Friday, July 14, 2017

Minnesota Twins First Half Recap

With the first half of the baseball season finished, the Minnesota Twins are in firm contention in the American League central. With a run differential of -60 and terrible starting pitching, however, the team is almost certain to fall out of contention in the second half. As we hit the All Star Break, though, let's take a look back at the good and bad of the Twins first half.

The Good

The Team's Record (45-43)

Despite my gloomy second half prediction, it's undeniable the team has found ways to win and are certainly still clear contenders in the division at this point, trailing the Cleveland Indians by just 2.5 games. A year after finishing with the league's worst record, it's a breath of fresh air to see this team winning games on a semi-regular basis again. If the starting rotation can get even a modest improvement from the bottom third of their rotation, the team could remain in contention all season.

Realistically it seems Cleveland is going to play much better in the second half and they should pull away from the rest of the division, but crazy things happen every season in baseball. If the Twins can just stick around long enough, they might be able to steal the division if the Indians early season struggles come back.

Miguel Sano

In 82 games, Miguel Sano has hit .276/.368/.538 with 21 home runs, undoubtedly carrying an otherwise average Twins offense that has seen a lot of average performances but nothing all-star caliber. His presence in the lineup strikes fear in opposing pitchers.

Considering Sano's struggles last season, it's clear that players can bounce back from underwhelming second seasons, and he should continue to put fear into opposing pitchers for years to come. If he can take better care of himself from a conditioning standpoint, the sky is truly the limit for his bat.

The Team's Defense

Using FanGraphs UZR, the Twins defense ranked 11th during the first half of the season. That's a major upgrade over the defense the last three seasons, when the team ranked 28th last season, 18th in 2015 and 25th in 2014.

What's even more encouraging is that there's a lot of room for improvement still, as Eddie Rosario, Brian Dozier, Miguel Sano, Robbie Grossman and Jorge Polanco have all rated well below average defensively at their respective positions. Polanco will likely replace Dozier at second in the near future, while top prospect Nick Gordon should soon make his debut at shortstop, and recently promoted Zach Granite projects as a very good defender. All the team really needs to do is find a very good defender at the hot corner and move Miguel Sano to DH and the defense has a very good chance of becoming elite again in the near future.

Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios

In 18 starts in the first half, Ervin Santana went 10-6 with a 2.99 ERA and was selected to his 2nd career all-star game. He's carried the porous Twins rotation all season. However, for all the praise he deserves, it seems likely his second half is going to be a fall back to reality. He's allowed just a .220 batting average on balls put in play against him, despite a career average of .285. More hits are going to fall in the second half, and he's not going to be able strand nearly as many base runners as he has. That's not a great combination.

Jose Berrios was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball last season, at least at the Major League level. He posted an unsightly ERA of 8.02 in 14 starts while getting rocked basically every outing.

After dominating the AAA level for the first month of this season, the Twins gave Berrios another shot at making a good impression, and he's been a real joy to watch pitch. He's made 11 starts, striking out 69 batters in just under 72 innings of work, while posting a much prettier 3.53 ERA. While Santana has carried the staff, there's no doubt the team would be under .500 without Berrios performance the last two months.

The Front Office's Patience with Byron Buxton

While it's a bit alarming to see Byron Buxton struggling to hit again this season, it's refreshing to see the new front office exercise patience with him. The old regime was well known to jerk guys around between AAA and the big leagues, doing it with several young players including Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer.

Players with Buxton's skill set need at bats to reach their potential, it's that simple. Giving him a full season to acclimate to big league pitching without sending him back to AAA will go a long way toward helping him develop into the player he's capable of becoming. Hopefully the bat comes around in the second half, but even if it doesn't, let's hope the front office continues to remain patient with him.

Brandon Kintzler and Taylor Rogers

The Twins bullpen has been disappointing as a whole, but Brandon Kintzler has built upon his very good season last year in being a very effective closer. He was an all-star, and deservedly so. He's been very important to the Twins winning close games and remaining in contention in the division at this point. He's posted a 2.29 ERA in 39 games, with 24 saves.

Taylor Rogers began the season as a situational left-hander but he's emerged as the team's set up man of late. He's also appeared in 39 games, posting a 2.14 ERA. Over his last 15 appearances from June 1 until the all-star break, Rogers has allowed just 2 runs. He's been the only reliable reliever helping get the ball to Kintzler, and they'll need him to continue that in the second half

The Team's Draft Strategy

Despite public opinion, the Twins didn't pass on Hunter Greene because they were "cheap." The team spent the same amount of money it would have regardless of who they drafted; they just allocated the funds differently. By drafting Royce Lewis and signing him for more than $1 million below slot, the team was able to land a first round pitching talent with the 76th pick in Blayne Enlow.

Time will tell if the players selected can develop as the Twins hope they do, but the strategy itself was a sound one. It minimizes risk by spreading out the pool allocation, and Lewis is still an extremely toolsy high school prospect which gives him a very high ceiling.

Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler

After a disappointing year last year, Eddie Rosario has shown plenty of improvement during this season's first half. While his defense continues to be overrated because of a strong throwing arm, his range isn't great, so to be valuable long-term he's going to need to hit better than he did last season. Thankfully, he's done that so far. In 81 games, he's hitting .287/.325/.458 with 10 home runs. He continues to swing at almost everything, but thus far he's made enough solid contact to turn in an above average first half. If he can ever develop patience, his bat would improve immensely.

Max Kepler hit an impressive .280/.368/.457 in April, and appeared well on his way to establishing himself as one of the game's best young players. He followed that up however by hitting just .242/.321/.411 in May and .215/.247/.366 in June. His two-month slump had him likely to appear on the list below, but in 9 July games before the break he hit .467/.556/.800. That pushed his overall first half line to .266/.337/.451, almost exactly the same as Rosario.

The Bad

Byron Buxton

While it's still far too early in Byron Buxton's career to write him off as a bust, his lack of any kind of offensive ability up to this point is a major red flag for a former top prospect. The former #2 overall pick is one of the best defensive center fielders and can run with anyone in the league, but he's hitting just .216/.288/.306 in 83 games.

Over his three seasons in the big leagues, he's put up a .218/.280/.306 line while averaging almost 5 strikeouts per walk. There's no denying he's been one of the worst hitters in baseball over that time frame, and if he doesn't at least show some kind of offensive improvement, top prospect Zach Granite is going to steal a lot of at-bats from him in the second half of the season.

Every Starting Pitcher Not Named Ervin Santana or Jose Berrios

Despite Santana and Berrios sporting ERAs of 2.99 and 3.53, the Twins starting rotation has a team ERA of 4.86, good for 25th in baseball. Adalberto Mejia has been a decent stop-gap, but Hector Santiago, Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes and all the waiver-wire starters have been atrocious. If Gibson makes another start for this team, someone should be fired.

If the team decides to become a buyer in July, its no secret they'll be targeting starting pitchers. It's going to take a little time to sort that mess out.

Kennys Vargas

As a 6'5, 290 pound behemoth of a man, Twins DH Kennys Vargas has long drawn comparisons to former Twin David Ortiz. Other than the way they look, though, the two players have almost nothing in common. Vargas, despite his massive size, just isn't a very good hitter.

In 158 games over the prior three seasons, Vargas hit .251/.309/.434, good for an OPS+ of 103, basically league average. Factoring in that he's a defensive liability and DH's should be considerably better hitters, it's clear even coming into this season Vargas was nothing more than a mediocre bench bat.

As his track record predicted, Vargas has hit just .247/.292/.428 this season while getting far too many at-bats for someone with no real proven success at the big league level. Wasting a valuable offensive spot on a player like Vargas could cost the team a handful of games over the course of a full season, so let's hope he gets very few at-bats in the second half.

Jorge Polanco

After hitting an impressive .282/332/.424 in 69 games as a 22-year-old last season, Jorge Polanco was widely considered a future building block for this franchise. He very well could still develop into that kind of player, but he's taken a considerable step back in his first full major league season.

While he's a natural second baseman, he's being forced to play out of position at shortstop because Brian Dozier is a much better player at this point and he can't play anywhere outside of second base. It's very clear that Polanco's future is not at shortstop, as he's been a disaster there for the last two months. After a solid April that saw his defense earn praise, Polanco has come back down to earth. If the team does indeed trade Dozier at some point in the near future, Polanco may prove to be an above average defensive second baseman. But unless his bat starts to come around, his defensive position means little.

He's hitting just .224/.273/.323 and will need to have a much better second half to remain a long-term option for the Twins.

Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow

A season after finishing with the worst bullpen in the American League, it was a bit surprising to watch the team avoid the issue most of the off-season. Ultimately, they chose to add two aging relievers in Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow, and it hasn't worked out well at all.

Belisle had posted a 1.76 ERA in 46 innings last season out of the Washington Nationals bullpen, but he's been unable to recapture that magic at all this season. He's already pitched 34 innings, has a poor 26:18 K:BB ratio, and a 5.82 ERA. If he doesn't start pitching better soon, he likely won't last the entire season.

Breslow was signed to a minor league deal this off-season, after throwing just 14 innings in 2016 for the Miami Marlins. For some reason the local media here seemed to make a big deal out of Breslow's "new arm slot" and he was portrayed as a sub-marine pitcher or side-armer with his new arm slot. The truth is it was a very minor change, and the only way you can even really tell he's switched his arm slot is if someone puts the pictures side by side. Needless to say, the soft-throwing 36-year-old has struggled this season with an ERA over 5.

Somehow he and Belisle have pitched 63 innings combined at this point, and that could be a major issue if the team is contending for a playoff spot in September.

The Fox Sports North Announcers

There's no doubt that being a sports announcer is a million times harder than it appears to be to viewers across the country, and baseball especially. With basically every game televised these days, baseball announcers have to find things to talk about for 3 hours a day for 162 games. It goes without saying they will say something stupid every now and then.

Unfortunately, the Twins announcers say something incredibly stupid on a nightly basis. Jack Morris is the worst announcer of all-time, other than maybe that "Boom Goes the Dynamite" guy, but somehow he works for both the Twins and the Tigers. In the last week alone, Morris has done the following:

  • Argued that a batted ball that goes off the top of the wall and then over the fence would not be a home run 
  • Said that Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas used a slow wind up so he could "sense a hitter's anxiousness" IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS WINDUP and then would CHANGE THE VELOCITY OF HIS FASTBALL if he sensed it
  • Argued that a ball that bounced OFF THE FOUL POLE and into the left field seats was not a fair ball
If I kept track of every small thing he says that is wrong, I would have material for months and months.

And while Morris is clearly the worst, FSN has used a lot of different color analysts this season with Dick Bremer. Bert Blyleven seems to be on his way out, as he continues to do fewer games each season, and that's fine. He's much better than Morris, but other than adding a little humor he's mostly run his course by now.

Torii Hunter, one of my favorite Twins of all-time, was horrible. Roy Smalley has gotten a lot better, but he's best in small doses. 

LaTroy Hawkins was very good in my opinion in his very small sample size, but that likely means we won't see him anymore because FSN has been torturing any knowledgable baseball fan for years. As nice as Dick Bremer seems to be as a man, he hasn't learned a whole lot about the game in his 30+ years covering it for the Twins. And he's still king of the "DEEP DRIVE TO LEFT" shouting of excitement that ends up as a fly out 5 feet in front of the warning track.

Some fresh voices all around would be nice.

Thanks for reading, here's to hoping the Twins can have an even better second half!


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