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.

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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.

Reasons for Some Hope

During this off-season, I have found myself daily looking for news about some Twins’ activity hoping for news of a trade and/or significant free agent acquisitions, not just the scavenger hunting on the waiver wire that has been typical for the Twins.

Most promising since the end of the 2013 season is the Twins’ activity in the free agent market. While I cannot say I’m ecstatic about all the additions, the signings so far have definitely been a step forward. The starting rotation has a chance to be something other than awful. Now if only I had a similar sense about the regular lineup being able to score runs, I would actually be a little more excited about the chances for some success in 2014.

I, like many other fans and bloggers, am most excited about the top prospects coming through the minor league system. Maybe some will be ready to succeed at the major league level this year, but I hope none are rushed. At this point, I’m willing to be patient.

Hiatus Over

My self-imposed silence is over. No excuses or even explanations. Only one comment about what has contributed to my failure to post for months: the Twins have not been very inspiring the last three years. And last year in particular was quite discouraging.

In my silent period, however, I did recognize finally that my interest in the Twins remains high, even if my optimism for 2014 is greatly tempered. Thus I will be posting again as a means of working out my thoughts about the Twins and what they are doing to return to competitive status, at least in the division.

 

 

Another Lost Season

With now less than a week before September is upon us, it is time to consider some options for September call-ups. A third lost season in a row leads one to be thinking more about the future than how the Twins will do the rest of the way this season. As a result, the September call-ups this year are more likely to see some extended playing time than simply being an extra bat on the bench or arm in the bullpen.

Starting pitching has been the most significant weakness this season for the Twins and right now there are some iffy members of the rotation to even complete this season.  Apparently the Twins are monitoring Mike Pelfrey’s innings count as he is in his first year back from surgery. I find that a bit odd in that he will become a free agent at the end of the season. As a result, the Twins’ caution with him may turn out to aid some other team.  Also, Samuel Deduno has had some arm issues that may end up limiting his starts the rest of the way.

Kyle Gibson pitched today for AAA Rochester and is scheduled for one more regular season start for them.  If the Red Wings make the playoffs – currently leading for the wild card slot – Gibson might get a start in the postseason, but with his innings limit, he may also be shut down the best of what New Britain has to offer called up for the playoffs to replace him in the rotation.

Liam Hendriks had another dismal outing and simply does not look like a viable option for next year’s rotation, although given the Twins’ propensity for second chances, he will probably be given another chance to earn a spot next spring. It is unlikely that he will be sent down now unless he is deemed useful in a Rochester play-off run.

As best I can tell, Scott Diamond is close to pitching his way back into the good graces of the major league team, but it also would make some good sense to keep him with Rochester in the event of their wild card or division championship. There is something to be said for playoff experience and “learning how to win”.

Two pitchers currently on the New Britain Rock Cats who have major league experience might be options for recall. They are Cole De Vries and Pedro Hernandez. Either might also be selected for Rochester if Gibson is shut down for the playoffs. Neither one has been stellar this season. Both have been injured and somewhat limited as a result. For the 2014 rotation, it would surprise me if either one is considered a front runner for the Twins. A highly touted prospect, Alex Meyer, may have a chance to crack the 2014 rotation, but I see him as unlikely for September, maybe more likely for the Arizona Fall League.

In the bullpen, Michael Tomkin is a very probable September call-up candidate, but only after Rochester is finished playing. He could gain some valuable experience as closer if they make the playoffs.

My best guess right now is the following will be part of the September rotation to evaluate their potential roles for 2014.  Kevin Correia is the only current starter with a two year contract, so he will stay. Andrew Albers has earned an extended look. If he remains healthy, Samuel Deduno has done well enough at times to deserve a longer look. As soon as Rochester is done, Scott Diamond will get his chance to redeem himself and return to a 2014 rotation option. That would leave Pelfrey and Hendriks as the next in line, maybe even going to a six-man rotation.

In the position player ranks, I’m guessing Eduardo Escobar, Darin Mastroianni are very probable with Chris Parmelee a long shot. If in the next few days Justin Morneau ends up being traded, his chances improve some. Aaron Hicks might get the call, but he has struggled so much both with injuries and in effectiveness since he was sent down, that I expect he will have to wait until spring to see if he can make the opening day roster again. Although it is very unlikely, I’d like to see Deibinson Romero called up and given full time at third base. In my opinion, Trevor Plouffe has been given enough time and has not produced consistently enough to count on him.

All in all, that is not a very exciting lineup of players for us to get excited about in September and for the future. We’ll have to hope for an active off-season for the Twins to bolster their chances to compete next year.

Early Trade Deadline Speculation

We are less than two months from the waiver-free trade deadline and the Twins are close enough to first place to still be considered in the race. But it is not too early to speculate on what moves they will make if they drop out of the race, a scenario more likely than moving closer to the top.  Detroit has the superior pitching and that makes them the odds-on favorite to win the division and no one is playing well enough – winning enough games – to be serious contenders for a wild card slot, so for the Twins it’s win the division or go home. Therefore, my prediction is the Twins will be in a position to be sellers rather than buyers in the month of July.

With that in mind, let’s consider which Twins might be candidates for the trading block. The most talked about player in this category so far is Justin Morneau. His past record – power hitter, former MVP – and the fact that he is in the final year of his contract make him an easy choice on the surface. Unfortunately for the Twins, Morneau has not been himself yet this year. He is hitting for a decent average and driving in runs, but he is not hitting for power. He has only two home runs as of this writing and that projects to less than 10 for the season even if he stays healthy and in the lineup regularly. Sometimes overlooked with him is his very good defense at first base, which might make him a bit more attractive to a contender that needs a first baseman.

At this point, I see two problems with Morneau’s being on the fast track to another team. First, his performance so far does not make him all that desirable for a pennant run. That means for the Twins, not much in return. Second, the number of contenders that do not have a solid first baseman at least as good if not better than Morneau is quite low. As a result, I expect Morneau to play out his contract with the Twins. In the coming off-season, I expect the Twins to make the minimum offer to him so as to secure a draft pick if another team signs him. I’m guessing no other team will match or exceed that offer, so he will be back next year on a one-year contract.

So, if Morneau is not a likely candidate for the fire sale, who is? The two next most logical are Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit because they would produce the best return as well as open up lineup spots for younger players. Both had their contracts extended last year, but both are quite affordable for teams in the hunt. Doumit’s versatility and recent production at the plate make him the more likely to be sought after by multiple contenders. Willingham has not had a great year so far, and his defense is a detriment, but his power is still going to make him an interesting option for some teams.

Some long-shot possibilities include Jamey Carroll, a true professional utility infielder who would contribute to a team in need of solidifying their infield for the stretch run, and Jared Burton, a now proven set-up man, who could even serve as a temporary closer for a team needing that kind of help in the last couple of months of the season. With the emergence of some younger pitchers in the bullpen, Burton and possibly even Brian Duensing (serviceable lefty) could be expendable. None of this group would produce much in return, so it would only be because the Twins do not see them in the picture for 2014 that any of them would be available. 

Now the question becomes will the Twins make any moves at all. It is more common for them to not make deadline moves and save their changing of the roster decisions until the end of the season. Maybe this time the value of some of these players will be perceived to be substantially higher at the trade deadline than during to off-season. But that is a very subjective judgment. Ultimately, I would not be at all surprised if no big moves are made.

Series Two in the Books

This afternoon the Twins completed their weekend series in Baltimore, the second series of this young season. Now with a record of 4-2, the Twins are leading the division (tied with the White Sox) and have won their second consecutive series since who knows when. It is very good to see they have finally broken the spell the Orioles seemed to have on them in Baltimore.

During the weekend the Twins made their second roster adjustment of the season already. It’s hard to not see a connection between Tyler Robertson’s first pitch in relief Friday night resulting in a grand slam for Chris Davis, and Robertson’s being optioned to Rochester after the game Saturday. He was replaced Sunday by Anthony Swarzak, who was activated off the DL and pitched the same day, and picked up the win even though he was not particularly effect. He just happened to be the pitcher of record when the Twins took the lead.

Glen Perkins notched his second save of the series (and season) after backing into a “vulture” win in the Detroit series. Overall, a good first week for him.

Once again in this series, the Twins played every position player in at least one game and used the bullpen effectively to keep the Orioles from mounting comebacks after the colossal failure of the first game of the series Friday.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Roberto Hernandez after his decent stint as the starting pitcher Sunday filling in for Cole De Vries, whose forearm has still not loosened up enough to work and currently on the DL. Scott Diamond is due to come off the DL later in the week and probably will pitch in the series against the NY Mets beginning Friday, so one possibility is for Hernandez to be optioned out to clear room for him. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if he sticks a while longer with the Twins if Liam Hendriks has another terrible start Monday at Kansas City. It would be nice to have another lefthander (Hernandez) among the starters to complement Diamond when he returns.

Intriguing times for the fifth starter competitors. We shall see.

First Series Success

Surprise is always fun. Today, the Twins surprised me by winning their second game in a row and the first three-game series of the season. Compounding the surprise: it was against the prohibitive favorite of the AL Central Division and a pre-season favorite to win the World Series.

Today the bats broke out of their mini slumps and the Twins put 8 runs on the board. It was only a matter of time before the hits started coming in greater numbers than they produced in the first two games. It was particularly nice to see Chris Parmelee and Aaron Hicks come through in the eighth inning with run-producing hits, the first of the season for each of them. Every position player now has a hit, except Darin Mastroianni, who has played in two games, but has not yet made a plate appearance.

The most pleasant surprise has been the Twins’ starting pitching. Two quality starts in the first two games and 5 1/3 innings with no earned runs given up by Mike Pelfrey today. Two errors leading to runs extending the number of pitches enough that he was well into the 90’s in pitch count when he was relieved in the sixth. The bullpen managed to close out the game without giving up any runs, and that included the major league debut of Ryan Pressly in the 9th. Glen Perkins was warmed and ready but the Twins five-run spurt in the bottom of the eighth allowed him to be saved for appearance on the weekend.

Only Josh Roenicke was shaky out of the bullpen today, giving up a hit and walking two in 1/3 inning before being pulled for Robertson who got a strike out if Prince Fielder and Casey Fien who retired the final batter of the nerve-wracking seventh inning.

The pleasant surprise of this series demolished my prediction the Twins would start 0-3. I’ll take it! (And probably should refrain from too many bold predictions in the future.)

Game 2 Observations

Good:

  • Eduardo Escobar hits a walk-off double after subbing for Florimon who was lifted for a pinch hitter earlier in the game.
  • Pinch hitter Wilkin Ramirez gets a big RBI hit to produce the Twins first run of the game.
  • Chris Parmelee throws out Torii Hunter trying to advance to 3rd on a base hit. The play ends the inning w/ Prince Fielder due up.
  • Kevin Correia pitches very well but doesn’t get the win because Twins bats were silent when he was pitching. Though no official errors were committed, the defense failed him or he might have had seven shutout innings.

Bad:

  • On the first batter of the game, Aaron Hicks misjudges a pop-up and it falls for a bloop hit to center. Fortunately no damage was done that inning.
  • Trevor Plouffe fails to knock down a grounder off the bat of Fielder and it costs a run.
  • Too many strikeouts (10 today, 12 yesterday), especially too many looking!

 

General Observations:

  • Once again, the big bats fail to produce in the clutch, but nice to see the bottom of the order scrap to get the win. Three hits by three different players out of the 9th spot in the order today.
  • If Florimon keeps up the hitting streak (1 for 2 each game), how long will it be before Gardenhire lets him continue to hit instead of pinch hitting for him late in the game?