2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Are we there yet?

Minnesota collapsed in 2011 and hasn’t recovered yet, losing 99, 96, 96, and 92 games during the past four seasons. Among all MLB teams over that span only the Astros had fewer wins, 25 teams won at least 35 more games than the Twins, and their AL Central rival Tigers won 101 more games.

The lone benefit of all that losing is being able to stockpile prospects through the draft and trades, and the Twins have done that very well. Led by Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, their farm system is considered one of the 3-4 best in baseball and several of the highest-upside prospects are on the verge of the majors. Partly because of that and partly because fan morale and season ticket sales have plummeted the Twins spent the offseason trying to convince everyone that they’re ready to take a big step forward in 2015.

Terry Ryan, the Twins’ general manager for 17 total seasons in two stints, fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager, replacing him with Minnesota-born Hall of Famer Paul Molitor despite his complete lack of managing experience. They handed out the biggest free agent contract in team history in the form of a four-year, $54 million deal to Ervin Santana, losing a second-round draft pick in the process. And they brought back Torii Hunter for a reunion, spending $10 million on the 39-year-old former Twins star.

All spring Molitor, Ryan and the rest of the front office, and even Twins owner Jim Pohlad haven’t been shy about saying they think this is much improved team that has the potential to emerge as a playoff contender, but no one outside of Minnesota seems to agree. Nearly every national season preview, every statistical projection system, and every Las Vegas odds-maker pegs the Twins for last place and fewer than 75 wins, with several prominent sources predicting they’ll lose 90-plus games for a fifth year in a row.

For all the talk of the Twins’ great farm system the Opening Day roster looks likely to have just four players who’re 25 years old or younger: Designated hitter Kennys Vargas, shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. There were plenty of opportunities for the Twins to fill the roster with more youth and upside, but instead they frustratingly decided to give almost every roster spot that was up for competition to a mediocre veteran.

The starting rotation is made up of pitchers aged 33, 32, 29, 28, and 27. The bullpen is built around a 32-year-old closer (Glen Perkins, who’s very good) and his primary setup men are 33, 32, and 31. Santana, Arcia, and Vargas give the lineup some much-needed youth, but the other six regulars are 39, 32, 31, 29, 28, and 28. This is not a young team by any reasonable definition of the word and, based on both the numbers and the opinions of baseball experts, it’s also not a good team.

When the current rebuilding plan was put in motion in mid-2012 or so the idea was that the Twins would be competitive by now, but thanks to injuries several of the team’s best prospects had their promotion timetables pushed back and thanks to some questionable front office decision-making the roster that’s waiting for their delayed arrivals doesn’t look a whole lot better than what Twins fans have been watching (and increasingly not watching) for the past four years. So no, we’re not there yet. Keep driving.

What else is going on?

  • Phil Hughes deserves recognition for his exceptional, historic 2014 season, especially since it came after his value bottomed out with the Yankees and he had to settle for a three-year, $24 million deal with the Twins last winter. Hughes logged 210 innings with a 3.52 ERA, racking up 186 strikeouts versus 16 walks for the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. Seriously. Minnesota was 20-12 when Hughes started and 50-80 with anyone else on the mound and this offseason the Twins tacked on another three seasons and $42 million to his deal.
  • For a franchise starved for long-term shortstop help Danny Santana hitting .319 as a 23-year-old rookie was one of the few bright spots last season. However, his rookie success was built on an unsustainably great .405 batting average on balls in play and in the minors Santana had an OPS below .725 at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. He has plenty of raw talent and was pushed aggressively, so the mediocre minor-league numbers don’t mean he lacks upside, but there’s a very real chance Santana turns back into a pumpkin–or at least back into a solid but unspectacular player.
  • Awful, strikeout-phobic pitching was the biggest reason for the Twins’ collapse, but the deterioration of a once-strong defense played an overlooked role as well. In particular the outfield defense has been a disaster in recent years. Arcia is a mistake-prone plodder in left field and Hunter, while once a great center fielder, is now a bad right fielder who ranked as one of the worst outfielders in baseball last year according to advanced defensive metrics. In other words, expect to continue seeing Twins pitchers give up lots of extra-base hits into the gaps as people wonder why the run prevention hasn’t improved as much as hoped.
  • Twins fans seem destined for another long year at Target Field, but here’s the silver lining: By midseason it’s possible that as many as a half-dozen of the team’s top 10 prospects could be in Minnesota, including Buxton in center field, Sano joining Arcia and Vargas in the middle of the lineup, Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios, and Trevor May in the rotation, and Nick Burdi hitting triple-digits out of the bullpen. There’s a lot of losing to sit through and a lot of veteran mediocrity to clear off the roster before then, but there’s also light at the end of the tunnel.

Prediction: Last place, but fewer than 90 losses for the first time since 2010 and some actual excitement in the second half.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.