Rick Anderson, Ron Gardenhire

2014 Preview: Minnesota Twins


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.

Rougned Odor steals the show to send Rangers to 2-0 ALDS lead over the Blue Jays

Rougned Odor
AP Photo

The Rangers outlasted the Blue Jays in 14 innings to take the second game of the ALDS on Friday 6-4, moving to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. Second baseman Rougned Odor‘s star shone brightest, as he used his speed to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 14th.

With LaTroy Hawkins on the mound and the Jays employing an infield shift, Odor slapped a weak ground ball towards Josh Donaldson, positioned where the shortstop would normally play. Donaldson’s momentum took his momentum away from first base, so he had to make an off-balance throw. Odor then moved to second base on Chris Jimenez’s single to right field — narrowly making it back to the second base bag after rounding too far, a play which required replay review. Odor scored the go-ahead run, breaking a 4-4 tie, when Hanser Alberto (Adrian Beltre‘s replacement at third base) lined a single to center field.

Center fielder Delino DeShields had three hits with an RBI and two runs scored in seven at-bats. The RBI padded the Rangers’ lead to 6-4 in the 14th, as he beat out an infield single against Liam Hendriks. Starter Cole Hamels was strong over seven innings, allowing four runs (only two earned) on six hits with no walks and six strikeouts. The Rangers’ bullpen pitched seven scoreless innings of relief, including Ross Ohlendorf‘s 14th inning in which he recorded all three outs on strikeouts.

On the Jays’ side of things, Josh Donaldson hit a home run and helped instigate a benches-clearing argument with Rangers reliever Keone Kela. Donaldson had smoked a Kela offering home run distance was foul, then repeatedly swore at Kela because he felt the right-hander was quick-pitching him, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports.

Jays starter Marcus Stroman was shaky early, coughing up three runs in the first two innings, but was able to settle down. He ultimately allowed four runs (three earned) on five hits and two walks with five strikeouts in seven innings. The Jays’ bullpen allowed only four base runners on two hits and two walks through the 13th, before Hawkins and Hendriks relented.

The two teams will have an off-day on Saturday as they travel to Texas to continue the ALDS. Game 3 starts on Sunday at 8:00 PM EDT, featuring Marco Estrada starting for the Jays and Martin Perez for the Rangers. The Blue Jays are still in search of their first playoff victory since Joe Carter’s walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series.

NLDS, Game 1: Cubs vs. Cardinals lineups

Jon Lester
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Here are the Cubs and Cardinals lineups for Game 1 of the NLDS in St. Louis:

CF Dexter Fowler
RF Kyle Schwarber
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Starlin Castro
LF Chris Coghlan
SS Addison Russell
C David Ross
SP Jon Lester

Jon Lester’s personal catcher David Ross takes the place of Miguel Montero behind the plate. Kris Bryant shifts back to third base after playing left field in Game 1, with Chris Coghlan coming off the bench to get a start in the outfield against a right-hander. Addison Russell bats seventh, which he did just 10 times during the regular season.

3B Matt Carpenter
1B Stephen Piscotty
LF Matt Holliday
CF Jason Heyward
SS Jhonny Peralta
RF Randal Grichuk
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong
SP John Lackey

Mike Matheny’s lineup for Game 1 is an interesting one. Jason Heyward is batting cleanup and playing center field, where he started just eight games all season. Stephen Piscotty plays first base, where he started just nine games. Yadier Molina is behind the plate, toughing his way through a significant thumb injury that’s sidelined him since September 20 and leaves him at much less than 100 percent now. Brandon Moss, Mark Reynolds, and Jon Jay are all on the bench.

Steven Matz is on the Mets’ playoff roster, set for Game 4 start

New York Mets starting pitcher Steven Matz (32) works during the first inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves on Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Rookie left-hander Steven Matz hasn’t pitched since September 24 because of a back injury, but he’s on the Mets’ playoff roster for the NLDS and looks likely to start Game 4 against the Dodgers.

Matz prepped for a potential start by throwing 80 pitches in a simulated game Thursday and apparently experienced no issues. Even setting aside the health question mark Matz has started just six games in the majors, but he’s 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA and 34/10 K/BB ratio in 35.2 innings.

Matz is one of 11 pitchers on the NLDS roster, along with 14 position players. No big surprises.