2016 Twins: Building a Playoff Ready Roster

The Minnesota Twins ran a good race in 2015, but they just shit their pants on the last leg of the marathon, getting swept by the division leading Royals. They finished 83-79, their first winning season since 2009 and things are looking up for next year given the wealth of young talent.

The Twins infield is surprisingly consistent and seemingly locked in for next year thanks to the emergence of Eduardo Escobar at shortstop and solid years from Mauer, Dozier and Plouffe (admittedly each did take a bit of a step back from stronger 2014 campaigns).

Joe Mauer: Can He Bounce Back?

Joe Mauer had an off-year for his standards hitting .265, but still managed to lead every other player not named Sano in on-base percentage (OBP). Mauer’s OBP was at a healthy .404 as recently as 2013 but declined to .360 in 2014 and now reached .338 in 2014. Hopefully Mauer can reverse that statistical decline and boost his OBP. He still managed a 1.5 WAR in 2015, as per ESPN. Now on the bright side, when Mauer did produce it tended to be in big situations. His OPS is .922 with runners in scoring position (RISP), .986 with 2 outs and RISP, and .821 in “high leverage” spots as defined by Baseball Reference. Mauer’s .718 OPS ranks near the bottom for MLB first basemen: of the 35 with at least 300 plate appearances, he is 31st in OPS. Lest you forgot, Mauer will get paid $23 million per year through 2018.

Brian Dozier: A warrior with a slipping WAR

Brian Dozier had an all-star first half and a mediocre second half. He ended up hitting just .236/.307/.444. Those aren’t lead off numbers despite being the Twins’ leadoff man more times than not. The seriousness of his second half slump was masked by his leading the team with 28 home runs. Dozier defense also slid from the high standard he set in the last two years. The end result was that ESPN pegged his WAR at 2.4 down from an impressive 5.2 mark in 2014. Dozier is planning to get an MRI on his hip after the season, possibly signaling he’s wasn’t 100% healthy during his second half slide. Dozier is signed through 2018 in a favorable back-loaded deal with $18 million remaining.

Eduardo Escobar: Shortstop of the Future

Eduardo Escobar had a breakout year on top of what should have already been a breakout year in 2014. Escobar numbers are on par with Dozier’s and Plouffe’s, even though he got much less respect and routinely batted ninth in the order. While playing solid defense at short, Escobar batted .261/.307/.446 and showed a marked improvement in pitch selection, suggesting the best is still ahead. Escobar boosted his WAR from 1.1 in 2014 to 1.8 in 2015 even though he played in fewer games (while the Twins stubbornly rode out the struggles of Danny Santana). The Twins paid Escobar just $532,500 in 2015 and have him under arbitration control through 2018.

Trevor Plouffe: Good glove, solid bat

Plouffe hit .243/.307/.434 in 2015, which was a slight drop off from his 2014 production although his home run total was up to 22. Plouffe had a 2.5 WAR in 2015 compared to a 3.9 WAR in 2014. Plouffe led the club in RBI’s for the second year in a row with 86 but also led the MLB in grounding into double plays with 28. Plouffe made $4.8 million in base salary in 2015 and will be under arbitration control for the next two years.

Trevor Plouffe has been a positive at third base, but, with Miguel Sano knocking on the door, his job is somewhat in jeopardy. There is some speculation that the Twins will trade Plouffe, but I think a little infield depth is a good thing. The biggest reason he will play a lot of third base next year is that while Plouffe has turned himself into an above average third basemen with a .6 dWAR, Sano has been suspect defensivly, earning -0.7 dWAR in just 9 games, according to ESPN. Hopefully Plouffe can thrive next year in a possible timeshare situation with Sano.

Miguel Sano: The offense’s new beating heart

Miguel Sano’s line at the end of 2015 was .269/.385/.530 with 18 home runs in 279 at bats. The Twins haven’t seen those kind of numbers since Josh Willingham’s flukishly good 2012 season and before that a pre-concussed Justin Morneau. Sano strikes out a lot. He will set team records in strikeouts, but he will also likely be the first Twin since Killebrew to surpass 40 home runs in a season all while getting on base in the .400 range thanks to his ability to draw walks. Sano is exactly who you want batting third in your line up.

Aaron Hicks: Breakoutfielder

Aaron Hicks scuffled to start the year but really hit his stride in June and despite dealing with injuries and slumps to close the year posted a solid .256/.323/.398 line with a 1.4 WAR in 352 at bats. He plays good defense and has some speed on the base paths.

Eddie Rosario: The Cannon

Eddie Rosario has another surprise success for the Twins. Rosario is second in the league in outfield assists with 16 while displaying great range. He hit for power with a .748 OPS including 18 doubles, 15 triples and 13 homers. His OBP is a problem at a paltry .289 caused largely by a dismal 15 walks in almost 500 plate appearances. Still ESPN pegs his WAR at 2.3 on the strength of his defense and his power numbers at the plate. Thanks to his cannon arm strength, Rosario projects as a right fielder and could play the position for a long time as long as he hits well enough.

Byron Buxton: The Sparkplug

Byron Buxton really struggled in his first weeks as a major league but showed signs of strength at the plate to close the year, hitting two home runs. His average ended up being just .209 but Buxton seemed to be trending in the right direction. Plus, Buxton has such elite speed that he’d have value even as a pinch runner and defensive replacement in center field. You don’t give up on the #1 prospect in America so easily.

Max Kepler: Outfield Depth

Max Kepler had a spectacular year for the Chattanooga Lookouts, earning the MVP honors in the Southern League (Double A). His OPS was .930 and he hit three home runs in the championship series. He’s ready to make the jump the majors where he projects to be an above average defensive outfielder with speed, power and ability to hit for average and draw walks. Kepler bats left and absolutely crushes right handed pitching (.968 OPS ) and hasn’t been too shabby versus lefties either (.868 OPS) although the quality of left handers will go way up in the Majors. He could work in a platoon situation with Hicks who fares much better against left handed pitching (.870 OPS vs .661 vs Right). Or Kepler could platoon with Buxton, who is a righty who has struggled mightily versus lefties so far. Until Buxton figures that out, Hicks could relieve him time to time in CF versus left handed starters with Kepler filling in for Hicks in LF.  Meanwhile, Rosario is a lefty but has hit lefties better than righties so far (.811 vs. .727 OPS). However you play them, this is the most exciting Twins outfield since the “Soul Patrol” days of Torii in his prime, Jacque Jones and Shannon Stewart.

Torii Hunter: The Lingering Old Fart

Time for Torii to take off that Twins uniform for the last time and retire. Photo by Jim Mone.

Time for Torii to take off that Twins uniform for the last time and retire. Photo by Jim Mone.

Torii Hunter leveraged a strong blast from the past May into starting honors for the whole season despite a wealth of alternatives and a terrible two month long batting slump and woeful defense in right field. Hunter’s OBP was an anemic .293, although 22 home runs did blind some to his profound mediocrity. Even sadder, there is still a decent chance the Twins will bring Torii back year to clog up the outfield. The rumor is the Twins could ask for a pay cut from his ridiculous 10.5 million salary in 2015 and a role reduction. Even if Torii agrees to the role reduction, Molitor seems to play Torii frequently. More pressing, what will happen to the dance party situation if Hunter leaves?!?!?

Kurt Suzuki: The Offensive Catcher Who Cannot Hit

Suzuki took a big step back offensively in 2015 (.610 OPS) and was dead last in Caught Stealing Percentage with a pathetic 15% of basestealers caught. Suzuki is considered a poor pitch framer too so it’s not clear from where his defensive value comes. He’s signed for $6 million next year.

Shoring Up Catcher via Free Agency: Matt Wieters?

If Suzuki was bad, backup Chris Hermann was dreadful with a historically bad .486 OPS. Hence the need for improvements via free agency. The biggest name going into free agency is Orioles catcher Matt Wieters (.741 OPS). The Twins would have to pay to get him although probably not as much as they paid Hunter this year. Securing Wieters, they could treat Suzuki as the back up and play both regularly to keep them both fresh over the grind of the season. Even a less heralded catcher such as Alex Avila would be an improvement. Avila has struggled with concussions and bad knees but still manages to play strong defense and draw a ton of walks to boost his OBP.

Kennys Vargas: Power Potential

Kennys Vargas was a big disappointment in 2015 managing a pathetic .626 OPS mostly as a DH. Still, Vargas has shown power both in the minors and in his solid 2014 season when he hit 9 home runs with a .772 OPS in 215 ABs. Vargas needs to control the strike zone better and draw walks. His 5% rate in the majors will not cut it. The problem is that the only position the lumbering 290-pounder can play, albeit poorly, is first base and he’s blocked by Mauer there and by Sano at DH. Sano can play third base, though not nearly as effectively as Plouffe, so it would be possible to have Vargas in the line up as long as Plouffe or Mauer sits and Sano gets to play their respective position. Vargas would have to be hitting pretty well for that to be a good option, but it’s too early to give up on Kennys.

Kyle Gibson: Another Solid Season

Kyle Gibson had the highest WAR in the pitching staff at 3.2 largely due to his inning eating ways. He earned a 3.84 ERA in 194.2 innings with a team leading 145 strikeouts. It’s telling that Gibson’s 17 quality starts led the club far and away. By the way, a quality start is when a pitcher goes at least 6 innings while allowing 3 earned runs or less. The bar isn’t that high. Gibson won’t be a free agent until 2020 although arbitration could get pretty expensive for the Twins before then.

Tyler Duffey: Finally A Strikeout Pitcher

Tyler Duffey emerged as a strong starter for the Twins down the stretch earning a 3.10 ERA in 10 starts, 7 of which were quality. He needs to be in the rotation next year. He managed 8.33 Ks per 9 and has a track record of limiting home runs in the minors.

Phil Hughes: I’ve Made a Hughes Mistake

Phil Hughes had an Icarus-like fall from Cy Young contender in 2014 to mediocrity in 2015. He earned a 4.40 ERA in 155.1 innings serving up 29 home runs and managing only 94 strikeouts. Eleven of his 25 starts were quality starts. Hughes did battle some nagging injuries but it would appear his 2014 ace-like performance was an aberration. Hughes is signed through 2019 (thanks to the 42-million-dollar 3-year extension Terry Ryan gave him in December riding the high of his impressive 2014 season.) A Hughes mistake indeed. He’ll end up a decent, if overpaid, back of the rotation starter.

Ervin Santana: Juiced Up and Good to Go

Ervin Santana missed 80 games for performance enhancing drugs and looked a little rusty when he came back with his ERA ballooning above 6 in July. However, he started pitching like the mid rotation guy the Twins paid him ($55 million over 4 years) to be and ultimately dropped his ERA to 4.00.  Eleven of his 17 starts were quality starts.

Jose Berrios: The Ace in the Hole

Perhaps the greatest source of second guessing for Twins fans/armchair GM’s (i.e. me) came from Terry Ryan’s decision to leave 21-year-old phenom Jose Berrios in the minor leagues this year despite absolutely lighting it up with dynamite stuff. Berrios had a 2.62 ERA in Triple A with 83 strikeouts in 75.2 innings. Berrios has dominated at every level, earning a 2.98 in 4 years in the minors with 464 strikeouts in 440 innings. He should be the ace next year so that none of innings are wasted in the minors and we don’t repeat this innings count nightmare.

Mike Pelfrey: Jettison the Dead Weight

Mike Pelfrey gave the Twins a gift in 2014 pitching shockingly well for the first two months of the season. The Twins made the mistake of thinking that gift would keep on giving. Pelfrey instead pitched like garbage down the stretch providing one of the big sources of drag that kept the good luck Twins from flying into the playoffs. Pelfrey’s 4.26 ERA masks how terrible he was. Managing just 12 quality starts in 30 opportunities does a better job of painting that picture as does his 6-11 record.

Ricky Nolasco: Team Goat

Ricky Nolasco had bone spurs in his ankle which caused him to miss almost the whole season. He posted a 6.75 ERA in 8 starts, only one of which was a quality start. Note that Nolasco is touchy about how hitters celebrate the home runs he serves up, which causes problems because he serves up lots of homers (a club-leading 22 in 2014). Tragically, Nolasco is signed through 2017 and is making 12 million per year. Consider that a sunk cost and never let Nolasco touch the rubber again as a starter.

Trevor May: Rescue Ranger

Trevor May didn’t have a great ERA as a starter (low 4.00’s), but his raw numbers looked much better. Before the Duffey call up he was the only starter averaging anywhere close to a strikeout an inning. Seven of his 16 starts were officially quality. May stepped up a reliever posting 7 holds and settling into a high leverage role, often appearing in the 7th or 8th inning in close games. That means he might have pitched himself into a reliever role. However, if an opening presents itself, May should get another shot as a starter.

Glen Perkins and his Achilles Neck

Glen Perkins converted 29 of 29 save opportunities pre-All Star with a 1.21 ERA earning a trip to the All Star Game in which he later revealed he tweaked his neck in warm ups and pitched like garbage for the rest of the season as he battled nagging neck and back ailments. His post-All Star ERA was 7.32 with 7 home runs and 3 blown saves in 19.2 innings. Perkins’ injury and second half decline might have cost them their postseason bid, but his spectacular first half was a major reason they were even in the running. Perkins is signed through 2017 with a club option for 2018 at a salary of $6.5 million.

Kevin Jepsen: New Closer?

I was disappointed with reliever Kevin Jepsen was the only guy the Twins picked up at the trade deadline, but he turned out to be a great find. He stepped into the closer role when Perkins went down with injury and converted 10 of 11 save opportunities, posting a 1.61 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 28 innings. Given Perkins tendency to wear down over the course of a season, I believe the Twins should re-sign Jepsen as their closer and use Perkins sparingly earlier in the season to have him strong for a 2016 playoff run.

Other Bullpen Arms

Jepsen as closer and May as set-up man with Perkins used sparingly as late inning guy is a good start to a bullpen but the Twins have definitely suffered from a lack of bullpen depth. We need four trustworthy guys in the other spots. Casey Fien has been solid with a 3.55 ERA in 63.1 innings and 18 holds. Blaine Boyer gave them a good half before struggling late in the season, ending up with a 2.49 ERA, 19 holds and a 3-6 record. Ryan Pressly is solid when healthy; he had a 2.93 ERA in 27 innings before going down with a lat injury. Michael Tonkin looks like he’s ready after posting a 3.47 ERA in 23.1 innings despite getting bounced around by the Twins and set down several times. Those four guys seem to fit the bill, but the problem is that the Twins would be light in left handed relievers with Perkins being the only one (and he’s tougher on righties than lefties).

Finding a Lefty Specialist

Going with a bullpen with only Perkins as a lefty reliever is an option, but having another lefty would be preferable. Brian Duensing historically has filled that role, but seems to be showing his age with a 4.25 ERA in 2015 and actually allows better numbers to lefties versus right-handed hitters. You do not want your lefty specialist to allow .413 OBP to lefties but such was the Brian Duensing story. Neal Cotts is another options. Cotts was mediocre after the Twins made a waiver deal for him, posting a 3.95 ERA in 13 innings. However, Cotts did get lefties out allowing a .573 OPS to them in 2015, although he allowed a healthy .867 OPS to righties. Cotts is 35 but his ERA is a solid 2.84 over the past 3 years.

The Twins foolishly let another lefty option in Caleb Thielbar go to the Padres via waiver this year after they optioned him to make room on the 40 man roster for Kevin Jepsen. They gave up on him after just 6 outings despite a good season in 2014 and a fantastic season in 2013 (1.76 ERA and .83 WHIP in 46 innings). Five of 6 Thielbar outings were scoreless. In the other appearance on April 20th against the Royals, he was charged for three runs, but the team did him no favors when Dozier lost a towering pop-up in shallow center and centerfielder Jordan Schafer wasn’t there to back him up to allow the first run. Molitor really didn’t do Thielbar a favor by later bringing in tumbleweed journeyman Tim Stauffer (possessing a 9.64 ERA at the time) with two men on base to serve up a triple (both runs charged to Thielbar). So I’m really belaboring the point, but Thielbar was a good reliever and he should have been given Brian Duensing’s job on a silver platter. Instead we paid Duensing 2.7 million dollars to suck.

Terry Ryan needs to stop his over-reliance on mediocre journeymen to fill out the bullpen and give our young arms a real chance. And he definitely shouldn’t let talent on the level of Thielbar get pilfered by other teams while his roster is clogged with veteran dumpster diving finds. Surely, there were other guys in Minnesota’s bloated retread bullpen to option.

The Lineup

Here’s the lineup I’d go with I were the GM. Granted, Buxton will have to hit well enough to bat leadoff and Escobar will need to keep improving to earn the 5 spot but I wanted to prove a point that Plouffe, Dozier, and Hunter earned their choice lineup spots largely due to inertia rather than consistently producing in 2015. Note that even when Mauer was off his career mark, his OBP was still too high relative to everybody else’s to not put early in the order. Aaron Hicks is still a bit of a wildcard, showing the potential to be a high OBP guy, possibly even a leadoff hitter, but also suffering slumps that made him look like a back end guy. If Rosario ever stops swinging at everything he has the power to be a mid order guy as long as it’s paired with a solid OBP.

  1. Byron Buxton CF
  2. Joe Mauer 1B
  3. Miguel Sano DH
  4. Brian Dozier 2B
  5. Eduardo Escobar SS
  6. Trevor Plouffe 3B
  7. Aaron Hicks LF
  8. Matt Wieters C
  9. Eddie Rosario RF

Bench

  • Max Kepler OF
  • Kurt Suzuki C
  • Eduardo Nunez IF (or Danny Santana)
  • Kennys Vargas 1B

The Rotation

  1. Jose Berrios
  2. Tyler Duffey
  3. Kyle Gibson
  4. Ervin Santana
  5. Phil Hughes

The Bullpen

  1. Glen Perkins
  2. Trevor May, set up man
  3. Kevin Jepsen, closer
  4. Casey Fien
  5. Michael Tonkin
  6. Ryan Pressly
  7. Neal Cotts, lefty specialist
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