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.

Red Sox sign outfielder Chris Young

Chris Young Getty
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Veteran outfielder Chris Young thrived in a platoon role for the Yankees this past season and now he’s headed to the rival Red Sox to fill a similar role, signing a multi-year deal with Boston according to Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com.

Young was once an everyday center fielder for the Diamondbacks, making the All-Star team in 2010 at age 26, but for the past 3-4 years he’s gotten 300-350 plate appearances in a part-time role facing mostly left-handed pitching. He hit .252 with 14 homers and a .773 OPS for the Yankees, but prior to that failed to top a .700 OPS in 2013 or 2014.

Given the Red Sox’s outfield depth–Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Brock Holt even with Hanley Ramirez back in the infield–Young is unlikely to work his way into everyday playing time at age 32, but he should get another 300 or so plate appearances while also providing a veteran fallback option. And it’s possible his arrival clears the way for a trade.

David Price said to care about more than just the money

David Price

Every year free agency brings with it its own set of politics and talking points and spin. Factors which are said to be more important to players than the money being offered.

And, to be fair, there is one big factor that is likely more important than money for many of them: winning. I truly believe players want to win. They say it all the time and there’s no reason to think they’re being disingenuous about that, especially the ones who have been around the game a long time.

I’ll note, however, that given how success cycles work in baseball (i.e. teams that aren’t close to being true contenders aren’t likely to be spending big in free agency anyway) that consideration often washes out of the system. Every year you hear of one or two losing teams making a big, competitive offer to a free agent, but it’s not that common.

What I’m talking about more here are the truly soft factors. Factors which often anchor hot stove rumors, but which rarely if ever truly stand out as determining factors when it comes to where a free agent ends up. Examples of these include geographic proximity to where the player grew up, his wife grew up, he went to college or what have you. Remember how CC Sabathia was going to play in California? And Mark Teixeira was going to play for Baltimore? Heck, I’m so old I remember when Brandon Webb was gonna break the bank playing for the Reds.

It’s pretty rare, though, for that to pan out. Sabathia and Teixeira went to New York. If Brandon Webb’s shoulder had cooperated it’s not likely he would’ve ended up in Cincinnati. Money talks for free agents, much louder than any of the soft considerations. Even when, like Mike Hampton and his Denver-public-school-loving self claimed that he signed with the Rockies for reasons other than the fact that they unloaded the money truck for him.

I think we’re seeing a new soft factor emerge. Today Peter Gammons reported this about David Price:

Cities are fairly strong as soft factors go, I reckon. Somewhere south of money and winning but north of “my wife’s family lives there.” Money can make up the difference between a fun city and a lame city, but if things are equal, going someplace you want to be likely is a factor.

But that second one — being able to hit — seems a bit suspect. This is not the first time I’ve heard that this offseason. Zack Greinke was said to prefer the NL because he likes to hit. I’ve heard this about other pitchers too. I question how important a factor that truly is — the actual hitting part actually affecting a free agent decision — as much as I suspect it’s a negotiating tool designed to get AL teams to pay a premium to get the guy to “give up” hitting. Or, more likely, that it’s code for “it’s WAY easier to pitch in the NL because I get to face a pitcher who can’t hit for crap 2-3 times a game.”

On some level I suppose this is all unknowable. I doubt David Price or some other free agent pitcher is ever going to hold a January press conference in which he says the following:

“Well, the money was absolutely equal between the final two suitors and, as you know, both made the playoffs last year and play in cities with copious cultural resources for my family and me. And, having plotted the two cities on Google Maps, I discovered that the two cities are each EXACTLY 347 miles from my Aunt Tilly’s house! What are the friggin’ odds?

Ultimately, though, I signed here so I could bat.”

Like I said, not likely. But wouldn’t it be something if that happened? If so, I’d probably cast a 12-inch statue of Mike Hampton and start giving out an annual award or something.

Player pool for MLB postseason shares is a record $69 million

television money

MLB just announced the postseason shares for this year and the players’ overall pool is a record total of $69.9 million. Nice.

That total gets divided among playoff participants, with Royals receiving $25,157,573.73 for winning the World Series and Mets getting $16,771,715.82 for finishing runner-up. That works out to $370,069.03 each for the Royals and $300,757.78 each for the Mets.

Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com reports that the Royals have issued full playoff shares to a total of 58 people, plus 8.37 partial shares and 50 “cash rewards.” In other words: There was a whole bunch of money to go around if you were in any way involved in the Royals’ championship run.

According to MLB public relations the previous high for the overall player pool was $65.4 million in 2012 and the Mets’ playoff share is the highest ever for a World Series-losing team, topping the Tigers’ share of $291,667.68 in 2006. Kansas City’s playoff share is slightly less than San Francisco received last year.

Here are the individual postseason share amounts by team:

Royals – $370,069.03
Mets – $300,757.78
Blue Jays – $141,834.40
Cubs – $122,327.59
Astros – $36,783.25
Cardinals – $34,223.65
Dodgers – $34,168.74
Rangers – $34,074.40
Pirates – $15,884.20
Yankees – $13,979.99

Marc Anthony gets into the agent business, signs Aroldis Chapman

Aroldis Chapman

There is a somewhat mixed history of entertainers and musicians getting into the sports agent business. Sometimes it works out (Jay-Z has done OK). Sometimes it doesn’t (Master P says “Hi”).

Add another one to the list. A pretty big one. Ken Rosenthal reports that Marc Anthony’s Magnus Media is getting into sports. And the company, Magnus Sports, just signed a new client: Reds closer Aroldis Chapman. From Rosenthal:

The company said in a news release that it will team with a baseball agency, Praver Shapiro Sports Management — and that the group’s first major client will be Reds closer Aroldis Chapman.

Praver Shapiro represents a number of Latin players, including Marlinsshortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, Cubs right fielder Jorge Soler, Reds pitcherRaisel Iglesias and free-agent third baseman Juan Uribe.

Chapman is on the trading block right now but 2016 is his walk year, and barring injury he’ll due for perhaps the biggest payday a closer has ever seen. Whether he’ll actually get it depends on the negotiating skills of the biggest salsa artist the world has ever seen.

Gentlemen: you have a year to get some song title pun/headlines ready.