Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Minnesota Twins First Month in Review

With the first month of the Major League Baseball season behind us, let's take a look at how the Minnesota Twins have fared in their first month under new leadership.

The Good

One season after losing 103 games, watching a team play .500 baseball for an entire month is a major upgrade for Twins fans. The team went 12-11 in April, with several impressive performances.

After a disappointing season a year ago, by his standards, Miguel Sano has been the team's best hitter all season, by a fairly wide margin. He hit .316/.443/.684 with 7 home runs and 18 walks while playing in all 23 of the team's games. Defensively, at least according to FanGraphs, Sano has been slightly below average at the hot corner. Most expected him to be terrible there, and an average defender with his offensive numbers from April would be an MVP candidate every year.

After bursting onto the scene last season as one of baseball's best rookies, Max Kepler slumped badly in September and his overall stat line suffered because of it. As a 23-year-old rookie, Kepler's .235/.309/.424 slash line with 17 home runs in 113 games was fairly impressive, but would've been far more noteworthy with an impressive final month.

Thankfully, Kepler has had a very productive April, hitting .280/.368/.467 with 16 strikeouts but also 10 walks. His defense hasn't been as good as most expected, rating out as slightly below average to this point, but his outstanding athleticism has scouts projecting him as a plus defender in the near future. Seeing him have a productive month with the bat after last season's September struggles is great.

As the second best pitcher in Twins history to be born Johan Santana, most fans know Ervin decided to use his middle name when he was coming up in the minor leagues because he didn't want to be compared to the Twins Johan Santana. Can't blame the guy.

Through April, Ervin has done his best Johan impression, putting up one of the most ridiculous pitching months in Twins history. He's made 5 starts, throwing 35 innings, allowing just 3 runs the whole month, good for a 0.77 ERA while going 4-0. Like a fine wine, Ervin Santana seems to be getting better with age.

If he continues to dominate and the Twins are not contending, the new regime will have a very interesting decision to make at the trade deadline. Hopefully, though, the team will be in contention and in a position to add pieces at the deadline.

After being acquired at last season's trade deadline for Ricky Nolasco and Alex Meyer, Santiago struggled mightily for the Twins, posting a 5.58 ERA in 11 starts with 37 strikeouts and 22 walks. Most expected the Twins to non-tender Santiago in the off-season rather than pay him over $8 million, but with so few pitching options available in free agency and the Twins having plenty of payroll space, they decided to take one more look at Santiago.

Thus far, that decision looks like a good one. He's thrown just under 30 innings while making 5 starts, posting a 2.43 ERA and a much improved K;BB rate of almost 3:1. With the rest of the Twins pitching staff struggling, Santiago and Ervin Santana deserve a lot of credit for keeping the Twins afloat this month.

Polanco's future is almost certainly as a second baseman, where his below average arm strength is less of an issue. Unfortunately for the youngster, the Twins have Brian Dozier entrenched at second base, so Polanco's only chance at playing time was at shortstop. Surprisingly, he's played well defensively, with a UZR/150 that would project to one of the league's best defensive shortstops over a full season. However, over the course of a long season, I expect Polanco's defense to ultimately end up below average as his track record suggests.

What made him a highly regarded prospect was his bat, but he hasn't hit much this month. After hitting .282/.332/.424 in 69 games with the Twins last season, he's hitting just .253/.315/.354 this season. Those numbers may not seem "good" but as a 23-year-old middle infielder in his first full big league season, there's plenty of room for growth and his offensive track record suggests he will turn things around with the bat soon. His overall production has been about average for a shortstop, which is a massive upgrade for a Twins team that hasn't had an answer at shortstop for years.

Byron Buxton's Defense

We'll talk about his bat in a minute, but defensively, he was amazing all month. His UZR/150 projects to 48.1 for this season. That means he'd save 48 more runs than the average center fielder over a full season, which would be worth almost FIVE wins on it's own, as every 10 runs prevented or scored is worth 1 win. Kevin Pillar, arguably the league's best defensive outfielder, led baseball with a 26.3 UZR/150 last year, so Buxton's current pace is likely going to slow down. However, nobody would be surprised if he's the best defensive outfielder in baseball by season's end. DO NOT DEMOTE HIM.

The Bad

Despite some impressive performances thus far, the team continues to hover around the .500 mark because of poor performances this month from the following players:

Say it with me now: Kyle Gibson is 29 years old. He is not young in baseball terms, yet the Twins local announcers, Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven, always talk about him "putting things together" like he's a young prospect still. He is what he is at this point: Bad.

He posted a 5.07 ERA last season while going 6-11 and striking out just 105 batters in 147 innings. As a nearly 30-year-old starter with a history of arm injuries, it should be no surprise that his stuff has seemingly declined each of the past two seasons. In 5 April starts, Gibson went 0-3, posting an 8.06 ERA and allowing SIX home runs in just 22 innings of work.

The Twins lack of starting pitching (and their determination to delay Jose Berrios' free agency) will likely allow Gibson to make a few more starts he doesn't deserve before he gets designated for assignment and ultimately sold for cash. A potential demotion to the bullpen is also possible, as most dominating relievers were once failed starters, but at this point Gibson looks finished.

The former top prospect in all of baseball followed up last season's horrible April in which he hit just .156/.208/.289 with 24 strikeouts and just 2 walks by being even worse this April. Buxton played in 22 of the team's 23 games this past month, but hit just .147/.256/.176 with 29 strikeouts and 9 walks. After considerable preseason hype, Buxton's struggles have fans very worried that he's never going to reach his full potential.

My opinion is as a kid from Georgia, he hates hitting in the cold. Even "warm" days in April in Minnesota, Detroit or Cleveland are still in the low 60s, and most games are played at temperatures under 50 degrees for that first month. I do not think it's a coincidence that his best series of the year was at Texas, when he went 3 for 7 with 5 walks over 3 games. Despite the April struggles, he's going to be fine.

For years after Joe Mauer signed his massive $184MM extension, stupid fans blamed him for the team's struggles, but now five years later those fans might finally be right. Mauer remained incredibly productive through the 2013 season, when he hit .324/.404/.476 in 113 games. Unfortunately, the former #1 overall pick suffered a concussion that ended his 2013 season and forced him to move from catcher to first base. Switching positions hurt his value on it's own, but his offense also disappeared, making him a light-hitting, average defending first baseman making $23 million a year.

He's struggled even more than usual this season, hitting just .225/.271/.275 through April. He has struck out just 6 times, which is encouraging, but defensive shifts have basically taken away all of his extra base hits and he hasn't adjusted. If Mauer can revamp his approach and start pulling the ball more, at least until defenses stop shifting him to left field, he could very well turn his season around. But if he continues to try to hit the ball the other way and use the approach that worked 10 years ago, this very well could be his final season in Minnesota. As much as it pains me to say it, the team would be better off paying Mauer to play for someone else if he keeps hitting like this, and I don't expect a former all-star to change the approach that got him so rich, even if it's not working anymore.


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