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.

Something needs to change to avoid future incidents like Machado-vs.-Welke

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On Monday, Major League Baseball announced that Padres third baseman Manny Machado was suspended one game and fined an undisclosed amount for “aggressively arguing” and making contact with home plate umpire Bill Welke after a controversial strike three call in the fifth inning of Saturday’s game against the Rockies in Colorado. The clip of the incident is below, showing that Welke’s call was poor. Machado’s behavior was also poor, as he indeed made contact — inadvertently or not — with Welke and repeatedly swore at him. Machado also threw his bat, though it was not in anyone’s direction and no one was put in harm’s way.

Machado chose to appeal his suspension, as is his right. While that matter is in the process of being resolved, the Major League Umpires Association put out a lengthy statement on Facebook and a shorter but hashtag-laden post on Twitter. The statements were problematic for a number of reasons, chiefest being that the union is publicly commenting on an ongoing matter. MLB can keep Machado’s suspension at one game, which seems likely, or it can reduce his suspension to zero games. The league can also choose to reduce or remove the fine as well. Once the matter is resolved, the MLBUA should feel free to comment publicly on the matter.

MLBUA’s statement was also poorly proofread, hyperbolic, and creates a very legitimate argument for bias against Machado and/or the Padres going forward. The MLBUA described Machado as “violently” throwing his bat “with no regard to anyone’s safety.” It continued, “It is NOT okay to throw a temper tantrum and physically touch someone of authority, just because you don’t agree.”

MLBUA then moralized, asking, “What does this teach the MLB’s immense and ongoing influential youth movement trying to attract young fans to the game? Major League Baseball has to always lead by example in all cases of violent behavior, on and off the field.” It closed out, saying that the union was “extraordinarily disappointed” in MLB’s “inaction.”

Among the hashtags MLBUA used on Twitter were “#TemperTantrum,” “#RepeatOffender,” and “#Nonsense.”

Major League Baseball then released a statement on Tuesday night, saying, “…we do not believe it is appropriate for the union representing Major League Umpires to comment on the discipline of players represented by the Players Association.” The league added, “We also believe it is inappropriate to compare this incident to the extraordinarily serious issue of workplace violence.”

Whoever put out the message on behalf of the MLBUA should have asked themselves, “What is my purpose here and for whom am I posting this?” The entire purpose of a trade union is to create a cohesive unit, establishing bargaining power on behalf of labor versus capital. So, MLBUA is not writing this for fans, for players, or for MLB executives; it is publicly commenting for umpires. An ancillary benefit might be to engender public support for umpires vis-a-vis Welke.

It must then ask itself if the statement creates solidarity among umpires. And I think that’s a solid no. Machado is not the first player and will not be the last to make contact with an umpire and to throw a “temper tantrum” of that magnitude. So why single Machado out and die on this hill today? I would be shocked if more than a handful of umpires outside of Welke and his closest confidantes appreciated the MLBUA reacting the way it did. It doesn’t help them achieve any union-specific goals and might actually hurt them. Repeatedly referring to Machado’s actions as a “temper tantrum” and “nonsense,” and calling him a “repeat offender” is unprofessional. It’s something an Internet commenter would write in the heat of the moment, not the representative of a trade union in one of the most profitable industries in the country. Furthermore, in singling out Machado, Machado himself as well as his teammates have a legitimate reason to believe Welke and his crew might be biased against them not just for the remainder of the season but for the foreseeable future.

On a more pedantic note, the MLBUA wrote that it is not okay for players to act the way Machado did against “someone of authority.” It’s not the power that should shield umpires from workplace violence; it’s their humanity. Machado should no more or less scream and yell at an umpire than he should anyone else in any walk of life. However you rank umpires, coaches, front office executives, teammates, opponents, fans, etc. — they should all be treated equally.

All of this being said, there was one part of MLBUA’s statement that rang true. As mentioned, Welke did suffer violence in the workplace. I disagree with MLB that the comparison was inappropriate. There is nuance to what constitutes “workplace violence.” Is it a mass shooting? Of course not. But in no other employment setting would it be appropriate for one person to scream, curse, and throw items across the room during a disagreement. The union correctly wrote, “Physical contact simply cannot be tolerated.” The crux of all of this is that Major League Baseball doesn’t discourage altercations between umpires and players/coaches. Things have gotten better since the implementation of instant replay, but some instances — especially ball/strike judgment — can turn into very heated altercations.

MLB needs a flat rule instructing players and coaches not to argue with umpires. The team of the offending person(s) would incur an in-game penalty as well as a potential fine and suspension. In exchange for this loss of power on the part of players and coaches, the umpires should be subject to actual oversight. As it stands, umpires are almost never punished in any way for any kind of behavior towards players and coaches, nor are they often punished for poor results in terms of correct calls made. The umpires already have the advantage with their authority; their lack of oversight puts that advantage on steroids, which is why there’s often so much frustration. Umpires instigate confrontations a non-negligible amount of the time. If they felt like they would actually be held accountable for it, they might be much more reluctant to act, for example, the way Ron Kulpa did towards the Astros in early April.

MLBUA helped gain that power imbalance for its members, so it isn’t likely to give it up very easily. I don’t see my utopian dream coming to fruition anytime soon. But that’s the crux of every umpire-involved confrontation: authority. Umpires and players/coaches need to be on a level playing field in that regard, and the rules need to be crystal clear on what kind of behavior is allowed from both sides. Until that happens, we’ll be seeing a Machado-vs.-Welke incident once or twice every year ad infinitum.