can help them enough in the short run. There will be a lot of failure along the way, a lot of pitchers who can’t command the strike zone or get enough spin on a breaking ball, but don’t let it stop you. Remember, JKT: Just Keep Trading.
On the offensive side of the team, there appears to be a much larger disparity between the Twins’ current depth chart and your depth chart in this alternate near-future if the majority of the veteran starters were traded away. Keep in mind that we’re trying to create two opportunities for the Twins: lots of playing time for young players already on the MLB roster to find out if they can help the team compete in the future while we acquire depth and high ceiling prospects that will help the team as it returns to relevancy. Below is a comparison of the current starting lineup vs. our new lineup. We’re using Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections for rest of season True Average:
According to PECOTA, John Ryan Murphy would improve the team’s offense if he replaced Suzuki for the rest of the season. That projection doesn’t seem inline with the real world, where Suzuki is currently beating his career .247 Tav by batting .285/.324/.430 for a .256 Tav while Murphy tries to earn another shot at the major leagues. Keep in mind that Suzuki hit just .240/.296/.314 last season, just two seasons after hitting a meager .222/.283/.310 for the Nationals.
While first base remains unchanged (and I’m unconvinced the Twins should attempt to trade Joe Mauer even if he were willing to waive his no-trade clause for many reasons that we won’t get into in this post), second base could receive the largest adjustment in the Twins lineup. At 29 years old, Brian Dozier contributes to the Twins lineup by hitting homers and taking walks while hitting for a low average and playing below average defense. If anyone thinks a second baseman approaching 30 with a questionable defensive profile and questionable contact skills is a great long term investment, I highly recommend typing this name into your preferred search engine as soon as possible: Dan Uggla.
Dozier ranks 12th in wRC+ among the 25 second baseman on pace to qualify for the batting title this season. He may be a fan favorite but second base is a deep position in baseball right now and he could be more valuable to the Twins in the long run if they can use him to continue to stack their system or address positions of need. The Blue Jays and Pirates are in desperate need of upgrades at second base and the Astros could use an upgrade at designated hitter. If the Indians want to see if Kipnis or Dozier could fake it at the hot corner, they could offer another trade target since Juan Uribe is best used as a defensive replacement at this point in his career.
All-star Eduardo Nunez may be at his peak and now could be the best time for you to maximize whatever you can get for the slightly below average defensive shortstop with a career .276/.314/.406 slash line. According to PECOTA, handing the shortstop position over to Jorge Polanco doesn’t present the same steep decline that a Dozer-to-Escobar swap presents at second. PECOTA sees Polanco as a .248 Tav hitter for the rest of the season, just a small drop from Nunez’s projected .253 Tav. Some betters might even take the over on that projection as Polanco currently holds the 3rd best OPS+ on the team, albeit in a small sample, and has recorded an .801 OPS in Rochester this season.
Unfortunately for you, Trevor Plouffe may not be healthy enough to trade before the non-waiver deadline but, in the event that he returns and you can find some team who needs a right-handed bench bat, Miguel Sano could remain at third for the rest of the season. He’d improve the offensive output at the position significantly even if he hurts the team’s defense at the hot corner.
The outfield remains largely unchanged for now. Kepler, Buxton and Grossman could continue to start regularly. We’d all rejoice if Grossman has pulled a Jose Bautista and figured out how to get on base and hit for power. In all likelihood, he’ll end up an odd fit in an outfield where you may want to give more opportunities to Kepler and Rosario, also left-handed hitters, and Grossman isn’t a strong enough defender to play center on a regular basis should Buxton get injured. That means you’ll have a potentially tough decision to make between continuing to see if Grossman has indeed reinvented himself or if Eddie Rosario can reach his ceiling as a solid but unspectacular bat in a corner outfield spot.
That wasn’t so hard, was it? You’ve now cleared room for an interesting young team in 2017. They probably won’t make the playoffs but this group of players without a lot of adjustments could be at least as good as the 2016 team. And you’ve freed up a fair amount of money you can use for extensions and signing free agents all while reloading the team with exciting young talent who will leave fans climbing over each other to get into the gates at Target Field.
We believe in you and can’t wait to see the heights to which you’ll lead the club. We can’t wait to hear about the way you’ll bring the franchise into the 21st century with regard to analytics and front office strategy and in what new and exciting location you’ll plant flags for the Twins’ scouting department. Be sure to check out Frank Viola’s favorite restaurant and the site that formerly hosted the ballpark where Ted Williams hit 43 home runs on his way to becoming one of the greatest hitters of all time. Minneapolis may punish you with long cold dark winters but it will reward you two-fold with its lush and active summers, its beautiful lakes and its world class culture.Next post: An NL Central Podcast, Episode 9
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