Rick Anderson, Ron Gardenhire

2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Did the Twins improve their starting rotation enough?

Prior to this offseason the most money the Twins had ever spent on an outside free agent was $21 million, so dropping $49 million on Ricky Nolasco and another $24 million on Phil Hughes represented a massive shift in organizational philosophy and showed just how focused they were on improving an awful rotation. Of course, in the grand scheme of baseball those are hardly huge contracts and the Twins’ rotation has been so bad that it could improve substantially while still being terrible.

Not only did Twins starters rank dead last in baseball with a 5.26 ERA last season, no other team’s starters had an ERA worse than 4.85. And in 2012 the Twins’ rotation had a 5.40 ERA, which ranked second-worst in baseball ahead of only the Coors Field-inflated Rockies. Which brings us to the Twins’ problem, which is that their rotation’s ERA could improve by, say, a half-run–which is a huge improvement–and still be among the 2-3 worst in baseball. Or, put another way, here are the Twins starters’ projected ERAs according to Fan Graphs:

Ricky Nolasco: 4.20

Phil Hughes: 4.64

Mike Pelfrey: 5.00

Kevin Correia: 5.07

Kyle Gibson: 5.27

Obviously the Twins think all of those guys will fare better than those projections and there are relatively plausible reasons for why that might be true in each case, but it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which that isn’t still a bad rotation. It’s very short on upside and very long on veteran mediocrity, and last season those five starters had ERAs of 3.70, 4.18, 5.19, 5.19, and 6.53.

There’s some high-upside help on the way in the form of 6-foot-9 right-hander Alex Meyer, although if Gibson pitches well enough to stick in the rotation the Twins would have to trade one of their mediocre veterans just to make room for Meyer’s arrival. Minnesota devoted the offseason to making the rotation less terrible, but in doing so the Twins also locked themselves mediocrity. If their rotation is much better but still the worst in the league, was the offseason a success?

What else is going on?

  • All the talk about starting pitching has obscured the fact that the Twins’ offense was awful last season too, ranking 13th in the AL with 614 runs scored. Essentially zero additions were made during the offseason and the expected midseason arrival of stud prospect Miguel Sano has been ruined by Tommy John elbow surgery, leaving the Twins counting on Josh Willingham getting healthy, Joe Mauer being Joe Mauer, Oswaldo Arcia making The Leap, and Aaron Hicks bouncing back from a disastrous rookie season.
  • Hicks has the world’s best prospect, Byron Buxton, breathing down his neck on the center field depth chart, so his window to establish himself in the Twins’ plans is smaller than usual for a 24-year-old. Hicks was about as bad as a player can be as a rookie, hitting .192 with a .597 OPS and 84 strikeouts in 81 games, but he did have a decent power/speed combo and the Twins are hoping that the on-base skills he displayed in the minors will translate to the big leagues eventually. Presumed backup center fielder Alex Presley was lost on waivers to the Astros, so the Twins are going to let Hicks sink or swim.
  • Glen Perkins is really, really good. In his first full season as a closer Perkins saved 36 games with a 2.30 ERA and since moving into the bullpen full time in 2011 he has a 2.45 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 195 innings. During that three-year span his strikeout rate has climbed from 9.5 to 10.0 to 11.1 per nine innings and his K/BB ratio has jumped from 3.1 to 4.9 to 5.1. He’s a strike-throwing, bat-missing, tweet-sending machine.
  • Phil Hughes became sort of a punching bag for Yankees fans while struggling in recent years, but the Twins targeted him early in the offseason believing the one-time top prospect still has significant upside and as guys like Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett have shown recently struggling in New York doesn’t preclude a pitcher from thriving elsewhere. As a fly-ball pitcher Hughes was particularly ill-suited to call Yankee Stadium home, but his road ERA was 4.10 from 2011-2013 and his raw stuff simply isn’t what it once was. Hughes will be an interesting test of the Twins’ brain trust.

Prediction: Improved but still very bad starting pitching, improved but still very bad hitting, and a slightly less unwatchable overall product. Fourth place, AL Central.

The names and teams to watch between now and Monday’s trade deadline

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 3: Jonathan Lucroy #20 of the Milwaukee Brewers looks to the dugout during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth inning at Busch Stadium on July 3, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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We already saw a big deal go down today, with the Padres trading Andrew Cashner to the Marlins. Between now and Monday afternoon, however, there will be many, many more. Keeping track of them is not always easy, but we can contain the chaos a little bit by ticking off the big names with the most heat around them.

Here, as of this morning, are the most significant players with rumors attached:

Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers

Linked to: Mets, Red Sox, Indians and Rangers
Likelihood of being traded: Seems highly likely. We’ve seen no reports saying the Brewers truly plan on keeping him.
Most likely destination: Beats us, though the Red Sox have the most to trade from and the GM with the history of the boldest moves. The Indians may be the most desperate for catching, however.

Chris Sale, White Sox

Linked to: Dodgers, Yankees and Braves. Rangers could certainly use him. Obviously, tons of teams would love to have him.
Likelihood of being traded: Less than 50-50, but certainly not zero. Sale’s recent uniform shredding antics and his clashes with the front office are frequently cited, but the real calculus here is whether the White Sox honestly think they can contend while Sale is still under team control (he has club options which keep in Chicago through 2019). Even if he was a model citizen, there are just as many good arguments for dealing him as there are for keeping him, mostly surrounding his undeniable status as one of the game’s top starters and his team-friendly deal for that ace performance. That combination equals a heavy package of prospects in return. If we ran the Sox we’d probably deal him, with the recent controversies as a cover for what is really an admission that, nope, we’re just not a good enough team to compete and, yep, we could get a king’s ransom for him.
Most likely destination: The Dodgers make all kinds of sense. They have young pitching which can help the White Sox win later and can deal it to get Sale who can help them win now.

Andrew Miller, Yankees

Linked to: Rangers, Nationals and Indians, all of whom need bullpen help.
Likelihood of being traded: Low to moderate. He’s under team control through next year and The Yankees like to talk about they don’t rebuild, they just reload. After seeing the haul they got for a rental of Arolids Chapman, however, it may be hard to say no to the sort of package a club may offer for Miller.
Most likely destination: The Nationals have had several scares late in games lately. If they can get over their tendency to hoard prospects rather than truly go for it, they could probably get a deal done.

Jay Bruce, Reds

Linked to: Mariners more than anyone. Indians and Rangers have been mentioned.
Likelihood of being traded:  Almost certain. The Reds are gonna be bad for a while and the often uneven Bruce is enjoying his best year. Time to strike while the iron is hot.
Most likely destination: The rumors about Bruce fall into two categories: legitimate stuff about the Mariners’ interest and general noise which sounds a lot like the Reds trying to pretend there are more teams interested in Bruce than there really are in order to get the Mariners to raise their price. Anything can happen, of course, and one should not bluff unless one is willing to carry through with what one is threatening, but I still think Bruce is a Mariner by Monday evening.

Chris Archer, Rays

Linked to: Dodgers, but no one else super seriously.
Likelihood of being traded:  Seems low. The Rays will certainly entertain offers, but Archer’s value is lower than expected during this subpar year for him and he’s under team control for a really long time. If you overwhelm the Rays they’ll deal him, but it will take a big, big offer.
Most likely destination: We think it’s more likely that he’s still a Ray next week, but if he goes anyplace it’ll likely be Los Angeles if they cannot pry Sale loose from the White Sox.

Wade Davis, Royals

Linked to: Dodgers
Likelihood of being traded:  Less than 50% in our view. The Royals may have been intrigued by the Chapman deal with the Cubs, but they are rumored to want to package Davis with teammate Ian Kennedy in a salary dump situation, suggesting that they’re less interested in maximizing the return for Davis than they are in dumping Kennedy’s salary. It’s hard to see why someone like the Dodgers, who are apparently enamored with Davis, would want to do that. It suggests that the Royals are just sort of messin’ around.
Most likely destination: He’ll probably still be a Royal unless the Dodgers make a strong take-it-or-leave-it offer for a standalone Davis deal.

Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies

Linked to: No one specifically yet, but obviously tons of teams want starting pitching. The Rangers, Orioles and maybe the Giants are all teams which have been mentioned in passing.
Likelihood of being traded:  50/50, driven by the Phillies allegedly high asking price — Jayson Stark has reported that they want a top, top prospect for a Hellickson rental — and driven by the fact that the Phillies could just wait until November, give him a qualifying offer and take a pick for him.
Most likely destination: Hard to say, but he’s going to look a lot more attractive to teams like the Rangers the harder it is for them to get one of the top line guys.

Rich Hill, Athletics

Linked to: Same suspects as Hellicskson and the other starters.
Likelihood of being traded: High. It’s the A’s, they make deals.
Most likely destination: No clue. He’s no one’s top choice, but everyone is going to get more desperate between now and Monday afternoon.

OTHERS:

  • Edinson Volquez of the Royals, Matt Shoemaker of the Angels and Julio Teheran of the Braves are mentioned as pitching targets, though it’s not at all certain those clubs are inclined to make a deal. This is especially true of the Braves who did quite well trading starting pitching last winter and may wish to wait until the offseason once again;
  • Carlos Gonzalez, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran are the top non-Lucroy/Bruce bats which have been mentioned. The Cubs and Orioles have been mentioned as possible suitors for Reddick. Gonzalez hasn’t been linked to any specific teams strongly, though he has reportedly asked to be traded. The Rockies winning more lately may make them hesitant to deal him, however. The Yankees still haven’t signaled that they’re waving the white flag. Trading Beltran means they’re waving the white flag.
  • Any reliever not pitching for a contending team is fair game. More relievers will likely change teams than anyone. So many that we’ll lose track of ’em.

We’d love to be more specific than that, but this is our eighth year of tracking the trade deadline at HardballTalk. That experience has taught us to expect the unexpected.

You can do a Jose Bautista bat flip in the new “NHL ’17” video game

Toronto Blue Jays Jose Bautista flips his bat after hitting a three-run homer during seventh inning game 5 American League Division Series baseball action in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Associated Press
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Jose Bautista‘s bat flip from the 2015 playoffs has crossed sporting lines. Now, in addition to it angering old school killjoys and “play the game the right way” lame-os, you can use the bat flip to taunt your opponents in video game hockey.

That’s because the new “NHL ’17” game allows you to pick your own goal celebration. And one of them is the Bautista bat flip. It was discovered by a guy beta testing the game:

Why you’d pick any of the other celebrations is beyond me, but I suppose you can do what you’d like.