Friday, June 13, 2014

Are the Twins sending mixed signals?

The Twins wrapped up an impressive series win against Toronto on Wednesday afternoon.  Phil Hughes was outstanding and newly acquired Kendrys Morales provided the offensive spark.  The Twins currently sit two games below .500 with 12 of their next 16 on the road and in tough environments (Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and Texas).  It seems that the Twins are planning to take a run at a playoff berth despite the rough stretch they face over the next few weeks. 

When they signed Morales to shore up the lineup and cut Jason Kubel despite his lengthy history with the organization, they essentially announced their intention to win now.  They later sent Josmil Pinto down to AAA to get more at-bats, an admission that they cannot sit Kurt Suzuki because he has been too good.  They are sticking with their veterans in the rotation, despite talented youngsters ready at AAA.  Publicly, the Twins can state that these moves are all aimed at optimizing their current roster and doing everything they can to win games in 2014.

All that said, I still think the Twins are sending mixed signals.  Are they trying to build a veteran team or a winning team?  Look no further than the rotation, where there is at least one pitcher who could be easily replaced.  In the bullpen, there are a couple of performances that stand out like a 90s hypercolor shirt.  Even the newly optimized lineup is somewhat puzzling, especially if current performances are being used to make decisions at the expense of the future and despite the past.

As recently as a week ago, I was clamoring for the Twins to replace Kevin Correia in the rotation.  I can understand if the Twins prefer to ride out his "hot streak" for a few more starts.  Since his May 14 start against Boston, when Correia only made it through four innings, he has put together five decent starts.  He's averaged six innings per start, walked just three batters and somehow put together a 3.90 ERA despite giving up 36 hits over those 30 innings.  Correia's a veteran and veterans win games, right Gardy?  This team has shown a recent reluctance to replace veterans.  

Correia isn' the only veteran starter facing massive struggles.  Ricky Nolasco is a really nice guy.  He clearly offered to take all of Phil Hughes' home runs this season.  Nolasco's home run to fly ball ratio is 13.5%, a career-high and way out of line with his figures from 2011 to 2013.  His BABIP is also about 30 points higher than his career figure.  Of course, luck is part of the game and some of Nolasco's struggles are on him.  His walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down.  The Twins aren't going to bench their most expensive free agent of all time, especially not when that same player is another veteran who "knows how to pitch."  

Of course, Sam Deduno is hardly a veteran.  With just 247.1 MLB innings under his belt, Deduno has less experience than any Twins starter not named Kyle Gibson.  In addition, Deduno hasn't been great since moving to the rotation.  In seven starts, Deduno has pitched 36 innings, struck out just 20, walked 17 and has a 5.25 ERA.  Deduno had a 2.89 ERA when he entered the rotation and might provide more value as a swingman than he has in the rotation.  I would bet my extensive pog collection that Meyer or May would perform better than Deduno from this point on.  Moving Deduno could strengthen the bullpen and rotation at once, as Anthony Swarzak has been ineffective in his role in 2014. 

Obviously, replacing three pitchers in the rotation is not the right thing to do.  Odds are, Nolasco and possibly Correia will pitch as well or better than the guys at Rochester.  However, Deduno is a pretty fungible player and replacing him with Alex Meyer or Trevor May (or possibly even Logan Darnell) would improve the rotation and the bullpen all at once.  Plus, there are still reserves at AAA if Correia falters or someone suffers an injury.  If the Twins really are in "win now" mode, they can prove it with a move that improves the rotation.  By the way, if Correia does falter, the Twins need to yank him as soon as possible, veteran or not.  He's been good for five starts, but he was awful before that.      

I mentioned Swarzak earlier, but he's hardly the only struggling member of the bullpen.  The Jared Burton signing after the 2011 season was a great move.  He provided the Twins with two effective seasons at a relatively low cost.  This year, he's been ineffective.  He is walking too many batters and his strikeouts are down.  Relievers kind of come and go.  They have a couple of good seasons and then they aren't good anymore.  Michael Tonkin might be ready to have his good seasons and even though the Twins would be replacing a veteran with a youngster, the move would likely improve the bullpen and help them win more games. 

Brian Duensing should not face right-handed batters.  He should be used as a situational lefty in close games.  If the game is out of hand, go crazy, use him everywhere.  Over the past two seasons, Duensing's strikeout rate against right-handed batters is about 13%.  His walk rate is about 13%.  These are bad figures.  Against left-handed batters, his strikeout rate is over 24% and his walk rate is around 5%.  Those are good figures.  If Brian Duensing faces a right-handed batter in a big spot, the Twins are clearly valuing his experience over his performance.  This is not what a winning team does.  There are better, albeit younger, options to face those batters. 

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this because it will never happen, but is it time to move Joe Mauer down in the lineup?  I don't mean permanently because a productive Mauer should be batting in the top third of the lineup to receive a lot of at-bats.  Currently, Mauer is mired in a pretty lengthy slump.  A move down in the lineup has been used as justification for struggling players in the past and it's not like he can't be moved back up when he starts to hit again (which I am certain he will).  Hypothetically, Danny Santana and Brian Dozier are on second and first in the top of the first, who do you want up next, Joe Mauer or Oswaldo Arcia?  It's at least become an interesting question. 

The one pro-veteran move that is easy to justify is sending Josmil Pinto to AAA while keeping Kurt Suzuki as the full-time catcher.  Right now, Suzuki is ahead of Pinto in OPS+ 119 to 103.  Suzuki is an adequate defender while Pinto is not.  The fact that Suzuki is a veteran is somewhat irrelevant because he has also been the better player in 2014.  However, I still believe that Pinto's bat gives the Twins a better chance to win games.  Suzuki's BABIP and ground ball rates are sky high when compared to his career averages.  When those grounders start finding gloves, his OPS+ is likely to fall more in line with the figure from the first seven years of his career (86).  If that happens and Pinto is mashing at AAA, will the Twins call on the youngster or stubbornly stick with the veteran?

The Twins need to prove whether they are out to win games or if they want to build a veteran-friendly roster.  Kendrys Morales fits the "win" and "veteran" categories, so it's not entirely clear which direction the Twins are going.  More likely, the Twins equate veterans with winning.  I don't necessarily disagree, but using veterans over more talented youngsters is not a good formula for the present or the future.  If the Twins want to contend for the Wild Card, they might need to trim some of that veteran fat and get back to their roots when young players were contributing all over the place in the 2000s.  The optimal Twins roster is much more balanced between veterans and youngsters than this current roster.  


  1. With veterans, you have a track record to see how they'll perform. Although they can have career years, and stretches where they are over or under-performing, they are a more known quantity.

    Prospects have something like a 25% success rate, independent of how well they do in the minors. It may be that they hit a level of play that they can't adjust to. Or they are star struck. Or maybe its just luck, or patience in waiting for the adjustments. But bringing up a prospect more often than not doesn't work in a win-now scenario, unless you temper your expectations.

    If the veteran is a stiff, has a long track record of being merely filler, then bringing up the rookie might be worth it. You can always get another filler type if it doesn't work out. But if a veteran has been decent in the past, especially a reliever due to the smaller sample size, then you have to be careful. You might throw out the guy who is just in a slump in favor of a prospect that does no better.

    You might damage the prospect by putting pressure on him and having failure ruin his confidence. Of course there is the 25% chance he'll work out fine, as well.

    1. I totally agree with the value of veterans. However, some veterans are just that and all veterans were once prospects or youngsters who needed an opportunity. You build your own veterans by giving younger players opportunities, especially when they earn them through their play.

      The Twins of the 2000s relied heavily on young players and supplemented with veterans. I think that is a formula that can still work today and the young players are certainly available to be utilized.

    2. And you're also right about being wary of small samples. I think Jared Burton could be an example, but when I watch him pitch, he just doesn't seem to have it any more. I thought Tonkin was much more impressive even though they have gotten similar results.

  2. I'm not sure they're sending mixed signals, I just think they're being aggressive with the offense and conservative with the pitching. As you point out, it's hard to argue that riding Suzuki's production, signing Morales, and playing Danny Santana out of position to keep his bat in the lineup are anything but win-now moves. On the defensive side however, I think they're afraid of rushing their pitching prospects and are basically hoping that their improved offense can overcome their 27th-ranked team ERA. That's where I'm not sure the conservative half of the equation is a smart one, because there's a big difference between needing 5 runs to win most of your games (as now with a 4.39 team ERA) and needing only 4 (assuming Meyer and better bullpen with Deduno could improve significantly upon said ERA).

    Bottom line, I think they do want to win in 2014, but not at the expense of an even brighter 2015. And I kind of understand this because hitters (and position-playing fielders, i.e. Santana) can learn on the job and improve, while pitchers, especially starters, can have their confidence shaken with a few bad outings. It's safer to ease a starter into the Majors with meaningless September or Spring ball starts than to throw him into a Wild Card race and tell him he needs to win games. But as a fan I'd love to see this team have a serious shot at a Wild Card berth in 2014.

    1. When you put it that way, it does make perfect sense. The Twins have always been more risk-averse when it comes to pitching. I think the starters at Rochester are getting closer to being ready, but I really think the starters in Minnesota are getting closer to being ready to go. We'll see how it all works out. The next schedule over the next few weeks is pretty brutal, so that might change their plans completely.

    2. The schedule, not the next schedule. English!

  3. You have to wonder how the performance of the rest of the division is influencing their moves. I mean, who would have thought they'd be only 3 games out of first midway through June? If they can keep pitching as well as Gibson did tonight, they could sweep this series with Detroit and come into Monday only a game out of first! I find it difficult to believe that Detroit will not get it together at some point and run away with the division again, but hey, who knows?

    1. I'm leery of Detroit because their defense is awful and unless Verlander gets it together, their rotation is thin. They lack depth and they're old. It's not a great combo. That said, they won the Sat/Sun games and clearly looked better than the Twins. Who knows, I still think the Twins can hang in this race.