Rick Anderson, Ron Gardenhire

2013 Preview: Minnesota Twins

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Today: the Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Did the Twins do enough to improve their AL-worst rotation?

After a decade-long run as a consistent winner in the AL Central the Twins fell apart in 2011, losing 99 games and firing general manager Bill Smith while replacing him with the man he replaced, Terry Ryan. Things were supposed to be better last season and I suppose technically they were, but the Twins lost 96 games despite a far healthier team and some strong individual performances because they simply couldn’t pitch.

Twins starting pitchers had the worst ERA in baseball among teams that don’t call Coors Field home and the pitching staff as a whole recorded the fewest strikeouts in baseball for the second straight season. At the beginning of the offseason Ryan spoke of big plans for addressing the terrible rotation, but when the dust settled the only moves were trading for Vance Worley and signing Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey as free agents.

Worley was a sound pickup who should be a solid mid-rotation starter long term and Pelfrey is a reasonable enough reclamation project with mid-rotation potential as he comes back from Tommy John elbow surgery, but giving a two-year, $10 million deal to Correia made little sense when similar or better pitchers were agreeing to one-year deals all winter.  Of the 91 pitchers to throw at least 400 innings as starters since 2010 he ranked 88th in ERA, 81st in strikeout rate, and 80th in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And that was it. That was the full extent of the Twins addressing their awful rotation.

Would-be Opening Day starter Scott Diamond will begin the season on the disabled list following a setback with what the team called minor elbow surgery in December and former first-round pick Kyle Gibson isn’t ready for the majors after Tommy John surgery in late 2011, so the Twins will likely turn to Samuel Deduno and/or Cole DeVries to fill out the rotation. It’s not a good sign when the same career minor leaguers who joined the rotation as emergency options during a miserable season are already back in the mix before Opening Day.

What else is going on?

• As dark as things look for the Twins now the future is extremely bright. Thanks to the combination of shrewd international signings, high draft picks, and veteran-for-prospect trades the Twins have built one of the best farm systems in baseball. They placed six prospects on Baseball America‘s top-100 list, including Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton in the top 10, and will add the No. 4 overall pick in the draft to the farm system in June. I’ve been writing about the Twins on my personal blog for 11 years and this is the best, deepest farm system they’ve had in that time.

• Sano and Buxton are still teenagers and years away from the majors, but the Twins look likely to get an immediate impact from the farm system by naming Aaron Hicks their Opening Day center fielder. Hicks has yet to play above Double-A, but the former first-round pick is a standout defender with an elite arm and improved significantly at the plate last season by adding power to his already strong patience. Delaying the start of his service time clock by sending him to Triple-A for a month or so would seemingly make sense, but all signs point to the Twins handing Hicks the job now.

• Ron Gardenhire enters his 13th season as Twins manager without a contract beyond this year and most of his coaching staff was fired or reassigned during the offseason, leading to speculation that another 90-loss season would lead to his exit. He’s the second-longest tenured manager in MLB behind Mike Scioscia.

• If the Twins get off to another bad start it’ll be interesting to see if they begin shopping veterans. In the past they’ve largely shied away from that, choosing to let guys like Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel leave via free agency, but Justin Morneau will be a free agent after the season and Josh Willingham isn’t exactly part of the long-term plans at age 34.

• Joe Mauer took an incredible amount of heat locally for an injury wrecked 2011 season, which tends to happen when you miss half the year after signing a $184 million contract. He bounced back in a huge way last season, setting career-highs in games and plate appearances while hitting .319 with the highest on-base percentage in the league. Mauer was paid $23 million last season and Fan Graphs calculated his on-field value at … $23 million. Joe Mauer ain’t the problem.

• Target Field is an amazing place to watch a game and easily one of MLB’s best ballparks, but as the Twins enter Year 4 there they’ve already squandered much of the new ballpark excitement by putting out a terrible product. Only the Astros had a bigger attendance drop last year as Minnesota fell into the middle of the pack, and 20 percent of season ticket holders did not renew. And that becomes a chicken-or-egg situation, because the Twins have sliced payroll from $115 million in 2010 to $80 million this year in part due to decreased revenue, but the lack of spending has also helped turn the team into something no one wants to watch.

Prediction: Fifth place, American League Central

MLB implements another player-unfriendly rule, this time targeting draftees

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media before Game Three of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of MLB Network and FOX Sports reports that the MLB draft has a new program in which the top-50 pitching prospects are asked to undergo a voluntary pre-draft MRI on their throwing arm. At first glance, it seems reasonable because, hey, pitchers are injury-prone and players sometimes hide injuries. It would feel bad if my favorite team drafted a lemon!

The reality is that this is just another player-unfriendly rule that shifts financial risk away from the owners and onto the players. The players, in this case, are often not wealthy and are about to begin life in the minor leagues where they earn less than $8,000 per year. Signing bonuses help alleviate some of the immediate financial discomfort of minor league life.

The pre-draft MRI is “voluntary” with quotes around it. Choosing not to undergo the MRI will only give prospective teams more reason to be skeptical of one’s durability. It’s a lot like those voluntary workouts in football that aren’t so voluntary due to superior and peer pressure. You don’t show up, you’re lazy, entitled, a bad teammate, etc. In this case, a pitching prospect refuses to undergo the MRI, it’s because he’s hiding an injury.

Ian Anderson was the first pitcher taken off the board in the 2016 draft, going to the Braves at No. 3. He got a $4 million signing bonus. Let’s say this new MRI program had already been instituted and Anderson refused, or something came up that caused the Braves to change their minds. Anderson’s draft stock falls, let’s say to 21 where the Blue Jays took T.J. Zeuch with a $2.175 million signing bonus. Falling 18 spots in this case costs Anderson about $2 million, perhaps more because he loses a lot of negotiating leverage. Maybe he falls further, even to the second round.

In a column for FanGraphs nearly two years ago, Nathaniel Grow showed that, as a percentage of total league revenues, player salaries have been declining since the early 2000’s. In 2002, player salaries made up 56 percent of league revenues. In 2014, it was only 38 percent.

In isolation, the MRI program isn’t a big deal. The injured player loses stock, but another player moves up to take his place and earns a bit more money. As part of the bigger picture, however, this is part of an ongoing trend in which owners abdicate financial risk and push it all onto the players. The new collective bargaining agreement, for example, capped international signings at $5-6 million per team per year. That removes any incentive for overseas stars like Shohei Otani from coming over to play Major League Baseball. If he wanted to anyway, he would make much less money than he otherwise would on an open market. The amateur draft itself is almost entirely risk-avoidant for owners and it’s terrible for the players because they, too, would earn much more on an open market. And let’s not forget how owners have fought tooth-and-nail to keep minor league salaries suppressed.

Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick once paid $2.8 million for the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card. Let’s not act like these owners can’t afford to shoulder the risk on young pitchers.

EDIT (4:40 PM EST): As I’ve seen others mention it, it’s worth bringing up the Astros/Brady Aiken issue. The Astros took him first in the 2014 draft, but they took issue with his elbow health. The two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, but the Astros wanted to reduce it to $5 million as a result. Aiken didn’t end up signing with the Astros. He underwent Tommy John surgery and was later selected by the Indians 17th overall in the first round of the 2015 draft. He got a $2,513,280 signing bonus.

Your 2016 Winter Meetings Wrapup

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Gaylord National Resort
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OXON HILL, MD — The 2016 Winter Meetings are over.  As usual, there was still no shortage of excitement this year. More trades than we’ve seen in the past even if there are still a lot of free agents on the market. Whatever the case, it should make the rest of December a bit less sleepy than it normally is.

Let’s look back at what went down here at National Harbor this week:

Well, that certainly was a lot! I hope our coverage was useful for you as baseball buzzed through its most frantic week of the offseason. And I hope you continue coming back here to keep abreast of everything happening in Major League Baseball.

Now, get me to an airport and back home.