Quiet January

The Twins made very few moves this past month. That is a little surprising to me because we keep hearing about not being done yet with the roster make over.

I doubt if anyone would consider the signing of Matt Guerrier to a minor league deal and granting Andrew Albers his unconditional release so he can sign with a South Korean team for 2014 as significant action. Yet those are the “big” moves of the month.

There were some other transactions made by the Twins, so I’ll report them all. They issued invitations to several non-roster players to spring training and they signed second baseman Eric Farris and pitcher Daniel Turpin to minor league contracts. Nothing earth shattering.

Now the big question is, with less than two weeks to catchers and pitchers reporting, will the Twins sign any more free agents, manage any trades, or make other roster adjustments before spring training opens.

I’ll be disappointed if they do not, because as currently constituted, the Twins are not a winning team. At best they are a fourth place in the division team again. A few more wins will not suffice to keep fans engaged unless they move up in the standings and are genuinely competitive in the middle to late season.

Here’s hoping for some action in the next ten days.

Advertisements

2014 Relief Pitchers

In this last segment of my five-part review of the Twins’ roster, I look at the bullpen. Last year it was the strength of the Twins. Going into spring training it looks like it will again be the strength with competition keen and enough quality pitchers to consider trading one or two to fill other needs before the season begins.

Glen Perkins is the leader of the pen. He has established himself as an effective closer and will continue in that role again in 2014.

Jared Burton has performed well the last couple of years even if wearing down by late season each year, and if he remains healthy, he will again be one of the set-up men.

Brian Duensing was less consistent last year, but still was effect in key spots. His salary, now over a million dollars, probably dictates that he will be on the roster opening day, but he may be used as trade bait.

Anthony Swarzak has established himself as a reliable long relief man, a position that can be important to help save the rest of the bullpen. At times he has been a spot starter, and if the circumstances are right, he could serve in that role again. He also may be a valuable piece in a trade, but I expect him to be the long man with the Twins when the season begins.

Casey Fien has also established himself as a valuable late inning reliever, so if he is not in a trade package, he will be a fixture again this year.

Ryan Pressly, Caleb Thielbar and Michael Tonkin were all in the bullpen the last month of the 2013 season and they will again be competing for a spot, but will have some other competition as well. Two other members of the 40-man roster, Kris Johnson and Edgar Ibarra, will make strong cases to be included when the team goes north to open the season. One other note on Pressly, who was a Rule V pick last year and therefore had to be on the active roster all year, may see a role shift. Although the Twins’ management have not said much about it, he might find himself at New Britain or Rochester in the starting rotation in hopes he would develop into a viable major league starter. The clue as to whether or not this is in the offing will be if he is stretched out during spring training.

Matt Guerrier, recently signed to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, is recovering from elbow surgery, but if he is healthy, he also could be a strong contender.

And, finally, one or more losers of the rotation competition may end up in the bullpen so as not to lose them completely.

Unless something goes greatly awry this year, the relief corps should be solid again. If they are not overworked, they should help the Twins win more games this year.

2014 Starting Pitchers

Review of the field positions was relatively easy compared to the uncertainty of the pitching staff. In the last few years of 90-plus losses, the starting pitching has been a primary problem. While moves this off-season have improved the prospects for better results on the mound this year, there is still plenty of room for concern.

Three key acquisitions through free agency are, at this point anyway, what gives some reason for optimism. One hopes the starters will be consistent enough not to completely wear out the bullpen as was the case the past couple of years. Ricky Nolasco is probably the number one starter going into spring and Phil Hughes is my number two. Both should be capable of putting up innings and keeping the team in the ballgame regularly. The third free agent signing was actually a re-signing of Mike Pelfrey, who was with the Twins last year. I list him as my number three starter over Kevin Correia because Pelfrey had a decent year last year in spite of coming off TJ surgery the year before. One more year out and he should be better yet this year.

Number four is Kevin Correia, who surprised many of us fans last year and pitched fairly well, at least in the context of the other starters. He is not overpowering but last year was pretty consistent at getting to the sixth inning or later with the game still winnable. If he does that again in the fourth starter slot, he will be a solid member of the rotation. He is in the second year of a two year contract this year, so if he falters, he is unlikely to be on the roster after June.

Several pitchers will be vying for the fifth starter slot including some who have had some success in the Twins’ rotation in the past. When he has been healthy and not completely wild, Sam Deduno has been very good. In the rotation last year, he was arguably the best of the bunch. Because he had surgery over the winter, he may not be ready to really compete the first day of spring. In fact, he may not enough time to get fully ready for opening day. If he is healthy, he will need to be on the active roster to avoid losing him since he has no more options.

Scott Diamond is another contender who is coming off a down year after being quite effective in 2012. If he is able to bounce back this year, he would be the only left-hander in the rotation (assuming the first four remain as I’ve predicted above). Diamond is another player without options, so his chances of making the roster as a starter or reliever are slightly better than someone who has options.

Although his major league debut last year was anything but stellar, Kyle Gibson is still considered a major prospect with number one or two starter potential. If he is healthy and does well this spring, he may break camp as the fifth starter, but I expect him to begin again in Rochester and establish himself before being called up when another pitcher falters or is injured.

Vance Worley probably needs to at least be mentioned as a possible number five, but he is a long shot at this point. He might end up in the bullpen if the Twins want to keep him, but my guess is he will not make the team and will be subjected to the waiver process because he is out of options.

Logan Darnell and Trevor May are the two other starters on the 40-man who are not on the active roster. Though they have a slim chance of being the fifth starter, I expect them to be at Rochester or New Britain when the season opens.

Alex Meyer, the Twins’ top pitching prospect, is being talked about as being close to ready after a good showing in the Arizona Fall League, but he would be making the jump from AA to the majors if he found himself in the rotation. I hope and expect he’ll get the opportunity to prove himself at AAA Rochester first. Maybe by mid-season depending on other circumstances, he will get the call up.

If I had to pick the rotation now, the first four are set and Scott Diamond would be my pick for number five with Deduno opening on the DL and Worley either released or stashed in the bullpen. Much can happen in the next couple of months, so I do not necessarily expect this prediction to hold.

2014 Catchers

The Twins have four catchers on the 40-man roster and all four are on the “active” roster.

During the off-season, Kurt Suzuki was signed as a free agent to strengthen the position after Joe Mauer was moved to first base. As of now, Suzuki appears to be the starting catcher.

That leaves Josmil Pinto, Chris Herrmann and Eric Fryer to compete for the backup position.

Pinto is almost certainly being groomed to be the starter of the future, but he needs some more seasoning defensively especially. My prediction is he will start the season in Rochester where he can play more regularly and gain the experience he needs in calling games, etc. His bat is promising and if he develops quickly, he could be on the major league club by May or June, depending on how well Suzuki responds to being the number one catcher again.

If I am right about Pinto, Herrmann and Fryer will battle it out for backing up Suzuki. Neither one has what it takes to be a starter on a regular basis, but both are adequate for spot duty. Fryer appears to be the better defensively and that may give him the edge for opening day, but Herrmann is more versatile in that he can play in the outfield. It will be interesting to see who emerges as the favorite this spring.

2014 Middle Infielders

Five players on the Twins’ current 40-man roster are considered middle infielders. Three have some major league experience.

After what many considered a break-out year last year, second baseman Brian Dozier is expected to be the starter at that position opening day. I may be a little too pessimistic, but I am not yet convinced he will be consistent enough to hold down the position for any length of time. I hope to be proven wrong, but I’m having trouble believing his power numbers are real. I’ll be very surprised if he hits as many home runs this year as he did last, and I’ll be surprised if his batting average exceeds .270 with an on-base percentage much better than .310 or so. I just think major league pitchers will figure him out and he is not talented enough to overcome that, even if he makes adjustments. I will concede on defense he played well last year and there is no reason to believe that could not continue, unless he starts getting moved around again and loses the regularity of playing one position.

Shortstop promises to be the middle infield position that will produce the most competition this spring. Pedro Florimon, the incumbent, has not hit well enough or consistently enough to be declared the starter. Eduardo Escobar has shown some potential when he has had opportunities, both at bat and in the field, but he remains an unknown for the long haul. During this off-season, the Twins signed Jason Bartlett, former Twins shortstop, who was out of baseball last year, to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. If he is healthy, and returns to form as a hitter, he could be a legitimate contender, otherwise he may be a candidate for the utility infielder spot.

The other two middle infielders on the roster are Danny Santana, who played shortstop at AA last year, and Jorge Polanco, who played second base at single A Cedar Rapids. Santana may have an outside chance of making the roster at shortstop, but he is much more likely to start at Rochester. Polanco is probably going to start the season at high A Fort Myers.

As of today, I predict Escobar will be the starter and Florimon the backup/utility player, because I think Escobar has a better chance of being a decent hitter and his defensive is good enough, sometimes stellar.

Before I leave this discussion, I want to mention Eddie Rosario. He has been suspended for fifty games beginning when the season opens. If that had not happened, he would be in the discussion as a possible second baseman/outfielder. Because he is out for so long, and no one knows how well he will play after his return, it will be a full year before we know if he will return to high prospect status. He had been considered the heir apparent at second base if Dozier does not cement the position. Otherwise, he will move back to the outfield and be another contender there for the future.

Middle infield is defensively a strength for the Twins, but improvement is needed and consistency needs to be demonstrated for the offensive side to be major league caliber.

2014 Corner Infielders

To make this series of posts more manageable, I’ll divide the infielders into two groups beginning with the corner infield positions.

First base and Joe Mauer is a good place to start. As all Twins fans know by now, the inevitable switch to another position from catcher was decided last fall shortly after the 2013 season ended. Unless he is unfortunate enough to sustain some kind of injury, he will be the everyday first baseman and there will be few opportunities for any others except to give him a day off. I expect Mauer’s offensive production to be similar to what it was last year, with the possible exception of a little more power as he continues to work with Tom Brunansky, hitting coach, developing a more powerful stroke. Defensively, I expect him to develop quickly into a very good first baseman. His overall athletic ability will aid him, and his work ethic may well eventually produce a Gold Glove.

Only two others are listed on the 40-man roster as first basemen, and of the two, only Chris Colabello has any major league experience. He saw some playing time last season after the departure of Justin Morneau in August. Although he struggled some at the plate, his power potential is high and that may be enough for him to be on the opening day roster. He will probably need to beat out Chris Parmelee to make the roster because there are simply not enough slots for everyone.

The other first baseman added to the 40-man roster last fall is Kennys Vargas. He is a promising young player with good power potential, but he will not be a factor at the major league level this year.

Max Kepler could also be on this list, as last year he played a majority of the time at first base, but I’ve already discussed him in yesterday’s post.

One of the most interesting anomalies of the full roster is only one player – Trevor Plouffe – is listed as a third baseman as his primary position. I’m not sure he is good enough to be considered the only contender for the position, but so far this off-season no challengers have been added to provide any competition. A few other players have made spot starts at third for the Twins over the last couple of years, but generally they are considered primarily middle infielders and I’ll discuss them in that context.

This will definitely be the year Plouffe must establish himself or he will quickly become a utility player. I am not confident he will ever develop the consistency that is needed at the position, either offensively or defensively, but this year will tell the tale.

One non-roster player invited to the major league camp this spring, who must be considered is Miguel Sano. He played at New Britain last year and demonstrated his power and general hitting prowess such that he is considered the fourth best prospect in baseball. But when spring training ends, I expect him to be at Rochester to gain some more experience before making an appearance either in June (if Plouffe falters) or, at the latest, in September.

2014 Outfield

Looking at the Twins for 2014, I’ll begin sharing some thoughts and speculations with a review of the outfielders currently on the 40-man roster.

Based on past success, only one outfielder is a given as a regular for 2014: Josh Willingham. Even though he did not have a good year last year, the hope is his back slide was not the beginning of the inevitable genuine decline due to age, but the result of an injury plagued year. The Twins are counting on him returning to respectability as a power hitter and run producer this year. At his age, there is no guarantee, but I would be surprised if he does not at least return to being a productive middle of the lineup player. His defense in left field is a liability, so my wish is he would be at least part of the DH rotation, if not eventually becoming the full time DH. His record as a DH thus far is not very impressive and that may be because he has openly stated he does not like being a DH, but he may need an attitude adjustment if and when the younger future stars arrive to play in the field.

The next most likely starter is Oswaldo Arcia. Last year, he demonstrated he is ready to play regularly and the Twins are looking forward to his growth as a hitter. Like Willingham, defense is not his strong suit, but most of his outfield time in the minor leagues was in right field, where he is likely to be opening day of 2014, so he should be at least adequate. He most likely will be part of the DH rotation as well.

Center field is perhaps the most unsettled outfield position at this point. The front runner for opening day is Alex Presley, not only because of his presence there after being acquired in a trade last August, but also because my belief is Aaron Hicks is not quite ready yet for the full time pressures. Last year it became painfully obvious Hicks had been rushed from AA to the major leagues. He did not have a good year at the plate even after being demoted to Rochester. If it was my decision to make, I would decide now to start him at AAA Rochester when the season opens to allow him to experience everyday success against good pitching. I would do that no matter how well he hits in spring training. Last year demonstrated that spring success does not necessarily translate to consistent production at the major league level.

Unless there is some change before opening day, Chris Parmelee is most likely to be the fourth outfielder as well as serving as the primary backup first baseman. This will be a make or break year for Parmelee. If he does not find a consistent hitting stroke with some power, he will almost certainly not be on the roster later in the season. Becoming consistent will be a challenge as he is not going to be a regular, barring injury thrusting him into that status.

Max Kepler is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster as of today. He is a promising young power hitter, but will probably begin in high A Fort Myers this year.

Beyond the present 40-man roster, there are three other outfielders that deserve mention here. Jason Kubel was signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp this spring. If he shows he is healthy and still capable of hitting, I see him as the primary DH, if not in a platoon situation with someone. Based on past experience, I’d rather see him in left field and Willingham at DH, but that is just wishful thinking. If he is not healthy or does not show some hitting prowess this spring, he will be traded or released, because the Twins have enough DH-OF types to try to find playing time for.

Darin Mastroianni is another player worth considering. With some experience at all three outfield positions, a decent arm and excellent speed on the base paths, he is a capable major league backup outfielder.  During the off-season the numbers game found him being dropped from the 40-man roster and sent outright to Rochester, but if Hicks starts at Rochester as I’m suggesting he should, the Twins almost have to have a versatile player such as Mastroianni on the active roster or they would have no capable backup in center field. He might even push Presley for the starting role.

So many of us in the Twins fan blogosphere have such high hopes for the number one prospect in all of baseball, Byron Buxton, that we are tempted to rush him to the needy big league club, but I hope he begins at AA New Britain and is allowed to grow and be promoted on meritorious performance. Patience is essential in his case.

Until the youngsters arrive, the Twins’ outfield will not be a defensive strength, but assuming all perform up to minimum expectation, the offense from this group should be adequate if not a true strength. A return to 2012 form for Willingham and a breakout year for Arcia along with major league average success for Presley (or a breakout year for Hicks, if he cracks the lineup) the outfield could become a real strength and a much needed improvement in power and run production this year.

Another Day Closer

Even though it has been more or less obvious which 25 men would be going north to face the Tigers on opening day, some events today added both more clarity and some uncertainty.

On the clarity front, the Twins announced today Alex Burnett was claimed by Toronto on waivers leaving a 40-man roster spot open for Wilkin Ramirez. Although a corresponding release has not yet come out announcing the placing of Ramirez on the 40-man roster, it is expected at least by the deadline for setting 25-man rosters. An interesting side note on Ramirez is the fact that he played center field today, not his normal corner outfield spot. Obviously, grooming him for a super utility backup role to Darin Mastroianni.

The uncertainty today comes from reports that Cole De Vries left today’s spring training game early with an arm issue. Without more information, it is not wise for me to comment much yet. Suffice it to say, if he is placed at the back of the rotation, it will be a week before he would be due to pitch again, so there is time to determine if he needs to be replaced.

The departure of Burnett is a bit of a surprise. I would have thought a few others on the 40-man would have had a better chance of sliding through waivers without a claim, but the Twins apparently decided the risk was worth it. It may well be they have become disenchanted with him and his inconsistency.

My take on Burnett after watching him since he first came up with the Twins a few years ago, is he is a low-key, nice guy who is very competitive when the adrenalin is flowing, but a little lackadaisical when he pitches in less challenging situations. He seemed to do better when he came in with runners on base and had to shut the opposition down immediately than when he started innings. It is all anecdotal from my failing memory that I say all this, but it seems to me most of his walks were in low stress settings and he was particularly weak if the Twins were either way ahead or way behind when he came in to start an inning. He also was more effective earlier in the seasons he was with the Twins than he was toward the end of seasons. Whether that was from overuse and fatigue or lack of focus with the Twins being out of the running the last two years in particular might be pure speculation, but I suspect both played a part.

If I am right, this move could be a great opportunity for him. Toronto looks to be competitive for a division title and that would make Burnett’s appearances meaningful virtually every time out.  His situation may well be a classic case of “needs a fresh start”. I’ll be paying attention to how he does in the Blue Jays organization, especially if he gets to pitch with the major league club.

Rotation Roulette

The starting rotation for the first few games has now been set. Vance Worley gets opening day followed by Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey. Most likely Cole De Vries and Liam Hendriks will fill out the group at least until Scott Diamond is ready to return. No matter how one looks at this array of starting pitchers, it is not a World Series image that comes into view. Fifth place in the division is a more realistic picture.

With the whole off-season and ample payroll room to work out solutions, it is more than a little disappointing that this rotation is the best Terry Ryan could assemble for 2013. Was he counting on Kyle Gibson making the big league roster? Does he really believe the three former National Leaguers comprising the front end of this rotation are going to get the job done to be competitive this year? Did he miscalculate and lose other free agents he thought would bite on his offers? From my vantage point, these questions are unanswerable. I can only speculate, but it appears to me Terry Ryan knows this year is a place holder for the future and he was just trying to get some innings eaters – basically 4th and 5th slot starters – to bide time until younger arms are ready.

While I think Diamond paid his dues and pitched quite well for much of the year last year, the latter part of last season does not give me high confidence that he can sustain his performance level of last year. He is definitely a regression candidate for 2013, primed for a sophomore slump. I hope I’m wrong and he comes on strong right out of the chute whenever he is finally activated, but it does not seem like a good bet to me. At best, he is much more likely to be a future back of the rotation guy.

Beginning in just a few days, we’ll have the opportunity to start watching how it all will play out. Today Correia looked like he might be coming around (in his final spring start against Boston) and that is at least one reason for encouragement. Whether he and the others can make a positive adjustment to the American League is going to be one of the intriguing story lines to follow this year. My bet is Correia and possibly Pelfrey will be in the bullpen or gone by mid-season with Sam Deduno, Gibson, Rich Harden and/or possibly one or two of the young power arms acquired in the off-season moving into the rotation to gain experience for 2014 and 2015.

In spite of all the pessimism in this post, I am excited for the season to begin. It will be interesting to watch so many new faces, some young future stars, develop even if the won-lost record leaves something to be desired. If the Twins play better defensively and show improvement in consistency of good at-bats, that will be enough to return to a more optimistic outlook for 2014 and beyond.

Opening Day Roster Already?

With just three spring training games left, the opening day roster already appears, surprisingly, to be set. It may be a bit premature to declare it a done deal as currently unforeseen events could change it, but for now we have a pretty good idea of what the lineup will look like against Verlander and the Tigers on April 1.

Most exciting is the arrival of Aaron Hicks as centerfielder and lead-off man. He clearly won the position with his excellent, consistent performance in spring training. If the rest of the team, especially the starting rotation leaves one less than enthusiastic about the coming season, Hicks’ presence will make the Twins worth watching.

It is also somewhat encouraging that Hicks won the position in a genuine three way battle rather than being handed it ready or not. After an injury derailed Darin Mastroianni, one of the competitors, he made a very good showing as well. Mastroianni remains a more than capable fourth outfielder with his ability to plan all three positions, his decent bat and exceptional speed on the base paths. Joe Benson, the third competitor, may have still been rusty after the rough season of injuries last year. He ends up in Rochester to open the season.

I wish I could be even hopeful about the pitching, but even with the acquisitions of the off-season, the starters leave much to be desired. I’ll leave to another post a detailing of my concerns, but for now, my prediction is an 0-3 start against the pitching rich, power rich Detroit Tigers to open the season. The Twins may be able to out slug teams this season, to keep from the worst record in baseball, but it is unlikely the Tigers will be one of those teams.