Monday, August 31, 2015

More bullpen thoughts

The Monday print column praised the midseason revamping of the Twins bullpen. But in a multi-tweet rant this weekend, LaVelle Neal made this point about why the revamping was necessary:

Which, yeah, I was surprised, and not pleased, that the Twins went into the season with Casey Fien and Brian Duensing as the primary setup men to Glen Perkins.

The Twins during the offseason discarded recent mainstays Jared Burton and Anthony Swarzak. Neither is currently in organized ball. The Twins replaced them with Blaine Boyer and J.R. Graham. They supplanted second LOOGY Caleb Thielbar with  Aaron Thompson. (Thielbar was later lost to the Padres on waivers; San Diego last week designated Thielbar for assignment.)

It was an opening bullpen to make a would-be contender uncomfortable. But in fairness: I don't think the Twins seriously thought they were going to contend with that bullpen, I think they expected to remake the bullpen.

But they expected to remake it from within. They expected some of the young power arms in the minors to emerge by midseason. They actually tried Alex Meyer briefly, and the transplanted starter's control wilted so drastically that they abandoned that after just two appearances. Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois, Zach Jones, Jake Reed -- none of them advanced beyond Double A, and some of them had to be demoted from where they opened the season. I fully expected at least one of them to push his way to the big leagues. That didn't happen.

And the young guys who've been on the roster before -- Ryan Pressly and Michael Tonkin -- didn't grab key roles either. Tonkin has been yo-yo'd all season between Minneapolis and Rochester. Pressly, despite a good ERA, never really muscled past Boyer and Fien the way that Trevor May did when he was put in the bullpen.

The opening bullpen was never intended to be the final bullpen. But going outside the organization for the remake wasn't the idea either.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Pic of the Week

Cubs catcher Miguel Montero blocks a pitch, literally,
with his nose Friday in Los Angeles. He then committed
a throwing error that allowed a run to score.

Every once in a while there is a photo of a catcher whose equipment doesn't quite succeed in protecting him from the ball. Such as this one.

And I think of a bit of old-time baseball verse, penned by a former player scoffing at the softer current generation -- in 1880:

We wore no mattress upon our hands
No cage upon our face
We stood right up and caught the ball
With courage and with grace.

Yeah. Right. Sure you did.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The really young shortstops

On Friday I examined Eduardo Escobar's grasp on the shortstop job and, in passing, mentioned the shortstops in the lower levels of the minors.

These guys aren't threats to Escobar -- yet. But they do make it a lot easier to imagine the Twins doing something with the shortstops above them in the system in the coming offseason.

With the minor league seasons winding down, here's who's where:

Danny Santana is hitting .289 for Triple A Rochester. I don't know how likely he is to come up when the rosters expand.

Jorge Polanco was moved back to Double A so he and Santana could both play short on a regular basis. He continues to have difficulty in the field, and Doug Mientkiewicz had him playing second base Friday night. I think second base is his best position, and that probably makes him trade bait during the offseason, since Brian Dozier has a lock on that position, Polanco's bat will play in the middle infield; I don't think his arm will play at short.

Those are the guys who might challenge for the big league job next spring. Now for the up-and-comers ...

Engelb Vielma is the shortstop at high A Fort Myers. His slash line there is unimpressive: .267/.315/.306, slightly worse than at Low A Cedar Rapids in 2014. In truth, Fort Myers is a much more difficult hitting environment, so essentially maintaining his production is a good sign for him.

Vielma is a 21-year-old out of Venezuela and something of a mirror image of Polanco. Observers rave about his fielding, and his bat is questionable. He definitely needs to get stronger if he's to be a major league regular, but that's pretty common among A ball prospects. There are few big league bodies at that level. Expect Vielma to move up to Double A next year.

I devoted a Monday print column earlier this month to Nick Gordon , the shortstop at low A Cedar Rapids. The Twins invested the fifth overall pick in Gordon in 2014, and I liked what I saw from him in a four-game glomming of the Kernels. He's the only one of these lower level shortstop I've actually seen play (Vielma was injured when I saw CR last summer), but it's my guess that he's the most likely of the bunch to wind up a big league regular.

Jermaine Palacios is the shortstop at Elizabethton. The latest issue of Baseball America has a short piece on him (written by the Star Tribune's Phil Miller). A 19-year-old Venezulean, Palacios is said to be a hitter, and his minor league numbers to date back that up, although one should be cautious about rookie ball stats.

Then there's Wander Javier, a 16-year-old Dominican the Twins signed this summer. They invested $4 million in him, so they clearly expect big things from him, but those big things are far down the road. Javier has yet to play in organized ball.

I've commented many a time on the sorry record the Twins have at developing their own shortstops. This crop has the potential to reverse that record. But it won't come immediately.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Eduardo Escobar, shortstop

Eduardo Escobar hits his second homer of Wednesday's game.
He hit three in the Tampa Bay series.
Question: How many games did the Twins cost themselves this year by insisting for months that Danny Santana was their best shortstop option?

For the second year in a row, Eduardo Escobar began the season as Plan B at shortstop and emerged as the regular. And for the second year in a row, he has provided some thump from a position commonly occupied by slap hitters. LaVelle Neal of the Star Tribune refers to him on Twitter as "Eddie The Stick."

This intrigues me, even though they involve too few at-bats to mean much: When playing shortstop this year, Escobar's slash line is .308/.361/.519 (entering Thursday's play, which means those numbers are even better this morning); as a left fielder, .224/.261/.388.

The defensive metrics I've seen have Escobar as an average shortstop, maybe a touch below average, and I'll buy that. That's acceptable, especially with the extra bases he's provided the past two years from the position.

I assume that Escobar will be the Twins' regular shortstop down the stretch. I also expect that he won't be a lock to be the regular at the start of 2016. I doubt the Twins have given up on Santana's athleticism, and Jorge Polanco has been a very productive hitting middle infielder in the high minors. Even now, Paul Molitor hasn't truly embraced Escobar as the starter, so he's probably inclined to look for alternatives.

And given Escobar's limitations, that's sensible. But I doubt the Twins have a better alternative on hand until 2018 or so, when one of the shortstops in the low minors might be ready. Certainly for now, Escobar should be Plan A at shortstop. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Blaine Boyer, J.R. Graham, Glen Perkins and a deeper bullpen

The expectation had been that the Twins would wait until September and the expanded rosters to reactivate Blaine Boyer from the disabled list, but on Wednesday Boyer and J.R. Graham traded places.

Graham's injury was announced as "shoulder inflammation," and the cynic/skeptic in me whispers that it's really an inflamed ERA.  Graham can't be readily sent to the minors because he's a Rule 5 guy, and he last had an appearance in which he (a) got at least one out (b) without allowing a run a month ago. Literally, July 26, against the Yankees. (In fairness, I should add that Graham had a major shoulder problem a couple of years ago, and there is good reason to be cautious if he does indeed have an issue.)

Now he's sidelined for two weeks, and the Twins can easily meet the requirements to hold Graham's rights while not having the problem of carrying a relief pitcher they don't want to use in key situations.

Boyer immediately wound up working two innings Wednesday night as the Twins pushed their winning streak to six. This took his ERA down to 2.86, and I'm quite comfortable with asserting that this has been the best season of his nine in the majors.

Paul Molitor had Boyer handle the seventh and eighth innings, but that doesn't figure to be his standard role at this point. Wednesday's usage was more about trying to give Casey Fien and Trevor May a day off, and, perhaps, about Kevin Jepsen filling in as closer for Glen Perkins.

The latter is again a matter of concern. Apparently Perkins, who had been trying to pitch with a bad disc in his neck, is now having back spasms. I've had enough back issues myself over the years to suspect that the two issues are related.

Taking Perkins out certainly thins the bullpen, but it also has to be said: The acquisition of Jepsen (and to a lesser extent Neal Cotts), plus the shift of May to relief work, has really deepened the relief corps. A month ago the bullpen was a serious problem. Today it isn't, and kudos to Terry Ryan and Co. for a midstream repair job.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why Miguel Sano won't be Rookie of the Year.

The future is now: Byron Buxton (25) and Miguel Sano (22)
before a game in Baltimore last week.
Miguel Sano hit another home run Tuesday night. That makes 12 dingers in 45 major league games for the 22-year-old.

It's been an impressive performance, even considering how anticipated (hyped) a prospect he is. And still, he has no chance at winning the Rookie of the Year Award.

That will assuredly go to Carlos Correa, the Houston shortstop. Correa's got a bit more than 100 plate appearances more than Sano, so his counting stats are ahead of the Minnesota DH, even though his slash stats -- batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage -- lag.

The long and the short(stop) of it:
Carlos Correa (left) is 6-4; his double play
partner, Jose Altuve, is is 5-6.
But Correa is also a shortstop, and a good one. You've got to give credit for playing a premium defensive position. Sano is primarily a designated hitter, which isn't completely his fault, but in terms of their defensive value, there's no way he matches Correa.

Correa, as you may recall, is the Puerto Rican the Astros took No. 1 in the draft the year the Twins landed Byron Buxton. The general consensus at the time was that Correa wasn't a bad choice for 1-1, but that Buxton was the better prospect and that the Astros went with Correa as part of a plan to game the new bonus pool system.

The Astros did game the system -- Correa signed for considerably less than Buxton did -- but Correa may have been the better pick anyway. A lot of scouts figured that Correa would "outgrow" shortstop and wind up a third baseman. That hasn't happened, and within a week or so of his midseason callup, there were people calling Correa the best shortstop in the American League.

And you know something? If Correa isn't the best shortstop in the league, another rookie -- Francisco Lindor of Cleveland -- might be. Lindor doesn't have the power of Correa, much less Sano, but he certainly hits enough to help a lineup, and he is a marvelous fielder.

Baseball Reference credits Correa with 3.0 WAR, Lindor with 2.1 and Sano with "just" 1.6. Part of that comes from the advantage in playing time the two shortstops have, and part of it comes from defense. But no matter how you slice it, Correa and Lindor have to stand ahead of Sano in the rookie rankings.

Which is no knock on Sano, certainly. This has been a golden year for midseason callups, when a guy like Eddie Rosario has no realistic chance of appearing on any ROY ballots.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Sean Gilmartin for J.R. Graham revisited

Sean Gilmartin spent one season in the Twins system
before the Mets took in in the Rule 5 draft last December.
I wrote about this "Rule 5 trade" back in May, and after Sean Gilmartin's performance Monday for the Mets -- 3.1 shutout innings in the Amazin's comeback win -- it's worth revisiting.

The Twins acquired Gilmartin, a lefty the Braves had drafted in the first round in 2011, from Atlanta for Ryan Doumit after the 2013 season. Gilmartin opened 2014 in Double A for the Twins and went 7-3, 3.12 in 12 starts, 72 innings. They moved him up to Triple A halfway through the season, and he was 2-4, 4.28 in 14 starts, 73.2 innings there. Combined, he was 9-7, 3.71 at the two highest levels of the minor league ladder in 145.2 innings, with good walk (2.8) and strikeout (8.2) rates.

The Twins left him off the 40-man roster. They used that roster slot instead to take J.R. Graham from the Braves in the Rule 5 draft. The Mets took Gilmartin.

Rule 5 picks can't be optioned. They are use or lose, and most are returned to their original organization, Both Gilmartin and Graham have stuck, however, and with less than a week until the rosters expand, it is certain their drafting teams will retain their rights.

It's quite likely that the Twins will option Graham out next year. The righty has a big arm, but he also has a 5.05 ERA in 57 innings, and Paul Molitor has never been comfortable using him in winnable games. (The Twins have won just 12 of his 33 appearances, and most of those were blowouts.) He's given up at least one run in his last six appearances in which he's retired a batter.

Gilmartin, on the other hand, is 3-1, 2.34 after Monday's win. The Mets have used him a bit more often than the Twins have used Graham and for shorter stints -- he gets some LOOGY work, being left-handed -- and have generally avoided using him in close games, although he's gotten decisions in each of his last three outings. He doesn't have the velocity Graham does, but (again) he's left-handed. It's easier to imagine the Mets keeping him around next spring.

Here's a telling comparison: Gilmartin has been charged with 11 runs allowed all season. Graham has allowed 10 home runs.

The Twins may not regret drafting Graham and tying up a roster spot with him. That pick was about the future and about adding velocity, and he may eventually turn into a usable relief arm. But they ought to regret losing Gilmartin in the process.