Minnesota Twins Season Preview: Waiting for Buxton
Here we are again. For the third straight year, the Minnesota Twins are coming off of a 96-plus-loss season. But hey, at least this time they didn’t finish last in the AL Central (cheers, Chicago!).
The 2013 season was one to forget, if you couldn’t tell from the record. The team finished with a .312 OBP, a 4.55 ERA, and was the only team in the majors with less than 1,000 strikeouts on the year. They also had three major contributors in the summer months that used to play independent ball.
Fear not, valiant comrades. Help is on the way. The 2014 roster has a new look, and things should be looking up for Gardy and the crew in the near future. But is the future now? Let’s take a look.
Can a Brotha Buy a Run?
Last year, the Twins scored a grand total of 614 runs, the third-lowest total in the AL. That’s what happens when your leadoff men collectively amass a .286 OBP.
A big part of the frustration at the top of the order was the disappointing season of 23-year-old Aaron Hicks. Hicks tried to make the jump straight from AA to the big leagues, but stumbled to a .113/.229/.127 slash in March and April. Yes, those numbers are correct.
It did get a little better for Hicks later in the season as he finished with a .230/.292/.379 slash in the month of July, but a 26:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio that month earned him a demotion to AAA on August 1. Now, Hicks will once again have to fight for a roster spot when spring training opens.
In to take his place at the top of the order will likely be Alex Presley. Presley came to the Twins from the Pirates in the Justin Morneau trade. He finished out the year relatively strong, posting a .283/.336/.363 slash in his 122 play appearances with Minnesota. We’ll pretend his early-season numbers with Pittsburgh didn’t exist (uggo).
Presley is an interesting case because he's entering his age 28 season, but he only has 821 career MLB PAs. His "breakout" (very relative term) came in 2011, where he finished the year with a .298/.339/.465 slash in 230 appearances. He then proceeded to struggle throughout the entirety of 2012 before Pittsburgh demoted him midway through 2013. He’s going to get a shot to start with Minnesota, likely in a spring training battle with Darin Mastroianni. If he can win the job, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him leading off.
Another mild disappointment last year was Oswaldo Arcia. Now, I admit that I have an Arcia "shirsey," so judge away. I must live with my decisions. I bought it because Arcia whipped the International League into submission with a .426 OBP prior to getting the call mid-April.
Arcia certainly wasn’t horrible in his time with the Twins. He finished the season with a .250/.304/.430 slash with 17 doubles and 14 home runs in 378 PA’s.
The problem was the strikeouts. Oh, baby, were there a lot of those. Arcia’s 31.0 strikeout percentage was the seventh highest of any player with at least 350 PA’s. His 6.1 walk percentage and 17.1 line-drive percentage are also areas for improvement. That doesn’t mean I don’t expect Arcia to make an impact this year. He doesn’t turn 23 until May 9th, so it should be fun to see if his gross minor league numbers can finally translate at the next level.
So we’ve made it through 588 words of this without mentioning Joe Mauer. This was not an accident; that’s roughly the OBP he’ll need this year for the Twins to make the playoffs.
In case you hadn’t heard/live under a rock/have better things to do than worry about the Minnesota Twins' defensive alignment (I don’t), Mauer will no longer catch and will transition to being a first baseman full-time in 2014. I may be the only one, but I love this because concussions are bad, the Twins had a combined .318 OBP from their first basemen last year, and he’ll never have to hide that gorgeous face behind a catcher’s mask again. Well, that’s part of it at least.
I also like the move because it actually doesn’t decrease Mauer’s value as much as people may think (from a real baseball perspective – fantasy is a far different story). Last year, I wrote about a stat based on Paul DePodesta’s research (featured in Moneyball) that said that OBP was three times as valuable for scoring runs as slugging percentage. Basically, the stat is just 3*OBP + SLUG = $$$$.
Last year, Mauer led all catchers in the category at 1.688. Just as you’d expect. However, if you slide that down to first basemen, Mauer still had the fifth-highest total, just .001 behind Freddie Freeman for fourth. If I’m a Twins fan, I’ll take that without a second of hesitation.
After Mauer, things get a bit more grim. Despite spending over a month on the DL, Josh Willingham still led the team in walks with 66. Willingham’s .342 OBP wasn’t bad, but both his average (.208) and slugging percentage (.368) fell significantly from his first to his second year with the club. He also hit 21 less home runs than he did in 2012 (down to 14 from 35).
Willingham’s struggles basically are the only thing that kept him on the team, or else the Twins would have dealt him and his contract that expires after this season in the blink of an eye. If he can rebound with a decent first few months, he’s definitely a candidate to land Minnesota a prospect in June or July.
Terry Ryan has apparently already anointed Kurt Suzuki the starting catcher, according to The Pioneer Press' Mike Berardino. Suzuki seems like a stop-gap until Josmil Pinto is ready, although Pinto tore it up after a September call up (.342/.398/.566 in 83 PAs). It seems like he’ll start the year out in AAA to get more experience and improve his defense while Suzuki holds down the fort.
Joining Mauer on the right side of the infield will be Brian Dozier, who had a pretty decent 2013. He had the second-highest WAR on the team (2.8, behind Mauer’s 5.2) and the eighth-highest WAR of all second basemen. His OBP could use some improvement (.312), but his 18 home runs were tied for the fourth most among second basemen. And he’s got dat fresh flow, doe.
The left side of the infield is a bit less certain. At shortstop, Pedro Florimon hates hits with a fervent passion; unfortunately, that applies to both the offensive and defensive aspects of his game. Shawty got a big ol' glove, but it comes with a .281 OBP. He'll have competition from Eduardo Escobar and Jason Bartlett (yes, the same one the Twins traded with Matt Garza in exchange for Delmon flipping Young – he’s back for round two), but I would assume Florimon wins that one.
Trevor Plouffe at third is a hard guy to figure. In June of 2012, he had a .327/.391/.735 slash with 11 home runs. Since then, he has just 22 home runs and an OBP that hovers around .300. When you add in his -18.2 composite UZR over the last two years, you just want to cry a little. That’s what makes Miguel Sano even more drool-inspiring – more on him later.
Strikeouts are Fascist
It’s pretty safe to assume that the Twins’ front office members are huge fans of Bull Durham because they live by this phrase. I even made this picture with my superb Photoshop skills to illustrate this. The guy on the right is GM Terry Ryan. Kevin Correia and his 4.9 K/9 are on the left. Please ignore the minor chunk of Ryan’s forehead that is missing and Correia’s semi-transparent hat bill. Technology is hard, man.
Correia was possibly the team’s best starter, finishing the season with a 4.18 ERA and a 4.40 FIP. His BABIP against saw a decent spike (up to .313 from a .301 career mark), so it’s not crazy to think that Correia could have a good year (very relative term when it comes to the Twins) ahead of him.
Correia tied for the team lead in strikeouts at 101 on the season. The other was Mike Pelfrey, who also had a sub-six K/9 (5.95). Yes, 101 total strikeouts. That’s less than 37 percent of the strikeouts Yu Darvish had last year. Heck, it’s 11 less than Aroldis Chapman, who threw 63.2 total innings. If strikeouts are fascist, the Twins are Karl Marx.
However, young chillens, there is hope on the horizon. Yes, this regime has started to grasp the allure of the oft-beguiled strikeout. By signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, Ryan and Co. acknowledged that their "pitch-to-contact" philosophy isn’t exactly raking in the pennants.
Nolasco was the big get of the offseason for the Twins. His 3.70 ERA and 3.34 both would have been by far the best for a Twins starter last year, and he has averaged almost 199 innings over the last three years.
Over his six full season in the majors, Nolasco has averaged a 3.15 WAR. The Twins as a staff had a 10.1 WAR last year. God bless you, Ricky Nolasco. God bless your entire family.
Hughes, on the other hand, struggled in his final season with the Yankees. Although his FIP decreased (to 4.50 from 4.56), his ERA went bananas and jumped to 5.19. A big part of this was Hughes’s .324 BABIP, which was way higher than his career .285 mark. This means that Hughes could be due for a rebound, but I think being a part of the Twins pitching staff automatically increases your rate stats by a factor of five.
For the fifth spot, it’ll likely be a battle between Sam Deduno, Scott Diamond and Kyle Gibson, but I’d give Deduno the edge here. He cut his walk percentage nearly in half from 2012 to 2013 and posted a 1.1 WAR in just 18 starts. If Deduno can continue reducing his walk totals and stay healthy, he could be a decent number five guy.
I have three "bookmarked" pages on my Google Chrome profile. One is numberFire.com (Duh! You should, too), and another is the Dora the Explorer theme song on YouTube. The girl has talent, bro. The third is Byron Buxton’s FanGraphs page. It’s bath salts for nerds.
Buxton sported wOBA's of .444 and .406 at A and high-A respectively last year. He also had 20 doubles, 18 triples, 15 home runs and 57 stolen bases.
Buxton won’t be breaking into the majors until at least some time next year, I’d assume. But the dude has to excite you if you’re a Minnesota fan. His numbers at Cedar Rapids last year were comparable to Mike Trout's with the Kernels a few years ago. And, you know, he can do stuff like this. Watching that once a night before you go to sleep could save your marriage.
Joining Buxton in the cool kid club is Miguel "El Salvador" Sano. Thinking of these two in the same batting order brings out my superior dancing skills.
Buxton brings the lightning while Sano brings the thunder. The 20-year-old third baseman hit 35 homers last year between high-A ball and AA in 519 PAs. That projects to 42 over 625 appearances, but, again, it wasn't above AA. That won't stop Sano from saying he’ll hit 45-55 bombs this year.
Even with this disgusting power, Sano probably won’t make his major league debut until at least mid-season. His slash dipped significantly down to .236/.344/.571 after his promotion to AA, although that was partially due to some elbow issues that he says are now resolved.
If Sano were to make the big league club this year, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS (which are a great way to spend an afternoon/month) say Sano would hit 30 home runs. They also say he would have a 34.9 strikeout percentage, so some time in AAA would do Sano some good.
On the pitching side of things, there are also a few reasons for hope. Alex Meyer is the most major-league-ready of those and could conceivably make a push for the rotation this year. Despite dealing with a shoulder strain, Meyer lit up AA with a 3.21 ERA, 2.73 FIP and 10.80 K/9. He only threw 78.1 innings during the season, but he tacked on 26 innings in the Arizona Fall League where he had a 26.7 strikeout percentage and 8.2 walk percentage.
In the lower levels, they have Jose Berrios (2012 first-round sandwich pick) and Kohl Stewart (fourth-overall selection in 2013). Both are in MLB.com’s top 100 prospects (90 and 40 respectively), but probably won’t get the call until 2016 or ’17. The future is bright in Minnesota.
Can They Compete?
After all of that gushing about the Twins’ farm system, it’s hard to remember that their big league club is still, well, the Twins. The pitching staff will be much improved (although that’s not saying a lot). If Hicks and Arcia can both show improvement in their second years, the offense could get better, but I think, as a whole, the offense will sit near where it was last year. In the end, they may reach 70 or 75 wins, but they're still not a playoff contender. Not yet.