Friday, March 27, 2015

Aiken's achin': Implications of a surgery

Brady Aiken, last summer's first overall draft pick whose failed negotiations with the Houston Astros wrecked the signing plans of two other prospects, had Tommy John surgery Wednesday.

The rapidity with which Aiken's injury appeared this spring (in his first start for the IMG Academy's postgraduate team) suggests that the Astros were right last summer about the condition of the lefty's elbow. Aiken and his advisors publicly denied that there was any issue, and I was, for whatever it's worth, skeptical of the Astros' good faith in the entire fiasco. Still am, for that matter; I can name other draft picks whose signing agreement ran aground on the medical exam without turning as ugly as this one did.

Aiken had signed with UCLA before the draft, but never enrolled there; the public nature of last summer's dispute made it likely that the NCAA would deem him ineligible under its nonsencial rules about agents. He's eligible for the draft again this summer, and even with this surgery is very likely to go top 10 again. (Last year a pitcher named Jeff Hoffman went ninth overall despite having Tommy John surgery about a month before the draft.)

The Twins draft sixth in June. Aiken is presumably on their radar.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Center field revisited

Aaron Hicks' stat line
is less impressive than
it was a week ago.
When I wrote here last week about the center field competition, Aaron Hicks was sporting a .330 spring training average. He had maybe one hit since then and dropped to .207 -- which, really only illustrates the silliness of relying on spring training stats to evaluate players. The sample sizes are small, the competition is uneven, the numbers are essentially meaningless.

Even if he were still hitting three-something, so what? He did that in spring trainings 2013 and and 2014, and it didn't prove indicative of anything. Hicks has 150 regular season games, 538 regular season plate appearances, in which he's hit .201. Letting a couple dozen spring training at-bats outweigh that would be silly.

Meanwhile, Eddie Rosario's spring training stats display a red-flag glitch: 40 plate appearances, no walks. He still has a batting average (.256 per Baseball Reference) higher than his on-base percentage (.250). His minor league stat line hardly reveals a Kevin Youkilis-type base-on-balls machine, but it's not that bizarre.

My take on this is that he's trying too hard to impress. There used to be a cliche about Dominican players and their hacking tendencies: You can't walk off the island. The idea was that these players were encouraged to swing at everything because they had to hit the ball to get the scouts' attention. Rosario is from Puerto Rico, not the Dominican, but the concept holds.

Hicks and Rosario are the two young guys in camp who can be seen as full-time center fielders. Veteran fringe players Jordan Schafer and Shane Robinson are more likely to be platoon mates, and that increasingly looks like the direction the Twins will take. Terry Ryan doesn't sound very enthused by that prospect, while Paul Molitor this week expressed openness to platoons and invoked the success Earl Weaver had with platoons back when Molitor was a young player.

One difference, of course, is that Weaver platooned aggressively. His Orioles collected players like John Lowenstein and Benny Ayala specifically to use in such roles. A Schafer-Robinson platoon would be more a passive platoon, chosen out of a lack of better options not for a strategic advantage. Robinson's career splits actually suggest he's a bit "backwards," meaning better against right-handed pitchers, although I don't think 200 or so plate appearances over five seasons each way proves a whole lot. He's probably not the right-handed outfielder you'd pursue if you wanted to build a center field platoon.

Still, Schafer-Robinson is more palatable to me this spring than either Hicks or, I'm sorry to say, Rosario. (If Rosario does come north, I will not complain, but I won'be have high expectations; if it's Hicks, I will complain.) Schafer-Robinson are acceptable until Bryon Buxton arrives, and I hope that's sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Dozier extension

Brian Dozier's negotiating stance:
Give me $20 million or ...
The Twins announced Tuesday morning a four-year contract extension with Brian Dozier. The deal buys out the second baseman's arbitration seasons but doesn't delay his entry into free agency.

As such, it represents a smoothing of the risks. The Twins' risk: If Dozier's knee gets blown out by a baserunner in April, they're still paying him $20 million through 2018. Dozier's risk: If he hits .320 with 45 homers, he can't cash in on that level of production.

$20 million is a life-changing sum, to be sure, but it is a reasonable, maybe a bit low, approximation of what Dozier figured to make in his arbitration years. The Twins didn't add to their years of control of his contract, and they can plug a precise figure into their spreadsheets when figuring salary totals for the next four years.

None of which matters much to me. I'm more concerned about this: Dozier turns 28 in May. The typical peak season for a major league player comes at age 27. So Dozier is already past his theoretical peak year, and the Twins chose this moment to deepen their commitment to him.

The Twins apparently don't see it that way:

Put this contract in the list of reasons to believe the Twins are more resistant to the analytic approach to running a team than they think they are.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mike Pelfrey and pitch nomenclature

For his career,
Mike Pelfrey has
an ERA+  12 percent
below league average.
I predicted in Monday's post that Mike Pelfrey would get the fifth slot in the starting rotation. I made that prediction on this basis:

  • He's owed $5 million for this season, and the Twins will try to get something for the money.
  • He apparently has a long warmup routine in the wake of his surgeries, which works against putting him in the bullpen. And
  • The Twins have a well-established pattern of preferring veterans in the rotation to open the year, although it's possible Paul Molitor isn't wedded to that philosophy.
All that said, the tone of the reports after Pelfrey's outing Monday against the Phillies suggested that Tommy Milone and Trevor May are ahead of Pelfrey at this point. 

We'll see, I'll be surprised, still, if Pelfrey isn't in the opening rotation.


Pelfrey is well-known as a "sinker-slider guy." So is Kyle Gibson. Sinker-slider guys, by definition, don't have a good change-up; if a pitcher has that as well, he's not limited to sinkers and sliders. 

As part of Neil Allen's mission as pitching coach to emphasize the change-up, Pelfrey has been featuring something the stories about him typically call a "split-change." (In the piece linked to above, Molitor calls it a "split-finger.")

I have a theory on the difference between a "forkball" and a "split-finger fastball." The theory is that if the mindset is to throw the pitch hard (even though it won't have the velocity of a true fastball), you call it a split-finger fastball. The word fastball sets the attitude behind the pitch.

If the reporters are calling Pelfrey's new pitch a split-change, it's because that's what Pelfrey and Allen are calling it. Which suggests the obvious mindset behind this pitch. They want to see significant velocity separation from his other pitches.

The Twins had, since the mid-90s or so, downplayed or discouraged use of the splitter. I remember a spring when Carlos Silva showed up with a splitter. The first day the stories called it a splitter. The second day it was a forkball. By the end of the week it was a changeup. And in the end it was a nonfactor. Silva was a sinker-slider guy to the end of his career.

Which is what I expect will happen with Pelfrey and his new pitch. Obviously a good change would be his benefit, but he's 31 and hasn't mastered one yet. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Molitor's first bullpen

J.R. Graham is a Rule
5 selection and must either
be retained on the 25-man
roster or offered back
to the Atlanta Braves.
The Twins this weekend sent out Michael Tonkin and Ryan Pressly, two right-handers who spent time on the major league roster last season and who entered camp as reasonable bets to win jobs.

Dick Bremer on Saturday described the 2015 bullpen as a "total makeover" or something along those lines. That's overblown. Glen Perkins is still the closer, Casey Fien and Brian Duensing are still the top righty and lefty set up men. Yes, Jared Burton and Anthony Swarzak are gone, but replacing the fourth and sixth men in a seven-man bullpen -- and even the fifth if Caleb Thielbar loses out on a job -- is more rearranging furniture than remodeling.

Of course, Bremer also called the bullpen of the past few years a "strength," and that's overblown as well. You want to see a team whose bullpen in a strength, look at Kansas City -- and realize that neither Fien nor Duensing would get serious use there.

One of the spring training staples of this blog has been projecting Ron Gardenhire's bullpen, Let's take a stab at Paul Molitor's first, with the guys in parenthesis as the ones I'm least certain about:

Tommy Milone may
mark time in the
Closer: Glen Perkins
Setup 1: Fien
LOOGY 1/Setup 2: Duensing
MR 1: Tim Stauffer
MR 2: J.R. Graham
Long:  (Tommy Milone)
LOOGY 2: (Aaron Thompson)

I'm putting Milone in the long man's spot because I've concluded that the Twins will open with Mike Pelfrey in the starting rotation. I wouldn't, but I would have dumped him before spring training. The Twins do not have five better starters than Tommy Milone, but they do have four who are higher paid. Maybe they'll trade him, but I think they'll keep him and wait for somebody to get hurt or fail.

Graham is a Rule 5 pick out of the Atlanta organization who had serious surgery a couple years back and struggled on his return as a starter. The Twins thought a bullpen role would suit him, and that idea is promising enough that they shouldn't return him. I would also think that his role will be lesser until he gets himself established.

Who still in camp am I leaving out? From the 40-man roster, competing for the spot I give to Graham: A.J. Achter and Stephen Pryor. From the non-roster invitees, Blaine Boyer and Mark Hamburger. I'd prefer any of those four to Stauffer, but the Twins made that decision well before camp. For the slot I assigned to Thompson, there's Thielbar.

UPDATE: Since this was posted, the Twins have optioned out Pryor. (I also corrected Mark Hamburger's first name.)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Pic of the Week

Oswaold Arcia (31) loosens up between innings at
Jet Blue Park in Fort Myers while the manual scoreboard
is updated.

Jet Blue is supposed to be a mini-Fenway, complete with its own version of the Green Monster. But, obviously, one difference is that in Boston, the score can be updated from inside the scoreboard.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The demotion of Alex Meyer

Alex Meyer listens to Triple A pitching coach
Marty Mason earlier in spring training.
Meyer's going to be hearing more from
Mason this season.
In reality, the odds of Alex Meyer making the Twins rotation out of training camp became very slim the moment Ervin Santana was signed. There were just too many big salaries lined up in front of Meyer, and the Twins never moved any of the veterans out of his way.

The Twins optioned him out Friday. It was inevitable. Trevor May will follow soon. Meanwhile Mike Pelfrey remains. Ugh.

To be sure, Meyer's outing Thursday illustrated why the Twins are reluctant to create an opportunity for him. He walked four and had catcher Josmil Pinto hopping around to corral pitches.

Still, Meyer is 25 now, and it's probably about time to see something out of him. I understand the rationale behind not considering him for the bullpen; if he's relieving, he'll not be using/developing a change-up.

But that's only an important consideration if he's destined to be a starter. The Twins are showing no urgency on that, not merely because they optioned him out on Friday but because they have stockpiled so many veteran starters to block him (and May, and Jose Berrios ...).

It's going to take some injuries to get the inexperienced pitchers a chance. I don't root for injuries. But this situation is testing that rule.