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Finding a non-temporary answer at the shortstop position has been a long-standing issue for the Minnesota Twins, dating back about a decade.
In late April, we looked ahead to the upcoming crop of free agent shortstops, suggesting that this might be the best (only) method for finding a palatable starter at the position in the remotely near future. However, since then, two players have emerged in a big way, to the point where we may now actually have a legitimate competition that doesn't amount to "which option is least terrible?"
Eduardo Escobar has been drawing the lion's share of time at short, and he has performed fairly well. His .273/.319/.393 hitting line is above-average for the position, and his 32 doubles tie him for the team lead. I have always been a believer that Escobar's upside healthily outweighed his past production, and wrote back in March about his momentum toward overtaking the inadequate SS incumbent Pedro Florimon.
Of course, the fact that Escobar has proven to be a superior option to Florimon isn't saying much, and while the 25-year-old has been solid both offensively and defensively this season, I think it's a stretch to argue that he should be counted on as the starter going forward. Escobar is a nice piece to have around, but I think he's best suited as a utility man and backup option at short.
It's Danny Santana that has made the strongest case to claim shortstop duties in 2015 and beyond, even if he hasn't been playing there a whole lot. Santana's initial success upon being called up in May was surprising, in light of his .692 OPS in Triple-A prior to that promotion and his .708 career OPS in the minors, but what's more surprising is that he never really cooled off. His OPS has been at or above .773 in every month, and so far in August he's hitting .319/.364/.458.
Santana's production with the Twins this year has been strong enough to be an asset at any position, and jibes with the idea that his relatively unimpressive numbers in the minors were shaded by rawness and youth. Still, even if his abilities to spray line drives and run like crazy should keep his offensive game afloat, I'm not ready to tab him as an .800-plus OPS guy. His bat is much more likely to play at shortstop in the big picture, and I'm confident he'll ultimately bring more to the table there than Escobar.
Of course, Santana is considered to be somewhat rough at shortstop, so it would help if he could play there and refine his defensive game. The Twins might view it the same way, as they gave him consecutive starts at short over the weekend -- his first infield exposure since June. Hopefully in September (or sooner), Aaron Hicks or someone else will take over center field and Santana can spend the final weeks solidifying his case to lock up the shortstop position, while Escobar moves around the diamond.
Assuming both players stay on track and Santana can flash some fielding chops in a more extended audition, the Twins will finish the season with a multiple legitimate internal options that have proven they have what it takes to play shortstop in the majors on a regular basis.
That's something we haven't been able to say for a long time, and it means that the club can finally go into this offseason without a clear need at that position.
Once you're done here, check out Twins Daily to get caught up on all the latest Twins news and minor-league developments. After that, make sure to visit Vikings Journal, TD's new partner covering the Minnesota Vikings from an independent and in-depth perspective. We know you'll love it.
The Twins made only one deal before the non-waiver deadline on July 31st, sending Sam Fuld to the A's for Tommy Milone in what might go down as one of Terry Ryan's niftier pickups, but they've been characteristically active on the trade market here in August. Over the weekend, they dealt Kevin Correia to the Dodgers, making room for Milone in the rotation. And on Monday, needing to free up a roster spot for the return of Joe Mauer, Ryan was able to send Josh Willingham to the Royals.
A couple fairly intriguing minor-league pitchers have come back in these swaps (as well as the Kendrys Morales deal), but the chief imperative there was always to open up playing time for younger guys. The deals also work out pretty well for the departing players, who head from the cellar-dwelling Twins to first-place contenders.
Neither Correia nor Willingham has ever made a postseason appearance despite a combined 23 years of experience in the majors. Both will have a good shot now.
The Twins might not be done. There are still a few relievers on the roster who could draw interest from competing teams and are likely in their final years here -- most notably Jared Burton and Brian Duensing. There are several bullpen arms in Rochester that deserve a look.
Additionally, as Mike Berardino pointed out on Tuesday, Ryan might try and find a suitor for Yohan Pino; his 1-5 record and 5.37 ERA won't wow anybody, but his solid peripherals -- in addition to his spectacular Triple-A numbers -- could stir up a bit of interest from a club needing a fifth starter or added rotation depth. The Twins have motivation to move Pino with Ricky Nolasco expected to return from his rehab stint soon.
The ongoing rebuild that has been taking place here in Minnesota has been a difficult one to endure, filled with fits and starts, injury setbacks and indecisiveness. But finally, you can really begin to feel some momentum building. The Twins might be headed toward another 90-loss finish, but pieces are beginning to fall into place.
May and Milone have arrived. Kennys Vargas is getting his feet wet while Danny Santana continues to build his case for a prominent 2015 role. Prospects are starting to be moved up more aggressively, with Byron Buxton's promotion to Double-A despite underwhelming numbers in Ft. Myers serving as the latest example.
It's hard to heap praise on a franchise that has shown little in the way of on-field progress, but the Twins have done a good job of clearing house, and will enter this offseason with relatively few holes to fill. They'll have plenty of money to address those that can't be filled by incoming youth.
"Wait until next year" might not be the most satisfying mantra to fall back on, but after a lot of treading water, it feels like we can at least feel confident in saying it now.
Aaron and John talk about Kevin Correia's long-awaited departure, Trevor May's shaky arrival, upside vs. known quantities, Joe Mauer's impending return, Francisco Liriano and Vance Worley thriving together, playing Danny Santana at shortstop, the good and bad of Twitter, penthouse plans, and car-buying 101. You can listen by downloading us from iTunes, Stitcher or find it at GleemanAndTheGeek.com. Or just click on the "play" button below.
Also, over at TwinsDaily.com, you'll find more on the Kevin Correia trade and a great story by AJ Petterson about Minnesota Town Ball.
In New Britain, Vargas displayed power from both sides of the plate but hit 11 of his 17 home runs from the left side with this swing:
When he joined the team in Chicago, his swing was changed slightly. Though the big hand-drop before the swing was still prevalent -- as was the large leg-kick -- he had closed his stance. Most noteworthy is that the White Sox pitching staff did not let him see very many fastballs. According to ESPN/trumedia, Vargas saw 47 pitches and just 14 of those were fastballs. The vast majority were changeups and an assortment of breaking pitches:
While the results were not bad for Vargas, his swings often produced bloops to the opposite field as the plethora of off-speed pitches disrupted his timing.
As the team returned from Chicago for a series at home against the Padres, Twins Daily reader Willihammer astutely pointed out that Vargas had altered his swing. Instead of the leg-kick and hand movement, he was keeping himself still and his weight back:
In at least the example above, Vargas kept his weight back effectively on the hanging breaking ball and was able to send that ball effortlessly into the stadium’s overhang. The Padres, for their part, sent more fastballs Vargas’s direction than the White Sox did.
For those older fans who remembers the Twins teams at the turn of the century, this all should sound familiar. In 2001, David Ortiz was struggling to stay healthy and the Twins had him go through a series of adjustments at the plate to improve his overall approach. This from The Sporting News of that year:
“This season, the club would like to see Ortiz take advantage of the power potential in his 6-4, 230-pound frame. He has made several adjustments, including lowering his hand position in his stance and shortening his leg kick.”
After Ortiz was released, he joined the Red Sox and continued to implement his big leg-kick swing and generated plenty of power and the ability to drive the ball to all fields, like the Twins had wanted him to do.
This is not an attempt to open up old wounds from the past or berate the organization for a decision that probably still haunts them to this day, but the comparison is uncanny.
To be sure, Vargas, a player who came straight from Double-A, is coming from a league whose pitching landscape is often filled with talented power arms but are still learning to locate their secondary pitches. Many analysts will tell you that if you succeed in Double-A, you should be able to succeed at the highest level. While that may be true in some cases, developing hitters miss out on the experience gained at Triple-A where pitchers do not have the same sexy velocity as their Double-A counterparts but are able to locate breaking balls and changeups. Players like Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks both have seen what can happen when pitchers can deploy secondary pitches with precision. What Vargas learned in his weekend in Chicago is that pitchers at this level can spot a change down and away with regularity.
Hitting is an evolution and Vargas’s tweak may just be a temporary adjustment until he feels more comfortable with the mix of pitches he is now facing rather than a long-term change to his swing. Either way, Vargas represents a reason to watch the Twins even as the team wallows at the bottom of the division yet again.
Over at TwinsDaily.com...
By all appearances, both of the highly rated pitching prospects have been MLB-ready for some time. May and Meyer rank fifth and sixth, respectively, on the International League ERA leaderboard, and they're both in the top three for strikeout rate.
Yet, both have been left to dominate in Triple-A while the Twins give starts to lesser talents like Kris Johnson, Logan Darnell and Yohan Pino. We're now almost a week into August, and still there's no clear indication that either May or Meyer is even on the verge of a promotion.
It's not hard to see why people are frustrated, but at the same time, there are circumstances at play with both pitchers that need to be recognized.
May is very, very close. When he was seemingly nearing a call-up in June, he suffered an ill-timed calf injury that cost him a month, and he's been working his way back. Just now has he finally returned to a normal workload; he threw 99 pitches in his last start, the first time since mid-June that he's gone over 80.
He's already on the 40-man roster. Bringing him up is a simple move at this point. I have to imagine that May will be on the Twins within the next turn or two through the rotation.
The wait for Meyer will probably last longer. He might not even debut in 2014. And while that's unfortunate to hear, it's not something to get riled up at the organization over.
Last year, Meyer missed two months -- more than a third of his season -- with a sore throwing shoulder. It was very scary, especially when you consider that his size and delivery always elicited injury concerns from scouts.
Fortunately, the shoulder has been fine this year. He hasn't missed a start and has been making mincemeat of minor-league hitters. But when you look at this pitch count from start to start, it's obvious that the Twins are being very cautious with him.
Here are Meyer's inning totals and pitch counts for each outing with Rochester this season:
4/6: 5.0 IP, 79 pitches
4/12: 5.1 IP, 83 pitches
4/18: 3.2 IP, 77 pitches
4/23: 6.2 IP, 100 pitches
4/28: 6.0 IP, 100 pitches
5/4: 4.2 IP, 92 pitches
5/10: 4.0 IP, 92 pitches
5/15: 5.0 IP, 69 pitches
5/22: 5.1 IP, 79 pitches
5/28: 6.0 IP, 88 pitches
6/2: 5.0 IP, 78 pitches
6/7: 6.0 IP, 81 pitches
6/13: 2.0 IP, 51 pitches
6/18: 3.0 IP, 78 pitches
6/23: 3.2 IP, 73 pitches
6/28: 6.0 IP, 77 pitches
7/3: 6.0 IP, 86 pitches
7/8: 6.0 IP, 96 pitches
7/18: 6.0 IP, 88 pitches
7/23: 6.0 IP, 86 pitches
7/29: 5.0 IP, 96 pitches
8/3: 5.2 IP, 91 pitches
Looking at the game log, a few things stand out. First, he's only been allowed to pitch into the seventh inning once all season, despite the fact that he's routinely blowing away opposing lineups. Second, only seven times in 22 starts has he been pushed over 90 pitches.
Twins Daily member jokin was in attendance during Meyer's latest start in Louisville, and described the performance in a post here on our forums. His writeup noted that Meyer was pulled rather abruptly with two outs in the fifth despite "looking completely in command of the game," as the righty had surpassed the 90-pitch threshold.
This observation coincides with what we're seeing in Meyer's pitch count trends. There's a clear effort being made to monitor him very closely and pull him out of games where he's laboring or approaching that triple-digit pitch mark.
It's a lot easier to do that in Triple-A, where the games don't really matter, than in the majors. Big-league starters are expected to throw more than 90 pitches. And Meyer, whose command remains spotty despite all his notable strengths, could have some games where he hits that 90-pitch mark pretty quickly as he transitions to the highest level. That taxes a bullpen.
As a fan, I am dying to see Meyer pitch in a Twins uniform. But at the same time, I'm not going to fault the organization for taking every precaution with such a highly valuable arm, especially in a lost season. If they just want to get him through a full, healthy campaign, with the idea of having him try and win a spot next spring, I can live with that.
At this point, it might not make much of a difference. He has already thrown 112 innings this year, which is eight more than he threw total last year, between the regular season and Arizona Fall League. As careful as they've been with him, it's hard to imagine the Twins letting Meyer top 150 innings this season.
That means he might only have five or six starts left. While it would be nice for the fans if a few of those come in the majors, that also requires adding him to the 40-man and starting his service clock. Those aren't huge hurdles, necessarily, but they're factors.
Ultimately, it wouldn't shock me if the Twins let Meyer finish out in Triple-A, and it wouldn't really upset me.
International League hitters might feel differently.
Yesterday, we looked at the top relief pitchers for the month of July. There were a lot of great bullpen performances and many honorable mentions as well. It’s much of the same today when we look at the Minnesota Twins top starting pitchers in July.
This list is a mix of top prospects and pitchers who deserve much more recognition.
Number 5 – GCL Twins – RHP Alexis Tapia – 6 G, 4 GS, 3-0, 1.80 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 25.0 IP, 17 H, 4 BB, 20 K
The Twins signed Tapia out of Venezuela in September of 2012. Less than two years later, he is making his debut in the States and doing a very good job in the GCL. Last year in the DSL, he went 2-1 with a 2.13 ERA in 11 games (7 starts). In 42.1 innings, he gave up 32 hits, walked five and struck out 31. He has continued that with the GCL Twins, giving up less than a hit per inning, minimizing walks and getting decent strikeout numbers. In July, opponents hit .193/.240/.284 (.524) against him.
Number 4 – GCL/Elizabethton – LHP Mat Batts – 5 G, 4 GS, 2-0, 1.80 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 25.0 IP, 15 H, 4 BB, 27 K
The Twins used their 17th round pick this year on this four-year college senior out of UNC-Wilmington. He is also a former intern at Baseball America. However, it is what he has done on the mound since being drafted that has the 23-year-old on this list. He made just three appearances in the GCL before there was a need at Elizabethton. He then made four starts at Elizabethton. At the end of July, he was promoted to Cedar Rapids where he had a very good first start. In July, opponents hit just .179/.225/.286 (.510). He is not a hard-thrower, but he is a pitcher. He’s got the “Twins Pitcher” profile, throws strikes, mixes pitches, knows how to pitch.
Number 3 - Cedar Rapids – RHP Aaron Slegers - 6 GS, 2-2, 1.96 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 36.2 IP, 28 H, 5 BB, 31 K
At 6-10, Aaron Slegers has the ability to stand out in a crowd. After a strong start in Cedar Rapids this year, he struggled for a couple of months. However, he figured some things out in July and posted his best month. Opponents hit just .224/.267/.328 (.595) off of him. He gained control and command of his pitches. In fact, the 21-year-old was promoted to Ft. Myers and made his first start on Monday night. Slegers has a low-90s fastball, and as you would expect, a good, downward angle on his pitches. The Twins 5th round pick in 2013 out of Indiana, he will need some patience, but there is a lot of reason to be excited about his potential.
Number 2 – New Britain – Tyler Duffey - 6 GS, 5-0, 3.10 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 40.2 IP, 34 H, 5 BB, 34 K
Duffey was the Twins 2012 fifth-round draft pick out of Rice University where he shared closer duties with Twins 2nd round pick JT Chargois. In 2013, he was moved into the starting rotation, and he has been very solid. He certainly has had some ups and downs as a starter, but when he’s on, he gives the feeling that he could pitch in the big leagues. His fastballs come in anywhere from 90 to 95 mph. He has a very good curveball, and his changeup remains his biggest question mark. Things were working well in July when opponents hit just .228/.259/.396 (.655) against him.
And the Twins Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Month is:
Cedar Rapids – RHP Chih-Wei Hu - 6 GS, 5-0, 1.25 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 36.0 IP, 20 H, 6 BB, 38 K
The Twins outbid several teams for Hu’s services after he had a very impressive amateur career. He was a star in high school as well as in international competitions. The Twins signed him for $220,000 in August of 2012. He spent 2013 in the GCL, and he began 2014 in Elizabethton. In July, he made one start in Elizabethton before a promotion to the Kernels. In each of his six starts, he went six innings. Opponents hit just .156/.206/.195 against him. He has a fastball that can touch 95. He has a good curveball and a solid changeup. He even throws a palm ball. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, the 20-year-old has a sturdy frame. He has an advanced knowledge of pitching and has a chance to be very good.
So there you have it. The top pitchers in the Minnesota Twins farm system in July. What do you think? How would you rank these starting pitchers?
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