- Kyle Gibson is facing a pivotal juncture in his career with the Twins, writes La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Per Neal, Twins personnel have indicated that with Gibson off to a poor start in his followup effort to last year’s unsuccessful and injury-plagued year, tonight’s start could impact his standing in the club’s rotation. Gibson spoke to Neal and suggested that the importance of his next several outings is hardly lost on him. “They know what I have been, what I haven’t been and what I can be,” says Gibson. “…That doesn’t mean they won’t say, ‘Hey, go figure it out in Triple-A,’ or anything like that. I don’t think it makes me immune from that. But knowing the confidence they have in the pitcher that I can be is reassuring.” The former first-rounder has been hampered by shoulder and back injuries since a very good 2015 season (3.84 ERA, 6.7 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 53.4 percent ground-ball rate in 194 2/3 innings).
ESPN.com’s Keith Law provides his ranking of the top fifty amateur players (Insider link) who are eligible for selection in this summer’s Rule 4 draft. The group as a whole has generally disappointed, Law writes, perhaps leading teams to “flee to safety” by looking at safer collegiate performers with their top selections. Of course, such a strategy would also open up some greater opportunities for organizations with multiple early selections to take some risks on higher-upside, younger prospects.
- Like most analysts, Law has called right-handed pitcher and shortstop Hunter Greene the top overall draft prospect. As has been suggested previously, he will indeed no longer take the hill in high school competition in advance of the draft, as Hudson Belinsky of Baseball America writes. That’s unlikely to impact his stock, as teams have already seen plenty of triple-digit heaters and will continue to watch him play in the field — where he’s also considered a top talent. Greene and his family are taking a very active role in assessing organizations and their approaches to developing pitchers, Belinsky explains, with the Twins (who sit at first overall) and Padres (third) seemingly making for a better match than the Reds (who choose second).
- One of the draft’s other top prospects, South Carolina righty Clarke Schmidt, has unfortunately been diagnosed with a torn UCL and will undergo Tommy John surgery, as Belinsky also reports. The junior starter had risen to be seen as a clear first-round selection before this rough news. Of course, he could still end up being taken with a lofty selection; we have seen several hurlers nabbed quite early in the draft in recent years despite serious arm injuries.
Twins left-hander Ryan O’Rourke, who has been on the disabled list all season, will undergo surgery to repair a tear in his left elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament, the team announced today. “We were all holding on to a little hope that he might get a couple options to how he should proceed instead of having to undergo the Tommy John procedure, but unfortunately didn’t get that news,” manager Paul Molitor told reporters (link via Dave Sessions of MLB.com).
O’Rourke, 28, has spent parts of each of the past two seasons with the Twins, appearing in 54 games out of the bullpen in total. His 2016 efforts resulted in a 3.96 ERA with 8.6 K/9 against 3.6 BB/9 and a 45.3 percent ground-ball rate. Though there didn’t appear to be an immediate spot in the Twins’ bullpen for O’Rourke, with Taylor Rogers and Craig Breslow already serving as lefty options for Molitor, though he could’ve emerged later in the season as a southpaw option if healthy. O’Rourke has held left-handed opponents to a .134/.244/.239 batting line through 80 plate appearances thus far in his Major League career.
O’Rourke did research Tommy John alternatives, including the “primary repair” procedure that Seth Maness underwent last August, according to Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. However, as Berardino notes, even that abbreviated seven-month recovery period would’ve sidelined O’Rourke until late November or early December.
The Twins already transferred O’Rourke to the 60-day disabled list yesterday as a means of clearing a 40-man roster spot for right-hander Nick Tepesch, whose contract was selected from Triple-A Rochester. O’Rourke will rack up a full year of big league service time while on the disabled list, though he’ll still finish the season with two years and six days of service time, leaving him short of arbitration eligibility. O’Rourke joins right-hander Trevor May as the second Twins hurler to undergo Tommy John surgery this season. The club’s 2016 first-round pick, outfielder Alex Kirilloff, has also gone down with a UCL tear that required Tommy John.
- The Twins will select the contract of right-hander Nick Tepesch from Triple-A Rochester prior to tonight’s game, two sources tell Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press (Twitter links). Minnesota recently optioned fifth starter Adalberto Mejia to Triple-A and placed long reliever Justin Haley on the 10-day DL, so Tepesch could conceivably fill either of those spots (though the Twins already made a pair of corresponding roster moves, recalling Kennys Vargas and Buddy Boshers). The 26-year-old Tepesch inked a minor league deal with Minnesota this offseason and has fired 18 innings with a 2.00 ERA and a 17-to-4 K/BB ratio so far in Triple-A. In 223 Major League innings — most of which came with the Rangers when Twins GM Thad Levine was an assistant GM in Texas — Tepesch has a 4.68 ERA with 5.5 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and a 43.5 percent ground-ball rate. The corresponding 25-man and 40-man roster moves for Tepesch’s arrival remain unclear.
This is the latest entry in MLBTR’s Offseason In Review series. The full index of Offseason In Review posts can be found here.
The first offseason of the Twins’ new-look front office was headlined by a litany of Brian Dozier trade rumors that never came to fruition. Ultimately, the winter proved to be a quiet one for a club that has spent the better part of a decade in the American League Central cellar.
Major League Signings
Trades and Claims
- Claimed SS/2B/3B Ehire Adrianza off waivers from the Brewers
- Acquired Rule 5 RHP Justin Haley from the Angels in exchange for cash
- Traded RHP Pat Light to the Pirates for cash
Notable Minor League Signings
- Craig Breslow, Drew Stubbs (released), Chris Gimenez, Ryan Vogelsong (released), Nick Tepesch, Paul Clemens, J.B. Shuck, Ben Paulsen, Matt Hague
The 2016-17 offseason marked the first test for new chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine — the two men that were tasked with leading the new Twins front office following the surprising dismissal of Minnesota GM Terry Ryan (now a special advisor with the Phillies). Those unfamiliar with the Twins may raise an eyebrow at calling it “surprising” for a 100-loss team to fire its GM, but virtually no organization has shown loyalty in its front office and coaching staff like the Twins. Incredibly, Falvey is just the fourth man to assume the top spot in Minnesota’s baseball ops hierarchy since 1985.
While Falvey and Levine didn’t gut their new roster in the same manner that some of their peers have in recent offseasons upon being hired (e.g. Jerry Dipoto in Seattle, David Stearns in Milwaukee), the new Minnesota duo did cut ties on one of the team’s longest-tenured players in the form of Trevor Plouffe. Rather than pay the third baseman a projected arbitration salary north of $8MM, Minnesota outrighted Plouffe, clearing a path for Miguel Sano to man third base.
Along those same lines, Falvey and Levine waited until late in the offseason to designate Byung Ho Park for assignment, banking on the fact that the remaining $9.25MM on his contract would allow him to pass through waivers and remain in the organization without occupying a 40-man spot. That’s exactly how the situation panned out, and he’ll now look to work his way back to the Majors after a strong Spring Training once he returns from an injury in Triple-A.
While an overabundance of corner/DH options (many of whom haven’t been impressive) has been a recent issue for the Twins, catching has been a need in Minnesota since concussions and back injuries forced Joe Mauer to vacate his lifelong position and move to first base. The post-Mauer days have seen the Twins turn to Kurt Suzuki for three years and a long list of less-productive options, including Ryan Doumit, Josmil Pinto, Drew Butera, Chris Herrmann, John Ryan Murphy, Juan Centeno and Eric Fryer.
The first significant move for Falvey and Levine was to shore up the catching spot with a plus defender — something they lacked during the three-year term of Suzuki. Suzuki was often a passable offensive option, relative to other backstops, but he struggled greatly in throwing out runners and in framing pitches. No team caught fewer than the 64 runners the Twins have thrown out in stolen base attempts from 2014-16. (And it’s not particularly close, with the Rockies and White Sox tied for the next-fewest at 82.)
Jason Castro’s three-year, $24.5MM deal might’ve seemed steep based on his offensive struggles, but he grades out as one of baseball’s best framers and threw out base thieves at a 30.4 percent clip in 2015-16. Pitching has been one of the Twins’ greatest ills since their 2011 downward spiral, and Castro should help out the staff in a number of ways. Castro’s struggles against lefties may have prompted Falvey and Levine to bring in a player with whom they’re quite familiar in veteran backstop Chris Gimenez. After spending time with Falvey’s Indians and Levine’s Rangers in recent years, Gimenez broke camp as the backup to Castro in Minnesota, giving the club a platoon option with solid glovework himself.
Bullpen depth has been an issue for the Twins in recent seasons, and while Matt Belisle is hardly a big-name addition, he represented a highly affordable option (one year, $2.05MM) that has pitched to a combined 2.15 ERA across 79 2/3 innings over the past two seasons. He doesn’t miss many bats — an all-too-common trend among Twins pitchers — but has enjoyed relatively consistent success dating back to the 2010 campaign.
The biggest question surrounding the Twins this offseason was whether they should pull the trigger on a trade of Brian Dozier on the heels of the second baseman’s 42-homer campaign. Unfortunately for Minnesota, it was hardly a seller’s market. Only the Dodgers and Angels truly needed second base upgrades, and the Halos’ lackluster farm system made it difficult to pursue a premium trade target.
Rumors tying the Dodgers to Dozier persisted for the better part of two months. Specific machinations vary from report to report, but the general, underlying theme seems fairly clear. The Dodgers felt comfortable parting with promising right-handed pitching prospect Jose De Leon in a straight-up swap for Dozier, while the Twins wanted at least one quality second piece. Early reports had the Twins pursuing top-level second pieces such as Cody Bellinger and Yadier Alvarez, though later reports indicated that lesser-regarded names like Brock Stewart were off the table as a secondary piece, as well. Ultimately, L.A. swapped De Leon for Logan Forsythe in a one-for-one exchange.
So, the Twins entered 2017 with Dozier again in the heart of their lineup, and the question now turns to whether it was a mistake not to flip him for De Leon. Certainly, the 24-year-old De Leon is a promising piece, but there’s serious risk in swapping a proven big leaguer for just one pitching prospect (as Twins fans know all too well from the Denard Span / Alex Meyer trade), and Dozier could be in higher demand this summer. Dozier’s quietly been one of the game’s better second basemen for the past four seasons (16.4 fWAR, 17.8 rWAR), but a sudden downturn in performance or a significant injury could make the decision to hold look ill-advised.
Looking to the rest of the roster, the Twins face a familiar refrain. There are question marks up and down the rotation, the bullpen could be thin, and the lineup is extremely dependent on a number of high-ceiling but unproven position players.
Ervin Santana has been somewhat quietly excellent since last June, and Hector Santiago is off to a nice start as he looks to rebound from a terrible stint with Minnesota last season. Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia (acquired last summer for Eduardo Nunez) all broke camp in the rotation, but Mejia’s already been optioned out after struggling. Hughes’ velocity is down after thoracic outlet surgery last summer, and Gibson hasn’t shown signs of righting the ship after a down year in 2016.
The Twins lost one rotation candidate early in spring when Trevor May tore his UCL and required Tommy John surgery. It’s possible that Tyler Duffey could get another look in the rotation, with other candidates including once-vaunted prospect Jose Berrios (who was shelled in his first tastes of the Majors last year) or well-regarded lefty Stephen Gonsalves. Former top picks Kohl Stewart and Tyler Jay don’t appear to be especially close, and Jay is in fact now being developed as a reliever. Suffice it to say, the rotation picture is murky, at best.
Adding Belisle to the bullpen was a fine low-cost/low-risk move, but the Twins’ relief corps is still rife with uncertainty. Glen Perkins will be out until at least June following last year’s shoulder surgery, and it remains to be seen if Brandon Kintzler can sustain his 2016 success. Ryan Pressly pitched well from 2014-16, and Taylor Rogers looked like a solid lefty upon debuting in 2016. Beyond that, the Twins are counting on a hodgepodge of inexperienced arms and reclamation projects (e.g. Craig Breslow) to buttress a shaky rotation.
The lineup comes with similar questions. Each of Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler has frequented top 100 prospect lists in recent years, and each has had some big league success. But, none of the bunch has solidified himself as a big league regular just yet. Buxton’s early struggles, in particular, lead to further questions for this team.
In the infield, Jorge Polanco opened the year as the everyday shortstop despite the fact that scouting reports peg him as a better option at second base or third base. Sano, meanwhile, needs to prove that he can serve as a passable defensive option at third base. Eduardo Escobar and Danny Santana made the club as reserves, but Santana hasn’t hit since his BABIP-fueled rookie season, and his lack of minor league options could jeopardize his 40-man spot at some point in 2017. At some point, Park or Kennys Vargas will be settled upon as the long-term option at designated hitter, but Robbie Grossman has held down the fort quite nicely in that regard early in 2017.
Deal of Note
Entering the offseason, few would’ve projected Jason Castro to receive the most significant contract of any catcher this winter. The 29-year-old is a former first-round pick and did have an All-Star 2013 campaign in which he batted .276/.350/.485 with 18 home runs in 491 plate appearances. But, he followed up that excellent season with a collective .215/.291/.369 batting line from 2014-16 and hit just .210/.307/.377 in his platform year before free agency.
The market for Castro was robust from the start, though, with multiple clubs showing interest. The Twins, Rays and Braves led the charge in pursuing Castro, though he was said to have multi-year offers from at least four teams in addition to multiple three-year offers before signing with Minnesota. Compare that to the market of Matt Wieters — a considerably more accomplished offensive player — and the Castro contract becomes a readily apparent sign of a paradigm shift in the valuation of catchers throughout the league.
Catcher defense is being valued at an all-time high, with a particular emphasis on pitch-framing coming into focus. Wieters’ pitch-framing marks have been below average in recent years, as have those of Welington Castillo — another catcher whose bat is superior to that of Castro but was surprisingly non-tendered. Castillo had to settle for a guaranteed two years at a lesser rate than Castro, further exemplifying that teams are increasingly concerned with what catchers do behind the plate than what they can do at the plate.
While the addition of Castro isn’t going to turn the Twins’ pitching staff from a bottom-of-the-league unit to a premium collection of arms, there’s also an argument to be made that signing a catcher with this skill-set was the best way for Minnesota to overhaul its staff in one fell swoop. Framing numbers, of course, are an inexact science, but for the sake of comparison, Baseball Prospectus rated Suzuki 6.8 runs below average in terms of framing last year, while Castro was among the game’s best at 16.3 runs above average.
As has been the case in recent years, the Twins are relying on some questionable veteran arms in the rotation and a slew of talented-but-unproven position players to fill out the lineup. Thus far, the Twins have trotted out an everyday lineup that features five players — Buxton, Sano, Rosario, Kepler and Polanco — that were regarded as top 100 prospects within the past two years. There’s plenty of upside in this bunch, but it’s not realistic to expect that each of that quintet will prove to be an average regular or better.
It’s true that in any given season, any club could contend with enough breaks (see: the 2015 Twins). This year’s version of the Twins got off to a hot start, but it still seems likely that 2017 will be more about determining which members of the team’s most recent wave of top prospects can live up to the hype.
If and when they fall out of the race in the American League Central, the Twins will have a handful of chips to cash in and further add to the youth movement, including Dozier, Ervin Santana, Kintzler, Belisle and any of Santiago, Hughes and Gibson depending on health and performance. The new front office didn’t act as a definitive seller this winter, though, suggesting that Falvey, Levine & Co. at least feel it’s possible that enough of the young talent already in the system can be vital cogs in the next competitive Twins team.
Let’s see what MLBTR readers thought about Minnesota’s offseason (link to poll for Trade Rumors app users)…
- Manuel’s piece is well worth a full read, as he details potential needs, leanings, and first-round draft picks for all 30 teams. Sticking with the top of the draft, the Reds “covet” Dylan McKay, the Louisville two-way star who Manuel projects will be taken first overall by the Twins as a pitcher. Then again, Minnesota is also reportedly exploring deals with several players for the first pick, including high school position player Royce Lewis and Virginia first baseman Pavin Smith.
- Teams showed an increased willingness to pay for pitch-framing ability and defense this winter (such as the Twins and Jason Castro) on the catching market, though as Peter Gammons of GammonsDaily.com notes, there are so many facets to the position that “catching cannot be quantified” no matter how hard teams try. The same could technically be said of any position, though a catcher’s true value is particularly difficult to pin down since the human element of the pitcher/catcher relationship is so important.
Twins vice president and assistant general manager Rob Antony appeared on Darren Wolfson’s 1500 ESPN Podcast earlier this week (audio link, with Antony talking Twins aroung the 35:00 mark) and covered a number of topics. Antony talks about the current lack of bench options and an unfortunate early injury to Byung Ho Park, Phil Hughes’ early lack of velocity, Jose Berrios’ timeline back to the Majors and the possibility of once again demoting the struggling Byron Buxton.
- Twins left-hander Stephen Gonsalves will meet with team doctors in Minnesota for a shoulder exam during the upcoming week, tweets Phil Miller of the Star Tribune. Gonsalves, Baseball America’s 99th-ranked prospect, has been on Double-A Chattanooga’s disabled list since the first week of April. The 22-year-old laid waste to hitters at both the High-A and Double-A levels last season, but he also dealt with a shoulder strain in the fall. With Chattanooga, he logged a 1.82 ERA in 74 1/3 innings, helping to offset control problems (4.48 BB/9) with a high strikeout rate (10.78 per nine). BA’s Michael Lananna placed Gonsalves second among Twins prospect in November. (Update: Gonsalves already met with team doctors, and he checked out fine, general manager Thad Levine announced; Twitter link via Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com).
Diamondbacks bench coach Ron Gardenhire is slated to undergo surgery for prostate cancer next Tuesday, as Bob Nightengale of USA Today writes in an update on the former Twins skipper. As Nightengale writes, the bad news came at a particularly disappointing time for Gardenhire, given that he was returning from a layoff after leaving Minnesota. But he’s tackling the condition with typical form, as Nightengale writes. “Cancer is a big word, you know, but it’s been pretty special having so many people reach out,” says Gardenhire, who adds that he “can’t wait to sit in that dugout again.”
Here’s more from around the game:
- ESPN.com’s Andrew Marchand penned an interesting profile of Yankees assistant GM Jean Afterman, who is currently the only woman holding that position leaguewide. Afterman has a fascinating and varied background; she ultimately became a lawyer and later helped pioneer the movement of players from Japan to the majors. While Yankees GM credits her as a “pit bull” who could easily hold a position as his peer, she says she prefers to remain with the organization as an adviser. It’s a fun look at an interesting person that also tackles the ongoing question of whether the game can do more to grow the involvement of women in upper management.
- In another profile, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com takes a look at controversial Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria as he reportedly prepares to sell his franchise. Crasnick examines some of the differing angles on Loria, focusing on his relationship with the tragically departed Jose Fernandez. Loria also defends his place in the game and discusses the possibility of taking an ambassadorship to France in a sit-down with Crasnick, which you’ll want to read for yourself.
- Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado chatted with Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, who calls the star performer “one of the game’s most inquisitive superstars — if not the most inquisitive.” As he looks to build upon his standing as one of the game’s better all-around players, Arenado is described as constantly seeking to improve by interview subjects such as agent Joel Wolfe, former skipper Walt Weiss, and a variety of veteran players. Soon to turn 26, Arenado has compiled back-to-back forty-plus home run seasons, and also significantly boosted his walk rate last year while continuing to provide high-quality defensive work at third. Of course, his park-adjusted batting production suggests he has been more a very good than a great hitter to this point in his career, though he has improved at the plate in every season in the majors and could perhaps continue to do so if he can expand upon that growth in the plate-discipline department.
- Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey will have heavy involvement in the amateur draft process, writes Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com. Falvey, whose organization holds the top pick in this year’s draft, will go on the road to help scout prospects in person. He ventured to Southern California on Friday to watch high school right-hander and potential No. 1 pick Hunter Greene. “I love seeing amateur players,” said Falvey, who was formerly in Cleveland’s front office. “It’s hard not to love that part of it. It’s how I got my start in baseball and it’s what I still love to do. I’ve seen a lot of video of some guys and so being able to see them in person is good.”