Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Team Postmortem: Minnesota Twins

Record: 66-96,  -174 Run Differential

Summary: Let's start with a bit of history. Back when Bill Smith took over as General Manager in 2007, the Twins were a good team with a highly regarded player development system. They had had a great farm system and a solid cheap core of talent. By the end of the 2011 season, Smith had destroyed the farm system, filled the roster with overpriced and under-performing contracts, and, to top it off, had gotten essentially nothing out of the Johan Santana trade. Smith was fired, and replaced--as crazy as this sounds--with his predecessor, Terry Ryan. Ryan immediately set to work rebuilding the franchise from the ground up, letting players like Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer leave to Free Agency and trading guys like Francisco Liriano, Ben Revere, and Denard Span. The downside of this is that the Major League team is a bit of a wasteland, basically consisting of Joe Mauer (still awesome) and a bunch of filler players or prospects who are not quite ready yet.

Offensively, the 2013 Twins were, essentially, mediocre. As a team, they hit 242/312/280 with a 307 wOBA (21st in the Majors, tied with the Mariners) and 92 wRC+ (also 21st, and likewise tied with Seattle). The good news is that the team shows an excellent willingness to take a walk with a rate of 8.6%, 7th best in the Majors. The bad news is that also strike out all the time (23.0%, 29th in baseball). Essentially, they are excellent at taking pitches out of the zone (their O-Swing is 29.5%, 6th lowest), but they are also taking a lot of pitches in the zone (Z-Swing is 62.7%, 2nd lowest). This could be a recipe for success--indeed, the Red Sox took a similar approach--but the Twins also don't make contact when they do swing, with a contact % of 77.8% (25th).

Most of their offensive contributions came from Joe Mauer, who is still one of the best players in the game. The catcher (CATCHER!) hit 324/404/476 and posted an excellent 144 wRC+. His walk rate is down a bit, and his strikeouts are up, but he also hit for his best power (144 ISO) since his ridiculous 2009 7.7 fWAR campaign. Again, he's a catcher. One with an excellent defensive reputation. This nets him a fantastic 5.2 fWAR.  Another bright spot was second baseman Brian Dozier, who, in his sophomore season, continued to improve at the plate, hitting 244/312/414. While he still needs to work on his plate discipline (8.3% BB%, 19.3% K%), his power looks real and his .183 ISO ranks 5th among second basemen. If Dozier continues to develop, he'll be a big part of the Twins' future.

The pitching side of the team was particularly ugly. The Twins have a reputation for an affinity with soft-tossing control types, and this proved true in 2013. While the Twins' staff posted excellent control numbers with a BB% of 7.3%, the 6th best mark in the majors, they also failed to strike anyone out  earning them a K rate of 15.7%, the worst mark in the game. To survive like that, you need a groundball-heavy approach and the Twins' staff ranked only 21st in that category at 42.4%.  As a whole, the staff gave up the second most runs in baseball with 788 and ranked poorly in FIP (4.23, 27th) and xFIP (4.28, 29th). Nothing exemplifies the Twins' rotation issues like the fact that Kevin Correa (career 4.50 FIP; 4.40 in 2013) was their de facto Ace. By fWAR their best pitcher was Mike Pelfrey--yes, him--who posted a 5.19 ERA (albeit with a 3.99 FIP... but a 4.54 xFIP). On the good news front (there isn't much), top prospect Kyle Gibson, now a year removed form Tommy John surgery, dominated AAA and earned himself a promotion to the majors. He did struggle once he got to Minnesota, but should continue to make strides in 2014.  When healthy (which wasn't often), Sam Deduno took a step forward, cutting way down on his walks (3.42 BB/9 vs 6.04 in 2012), and continued to post excellent groundball rates at 59.7%.

While the product in Minnesota was terrible, there are a lot of reasons for optimism for Twins fans. Terry Ryan's rebuilding of the farm has now made the Twins farm system as one of the best in the game, ranked #1 in Bleacher Reports' End-of-Season rankings. It's an extremely deep system led by two of the best prospects in the game: Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. Help for the rotation is on the way as well, with the arrival of Kyle Gibson, an excellent season in AA for Alex Meyer, plus 2013 first round draft pick Kohl Stewart. If these prospects can make the transition to the majors over the next two years, the Twins could soon be a force to be reckoned with.

Team MVP: Joe Mauer, 5.2 fWAR

Team LVP: Aaron Hicks, -0.7 fWAR

Down On The Farm: I already pointed out that the Twins have one of the best, if not the best, farm systems in the game right now. It's an enviable position to be in, particularly considering how the farm looked just a few years ago. Even more enviable is the raw potential in the two guys I'm about to discuss

Byron Buxton, a 19-year-old centerfielder, is the consensus #1 prospect in all of baseball going into 2014. He possesses amazing athleticism, plus-plus speed, excellent defense, a strong arm, patience at the plate, and above-average raw power potential. Buxton destroyed both A (341/431/559, 176 wRC+, 13.7% BB%) and A+  (326/415/476, 155 wRC+, 12.6% BB%) in 2013. He also stole 55 bases across the two levels. The Twins are sending him the AFL in the off-season, which may seem odd given that he's already played in far more games in 2013 than during any other year of his life, but Fangraphs' Marc Hulet suspects that this is in order to prepare him to open 2014 in AA. Buxton looks to be the real deal, a potential superstar centerfielder. Comparing anyone to Mike Trout is, of course, patently ridiculous, but at nineteen Mike Trout also split time between A and A+. Buxton's numbers are pretty much equal to, and in some areas superior to, those of Trout at the same phase of his career. Again, that is not to say Buxton will be at Trout's level, because Trout is a rare breed, but it's still fun to think about.

Miguel Sano is a 20-year-old 3rd base prospect who's claim to fame is simply power. Tons and tons of power. The right-handed hitter is reported to be one of the best power hitters in all of the minor leagues. He's got raw power to all fields and shows a good knowledge of the strike zone and a willingness to take a walk. In 2013, he split time between A+ and AA, showing crazy power in both. In A+ he hit 330/424/655 with a 325 ISO (!!), 16 homeruns, and a wRC+ of 203. In AA, he continued to show impressive power, but struggled to make contact against the more advanced breaking pitches, going 236/344/571 with a 335 ISO (!!!!), 19 HRs, and a 145 wRC+. His biggest area to work on seems to be cutting down on swings and misses, as he struck out 25.1% of the time in A+ and 29.3% in AA.

If APOD was GM: Honestly, this portion of these write-ups is getting a little repetitive with all these clubs that are in the middle of rebuilding and are a few years away from putting it all together. The plan remains the same. Don't worry about the team on the field as much as focus on continuing to prep the farm system to facilitate a push in a few years. Sorry, guys. These sections should get more interesting once we get higher up the list, or hit criminally stupid teams like the Phillies.

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