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2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

Which iteration of the Twins will we get in 2017? The second-place contenders of 2015, blazing their way through the standings with 83 wins and a handful of hot prospects? The burnouts of 2016, flopping to the bottom of the division with 103 losses and a lineup held in place by Brian Dozier and, well, Brian Dozier? Or something in between?

Finishing dead last has its perks, namely a first-round draft pick and the feeling that things can’t be quite as bad as they were the year before. Unfortunately for the Twins, the only major preparation they made for the 2017 season came in the form of a front office shakeup. Derek Falvey assumed control of the club in October, bringing GM Thad Levine into the fold in November as the club assumed a more analytics-friendly approach toward the rebuilding movement.

When it came to roster revisions, however, there wasn’t much moving or shaking this winter. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe, catcher Kurt Suzuki and left-handers Tommy Milone and Pat Dean vacated their spots on the roster. Falvey avoided some of the bigger bats and bullpen arms in free agency and opted to sign backstop Jason Castro and journeyman reliever Ryan Vogelsong instead.

By and large, the core of the Twins’ roster remained the same. Center fielder Byron Buxton, infielder/outfielder Michael Sano and right-hander Jose Berrios still form the nucleus of the club’s top prospects. Middle infielder Brian Dozier will also return in 2017, though he appears to be on borrowed time with the Twins after putting up monster numbers in the second half of 2016. Ervin Santana will head the rotation again, accompanied by fellow veterans Hector Santiago, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes, while right-handed relievers Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Pressly and Matt Belisle and rehabbing lefty Glen Perkins attempt to prevent another bullpen collapse in 2017.

Without any major additions to the team (and, excepting the departure of Trevor Plouffe, any major subtractions), the Twins will look to their existing cadre of players for significant improvements in 2017. Miguel Sano is expected to take over third base in Plouffe’s absence, which will bring a welcome end to his short-lived and wholly unsuccessful experiment in right field. Brian Dozier, Jorge Polanco and Joe Mauer should round out the infield, with Byung Ho Park and Kennys Vargas currently vying for a spot as the team’s designated hitter.

The lineup is still four or five or six sluggers shy of formidable, but if Dozier can be counted on to repeat his 42-homer, 5.9 fWAR performance from 2016, there will be at least one Twin worth intentionally walking in 2017. Neither Miguel Sano nor Byron Buxton have quite found their footing against big league pitching yet, and another year spent struggling in the majors could mean another year of sub-optimal run production for the team as well. Jason Castro, who grades as an above-average defender behind the plate, is unlikely to provide any additional pop for the Twins at the plate after slashing just .210/.307/.377 through 376 PA with the Astros in 2016.

The pitching department also leaves a little to be desired in light of the league-worst 5.09 ERA they amassed last season. A veteran-heavy rotation could get a boost from the addition of fifth-starter candidate Jose Berrios, who is thought to be the favorite after fellow rotation candidate Trevor May underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this week. Right-hander Tyler Duffey and 23-year-old southpaw Adalberto Mejia are also waiting in the wings. Both have made convincing cases for their inclusion on the pitching staff this spring, but Duffey is coming off of a 6.43 ERA in 2016 and Mejia lacks some of the polish that Berrios offers. Still, stockpiling young pitching depth isn’t a bad thing, and could give the Twins a cushion in the event of injury or collapse down the stretch.

The bullpen outperformed the rotation in 2016, which is saying… something, though maybe not a lot. They still finished the year with a cumulative 4.63 ERA, good for last place among their American League rivals, and delivered just 2.1 fWAR while taking on the fourth-most innings in the league. The standout performer was 28-year-old righty Ryan Pressly, who worked a 3.70 ERA, 2.7 BB/9 and 8.0 SO/9 in 75 1/3 innings last year. In light of Ryan Vogelsong’s recent departure from the club, the Twins will round out their bullpen with left-hander Craig Breslow, who turned in a 4.50 ERA with the Marlins in 2016 and is looking for a bounce-back season of his own after reworking his delivery at age 36.

For now, it looks like Falvey and the Twins’ front office are taking a wait-and-see approach to the coming season, which bodes well for their long-term vision (assuming most of their young prospects pan out) and not so well for their chances of moving up in the division in the next year or so. That could change by the trade deadline if they can secure a worthwhile return for Dozier, though given the rumors of their understandably high asking price, it could take more than a few months to get a deal in place.

Even assuming that all the chips fall in the Twins’ favor in 2017 — prospects start hitting consistently, the rotation solidifies, and Falvey loosens the purse strings enough to net more established contenders — it’s difficult to imagine anything more than a fourth-place finish for the club as they continue to rebuild and regroup. Barring any major improvements on the inconsistent, if occasionally productive, lineup of 2016, another last-place finish feels imminent.

Prediction: Fifth place, AL Central.

Puerto Rico walks off against Netherlands in 11th inning to advance to WBC finals

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The World Baseball Classic’s extra-innings gimmick helped decide which of the two teams playing Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning would advance to the finals. Puerto Rico ultimately walked off a 4-3 winner in the bottom of the 11th against the Netherlands.

The game started off interestingly enough with both teams trading two-run home runs. Wladimir Balentien crushed his off of Jorge Lopez in the top half at Dodger Stadium. Carlos Correa returned the favor, victimizing Rick van den Hurk in the bottom half.

Puerto Rico broke the 2-2 tie in the bottom of the second when T.J. Rivera swatted a solo home run to left field, also off of van den Hurk.

Netherlands tied it with a two-out rally in the fifth. Balentien doubled — and very nearly homered again — Jonathan Schoop was intentionally walked to bring Shawn Zarraga to the plate. Zarraga lined a double to left field, plating Balentien, but Schoop was out at the plate on an umpire-reviewed play at the plate.

From there, it was five innings of both teams’ pitching shutting down the opposition. The game went to extra innings after Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth inning for the Netherlands. Edwin Diaz started the 10th for Puerto Rico and things got interesting after Jurickson Profar struck out. Balentien swung hard and fouled off a first-pitch fastball from Diaz. He stared Diaz down and nodded as if to say, “You got away with that one.” Diaz threw him another fastball — this one at 100 MPH — and Balentien again fouled it off. He again stared down Diaz, nodding, and then saying a few words. With his third pitch of the at-bat, Diaz threw up-and-in at Balentein. Neither Balentien nor his teammates liked the pitch all that much and some Netherlands players scattered onto the field. Order was quickly restored and home plate umpire Lance Barksdale issued warnings to both benches. Diaz ended the at-bat by painting the outside corner with a 99 MPH fastball. Schoop struck out to end the inning.

Puerto Rico put its leadoff runner on base in the bottom of the 10th, but Carlos Correa grounded into a double play and Enrique Hernandez struck out against Loek Van Mil to send the game to the 11th.

The 11th inning, of course, features an abnormal rule. From the 11th inning on, each team will start with runners start on first and second. Needless to say, most managers choose to bunt to put the go-ahead run on third base. Netherlands executed this in the top of the 11th, so Puerto Rico intentionally walked Yurendell Decaster to load the bases with one out. Curt Smith then grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Puerto Rico took advantage of its opportunity in the bottom half. Yadier Molina moved Carlos Correa to third and Xander Bogaerts to second with his bunt, so Netherlands chose to intentionally walk Javier Baez, bringing up Eddie Rosario. Rosario lifted a fastball to shallow center field. Jurickson Profar caught the ball and fired home, but it was a weak throw and Correa scored easily, securing the 4-3 walk-off victory for Puerto Rico.

Netherlands is eliminated after a valiant run through the WBC. Puerto Rico is headed to the finals, playing the winner of Tuesday night’s game between the United States and Japan.

Stanton’s homer, Jones’ leap carry US into WBC semifinals

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Giancarlo Stanton hit a go-ahead homer and the United States eliminated the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic, beating the defending champions 6-3 Saturday night to earn a spot in the semifinals.

Stanton’s two-run shot into the third-floor balcony of the Western Metal Supply Co. Building in the left-field corner at Petco Park gave the United States a 4-2 lead in the fourth inning. It put a charge into the sellout crowd of 43,002 and helped send the Americans to the championship round at Dodger Stadium, where they will face Japan in a semifinal game Tuesday night.

Three innings later, San Diego native Adam Jones made a spectacular, leaping catch over the fence in the deepest part of the park in right-center to rob Baltimore Orioles teammate Manny Machado of a home run. Machado tipped his helmet to Jones.

Robinson Cano then homered to left to pull the Dominican Republic to 4-3.

Andrew McCutchen gave Team USA some breathing room with a two-run double in the eighth, and Luke Gregerson pitched a perfect ninth to close it out.

This is the second time in four editions of the WBC that the United States has advanced to the semifinals. It lost to Japan in 2009.

The Dominican players, who rallied to beat the United States one week earlier in Miami in the first round, will disperse back to big league camps. They finished 1-2 in the second round after going 3-0 in the opening round.

Brandon Crawford hit a two-out single to left-center ahead of Stanton’s homer, which was estimated at 403 feet and chased Dominican starter Ervin Santana.

Stanton’s shot was reminiscent of his Home Run Derby victory at Petco Park on July 11, when he peppered the far reaches of the big downtown ballpark, including hitting one onto the top of the 108-year-old brick warehouse.

Earlier on Saturday, Puerto Rico completed a 3-0 run through Pool F by beating Venezuela 13-2. Puerto Rico clinched first place in the pool with a 6-5 victory against the United States on Friday night and will play the Netherlands in the semifinals Monday night at Dodger Stadium. The championship game is Wednesday night.

The Dominicans jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first on an RBI double by Cano and an RBI single by Carlos Santana. One run was unearned due to Crawford’s throwing error at shortstop. Crawford threw out Nelson Cruz trying to score on Starling Marte‘s grounder, though.

The United States tied it in the third on Ian Kinsler‘s RBI grounder and Christian Yelich‘s run-scoring double.

The Dominicans had three more scoring chances but failed each time.

Gregory Polanco singled and Welington Castillo doubled to open the second before Danny Duffy retired the side.

They threatened again in the fifth when Machado hit a leadoff single to chase Duffy. Cruz hit a one-out double off Pat Neshek, who then retired Carlos Santana on a popup and struck out Marte. Neshek pumped his fists as he walked off the mound.

Duffy allowed two runs, one earned, and six hits in four-plus innings. He struck out one and walked one.

Santana gave up four runs and six hits in 3 2/3 innings. He struck out two and walked none.