What happened to all the Twins' bunt hits?

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Last year the Twins tied the all-time MLB record
for bunt hits in a season with 68, while no other team managed even 40.
Carlos Gomez led baseball with 30, which would have ranked sixth among teams,
and Alexi Casilla was second in the AL with 16 despite playing only 98
games. Along with Gomez and Casilla combining for 46 bunt hits, Nick
Punto chipped in seven, Joe Mauer, Denard Span, and Matt Tolbert had
four apiece, and nearly five percent of the Twins’ total hits came via
bunt.

This season has been a much different story,
as the Twins rank just sixth in bunt hits and are on pace to finish
with fewer than half as many as they had last year. Much of the
decrease in bunt hits comes from Gomez being relegated to the bench for
32 of 77 games after starting 143 times last season and Casilla playing
his way back to Triple-A, because they obviously can’t rack up bunt
hits from the dugout or Rochester. With that said, bunting less often
even when they’re in the lineup has also been a factor.

Gomez laid down a bunt in 11 percent of his plate appearances last
year, reaching safely 45.5 percent of the time to become just the fifth
player since 1959 to bunt for at least 30 hits in a season. This year
Gomez has bunted in just six percent of his plate appearances while
reaching safely 27.3 percent of the time. In other words, he’s bunted
about half as often and done so about half as successfully. Much has
been made of Gomez’s decline at the plate, but bunting accounts for
nearly the entire change.

Gomez is hitting just .225 with a .358 slugging percentage on
non-bunts this year, which while terrible is no worse than last season
when he hit .233 with a .348 slugging percentage on non-bunts. In terms
of actual hitting
he hasn’t changed at all, but the difference is that bunts accounted
for over 20 percent of his hits last year and Gomez batted .455 when he
laid one down. This year bunts have accounted for just eight percent of
Gomez’s hits and he’s batted just .273 when he lays one down.

Twins fans have heard all about Gomez’s supposed potential
offensively since the team acquired him as the centerpiece of last
offseason’s Johan Santana trade, but through over 900 plate appearances
in the majors he’s hit .227 with a .337 slugging percentage when not
bunting. Those are putrid numbers and cast serious doubt on Gomez’s
ability to develop into an impact hitter, but the good news is that he
remains one of the game’s fastest players and is a career .433 hitter
when dropping a bunt down.

Because of his great glove in center field Gomez will always have value
regardless of how poorly he’s doing at the plate, but given his success
bunting and how horrible he’s been when swinging away it makes no sense
for him to be laying one down half as often this year. Hitting coach
Joe Vavra surely has him focusing on putting together better at-bats
and taking the ball the other way, which have the potential to make him
a competent hitter, but in the meantime his only real weapon has gone
missing.

Casilla bunted almost as often as Gomez last year, laying one down
in nine percent of his trips to the plate, and was nearly as successful
by reaching safely on 43 percent of his attempts. In addition to the
bunting Casilla was also more successful than Gomez on non-bunts,
hitting .265 with a .368 slugging percentage. Those non-bunt numbers
still weren’t good, but they’re positively Mauer-esque compared to
Casilla hitting .162 with a .210 slugging percentage on non-bunts this
season.

As a team the Twins have gone from bunting once every 36 plate
appearances and reaching safely 40 percent of the time in 2008 to
bunting once every 51 plate appearances and reaching safely 28 percent
of the time this year. That might not seem like a huge difference and
certainly the lineup’s dramatically increased power is a much more
important change overall, but when it comes to the light-hitting speed
guys like Gomez, Casilla, Tolbert, and Punto all struggling the lack of
bunts is definitely curious.

Gerrit Cole set to begin throwing program

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 24:  Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates sits in the dugout in the second inning during the game against the Houston Astros at PNC Park on August 24, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
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During the Pirates’ FanFest on Saturday, right-hander Gerrit Cole announced that he is back up to full health after being shut down with elbow inflammation in September. Per Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Cole said he’ll start a throwing program on Monday as he works on regaining his form for the 2017 season.

The 26-year-old pitched through 116 innings for the Pirates in 2016, delivering a 3.88 ERA and 2.5 WARP before landing on the disabled list in June with a triceps strain and again in August with elbow inflammation. It was a steep drop for the right-hander, who saw a considerable spike in his ERA and BB/9 rate and struggled to strike out batters at the 8.7 mark he managed in 2015.

The upside? Inflammation was the worst of Cole’s issues in 2016, and while the newfound health issues didn’t help his case for an extension, a more serious injury doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

The White Sox wanted Astros’ top prospects for Jose Quintana

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 27:  Jose Quintana #62 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning at U.S. Cellular Field on August 27, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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The Astros, Braves and Nationals came sniffing around White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana during the Winter Meetings, but each appeared to find the Sox’ asking price well beyond what they were willing to give up for the starter. On Saturday, Peter Gammons revealed that the White Sox had floated Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker and Joe Musgrove as a possible return for Quintana.

It’s a strategy that worked well for Chicago in the past, most recently when they dealt Chris Sale to the Red Sox for Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, among others, and flipped Adam Eaton to the Nationals for a trio of pitching prospects. Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow didn’t appear eager to sacrifice some of his core talent to net a high-end starter, however, and told the Houston Chronicle’s Jake Kaplan as much on Wednesday:

We’re prepared to trade players to improve our club right now. […] We’re just not prepared to trade away players that are core to our production in 2017, and those are sometimes the players that are required to get these deals done.

While Lunhow was speaking specifically to the inclusion of third baseman Alex Bregman in future deals, it’s not unrealistic to think that top prospects Francis Martes and Kyle Tucker would also be considered instrumental to the Astros’ plans for the next few seasons.

Martes, 21, currently sits atop the team’s top prospect list on MLB.com. The right-hander blazed through his first full season in Double-A Corpus Christi, posting a 3.30 ERA and career-best 9.4 K/9 over 125 1/3 innings in 2016. Tucker, meanwhile, profiles as the Astros’ second-best prospect and made a successful jump to High-A Lancaster last season, slashing .339/.435/.661 in 69 PA. Rookie right-hander Joe Musgrove is the only player left off the top prospect list, but he got off to a decent start with the club in 2016 as well, going 4-4 with a 4.06 ERA and 3.44 K/BB rate in 62 innings during his first major league season.