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.

2017 Preview: Seattle Mariners

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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 2017 season. Next up: The Seattle Mariners.

The first rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts. The second rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts.

For the uninitiated, we’re now up to 15 years in which the Mariners have failed to contend for a championship title. The highlight reel of their 1995 and 2001 playoff runs has worn thin; so, too, have the slogans and promises of the nine managers and four general managers who have cycled through the franchise during their 15-year drought.

That all could change under the direction of general manager Jerry Dipoto, who is approaching his third year at the helm of the Mariners’ organization after making the most single-year offseason trades in club history. In February, MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince estimated Dipoto’s totals had reached 13 trades involving 36 players since the start of the 2016-17 offseason. “Go back to when [Dipoto] arrived in Seattle at the tail end of the 2015 season,” Castrovince writes, “and it’s 37 swaps involving 95 players.”

That’s an insane number of players to be moving around, especially when a team is leaning toward playoff contention rather than a fire sale, and you have to hope that Dipoto has a reason for the high-stakes shuffling.

One possible reason? There’s an expiration date on Seattle’s most treasured veterans, including Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, even Hisashi Iwakuma. Hernandez hasn’t received a Cy Young award in seven years, hasn’t tossed a perfect game in five years, and hasn’t maintained an ERA below 3.00 in three years. Iwakuma nearly crested 200 innings for the second time in his career, but his good health and durability was punished by a career-worst 1.3 HR/9, 6.6 SO/9 and 4.12 ERA. As expected, Cano, Cruz and Seager all turned out solid performance at the plate, and but it’s the hazards that come with aging and inevitable decline that exert pressure on Dipoto and the rest of the Mariners to deliver a postseason finish sooner rather than later.

Dipoto’s machinations have, for the most part, been both team- and fan-friendly this offseason. He didn’t move any major contracts or trade away any familiar faces on the Mariners roster, choosing instead to excise fringe players and adding short-term depth where it was needed. He reinforced a rotation of Hernandez, Iwakuma and James Paxton with right-handers Yovani Gallardo, Chris Heston, Max Povse and Rob Whalen and left-hander Drew Smyly. The bullpen received right-handers Shae Simmons, Dan Altavilla and lefty Marc Rzepczynski, the latter of whom inked a two-year, $11 million deal, while Carlos Ruiz gave the Mariners another option behind the plate. Jarrod Dyson was thrown into the outfield mix alongside Leonys Martin and Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura took over for Ketel Marte at short, and infielder/outfielder Danny Valencia lined up behind Dan Vogelbach at first base, where he later won the starting role.

It’s enough to make your head spin, but the takeaway is simple enough. Investing in younger, cheaper players provides the Mariners with enough defense and athleticism to compete for a postseason berth without the drawbacks of weighty contracts and long-term commitments. If the experiment doesn’t pan out as expected, there’s nothing to stop Dipoto from making another dozen trades during next year’s offseason and restarting the whole process.

As with any roster overhaul, there’s no predicting how much the Mariners of 2017 will improve on their 2016 counterparts. The starting rotation still leaves much to be desired, and without productive turnarounds from Hernandez and Iwakuma, even the cavernous maw of Safeco Field won’t be able to stave off another collapse. James Paxton and Drew Smyly, while not rotation headliners, project to be the most stable of the bunch so far.

The bullpen profiles a little better, notwithstanding Steve Cishek’s lengthy recovery from hip surgery this winter, Ariel Miranda’s demotion to Triple-A Tacoma and the unexpected forearm issues that cropped up in Shae SImmons’ right arm. At one point, manager Scott Servais said he was considering an eight-man bullpen featuring Edwin Diaz, Dan Altavilla, Casey Fien, Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner, though the details have yet to be worked out before the team opens their season on Monday.

While some kinks still need to be worked out among the Mariners’ pitching staff, their offense and defense look sharper than they have in years. According to FanGraphs, Dipoto invested in some pretty sizable upgrades with Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura and backup outfielder Ben Gamel, enough to make them the most improved outfield defense in the league.

It’s plausible that the 2017 Mariners have improved as a whole. It’s also plausible that all of Dipoto’s frenzied offseason moves were more focused and premeditated than they appeared. It’s even plausible that the tinkering and trimming and restructuring of the Mariners’ defense could attract a heftier win-loss record and a participation trophy — heck, even a championship title — in this year’s postseason.

But you didn’t hear it here. The first rule of playoff droughts, after all, is that we don’t talk about them until they’re finally, mercifully snapped.

Prediction: 2nd place in AL West.*

(Note from Craig: I did the Rangers preview and picked them to be in second place. I did so without coordinating with Ashley on where she’d place the M’s because, let’s face it, details are not my strong suit. Upon reading the preview above and thinking harder I’m probably leaning more toward the Rangers coming in third to be honest, but I won’t change either preview because taking predictions seriously is pointless. We’ll all just check back in October and see who was right. Ashley was probably right). 

2017 Preview: Houston Astros

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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 2017 season. Next up: The Houston Astros.

Every preview of the 2017 Astros is obligated to mention that, back in 2014, Sports Illustrated projected them to win it all this year. It got a lot of laughs at the time, but that was actually sort of bearish given that they pushed the eventual World Series champs to five games in the 2015 ALDS, which suggested 2016 could’ve even been a step beyond that. Houston faltered last year, however, and in their latest baseball preview, SI didn’t repeat that World Series claim from three years ago. They’re picking the Dodgers. So sad to see such lack of courage in one’s convictions.

I’m not sure I’d pick them to win it all this year either, but it should be a better year for the men in orange.

It all starts with their core. Jose Altuve, is a batting champ and MVP contender. 2015 Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa was just 21 last season and still put up a line of .274/.364/.451 in his first full season, fighting through some nagging injuries to do it. George Springer isn’t as good those two but he’s talented enough to feature as a key supporting player on a championship-caliber club. Alex Bregman had a nice debut season last year and will now look to consolidate success at multiple minor league levels into a solid full season in the bigs.

While last year the hope was that success would be be ensured by the young players progressing, the front office decided this past winter to beef up the roster by adding some quality veterans. In comes Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran via free agency, and in comes Brian McCann via a trade. Reddick will slot in right field, Beltran will take over at DH and McCann becomes the starting catcher. Those additions make the Astros lineup one of the best in the American League. And that’s before you allow for the possibility that young guys like Correa and Bregman could break out in a big way. It’s also before you realize that Evan Gattis — who hit 32 homers last year — is now basically a bench bat. It’s a deep offensive attack that gives A.J. Hinch a lot of options, both to play the best matchups and to rest veterans.

Things aren’t perfect, however. The rotation is a problem.

2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel had a profoundly disappointing 2016 campaign. As did just about everyone else to whom Hinch gave the ball. Only Lance McCullers had an ERA+ over 100, but he only started 14 games. Jeff Luhnow went out and got Charlie Morton, but that’s not a big get. Otherwise the rotation is going to be fairly similar to last year: Keuchel, McCullers, Morton, Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove. Collin McHugh will likely start the year on the DL and contribute eventually.

Keuchel had shoulder problems. Morton is coming off a big hamstring injury. McCullers was hurt last year and McHugh has dead arm now. It’s not a pretty picture. A bounceback season from Keuchel or a full season of health from McCullers would go a long way toward solidifying things. As of now, though, Houston may score a ton of runs, but they are going to have some trouble preventing them. There’s a reason why they are still rumored to be in on Jose Quintana. They could use him.

Thankfully the bullpen was a clear strength last year and it should look pretty similar this year, personnel-wise. Ken Giles will close with Luke Gregerson and Will Harris setting up with Tony Sipp, Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz contributing. It’s a nice group that, while not featuring any Andrew Miller-type relief aces, was the most valuable bullpen in baseball as measured by WAR. Even if WAR is not your favorite stat, it’s still a super solid group.

What does a a great lineup, a solid bullpen and a rotation full of question marks amount to? In the AL West I think it amounts to a good bit, actually, as no contender is perfect. If you do a bit of wishcasting with the rotation, it’s not hard to find a ton of separation between it and Texas’ overall. If Jeff Luhnow goes out and gets a starter, which I think he will, it could easily be better. That doesn’t make the Astros a runaway favorite, but I think it gives them a shot at a win total in the high-80s to low-90s, and I think that amounts to . . .

Prediction: First Place, American League West. But they’ll be battling for it all year in what I think will be a close division.