Thursday, April 2, 2015

Twins Preview - Throwers

I really don't want to do this.  The Twins' pitching has been horrible for years, and even though it might be a little bit better it's still bad and it's also boring.  I guess just dive right in?  Yeah ok.

Opening day starter Phil Hughes should be the ace.  The Twins signed him prior to last season on the cheap, hoping he'd be a better pitcher getting out of Yankee Stadium and boy did that pay off.  He slashed his walks to an insane 0.69 per 9 innings which was the third lowest mark since 1920.  1920!  And he somehow managed to do that while increasing his strikeouts and giving up half as many homers per fly ball.  The homers number is maybe a little fluky, but moving from Yankee Stadium to Target Field can explain a lot of that too and it's balanced by a slightly higher than it should have been BABIP.

I mean Hughes was a really, really good pitcher last year.  Imagine if the Twins weren't one of the two worst fielding teams in the league last year (I can't remember the other one).  Hughes' FIP, which stands for Fielding Independent Pitching and attempts to measure a pitcher based solely on things he can control, was 2.65, almost a full run lower than his ERA (that means the Twins' fielding and Hughes' luck were both really, really bad).  That number was fifth among qualified starters in all of baseball.  He was fifth among starters in WAR.  He won 16 games on a terrible team.  He finished 7th in Cy Young voting.  I mean geez.  I didn't even realize just how good he was.

Honestly, and it scares me to say this a little, there's really no reason not to expect him to be the same pitcher this season. None of the improvements he made are unsustainable, even if a little regression should probably be expected because that's only natural after you set an all-time freaking record for K/Walk ratio, and there's actually some room for his luck to improve.  Most of the projection systems like his walk rate to about double (to a still really good number in the low 1s) and his ERA/WHIP/FIP to go up accordingly, but what if he can come closer to replicating that 0.69?  Man wow.  I know his extension is a bit of a risk since it's pretty much based on one season, but if he can come close to that pitcher again it'll be an absolute bargain.

After Hughes come a couple vets in new Ervin Santana and last year's new Ricky Nolasco.   The latter was an unmitigated disaster, as Nolasco cashed in $12 million to put up career worsts in nearly every category to the tune of a 5.38 ERA and 1.52 WHIP, all while failing to reach 200 innings pitched.  Looking into the advanced stats there's not much of a reason for optimism, though he probably won't be worse.  Even so, I took him with my first pick in a horrible players fantasy league, where you're rewarded for sucking.  Santana is a good signing for a contending team who needs someone in the middle of their rotation, but he doesn't make much sense for a a team like the Twins, especially if it helped push Alex Meyer and Trevor May back down to AAA.  I mean, he's been a pretty good pitcher in five of the last six seasons and he'll almost certainly help the team win more games this season, but he's pretty pointless unless he's still good when this team is contending.  Which will be soon, right?  Whatever.  The team probably thought they were signing Johan Santana anyway.

Starter four is Kyle Gibson who has pretty much lost his top prospect shine but had a pretty successful second season.  He improved from his (admittedly disastrous) rookie call-up two years ago by getting better in pretty much every metric you can find.  His WAR was 2.1 last season, which puts him in line with guys like Chris Tillman and Henderson Alvarez in the pretty darn good pitcher area.  I'd really like to see him up his K rate to somewhere closer to what he was putting up in the minors, but you can't really argue to much with a 2:1 ground ball to fly ball ratio.  He's a solid #4 or a so-so #3 with potential for more if he can whiff more dudes.  Keep an eye on that.

Winning the fifth starter competition over Meyer, May, and Mike Pelfrey (who is in the bullpen in a move I'm sure will work out) is your guy Tommy Milone, who came over in the Sam Fuld trade in what was a steal because Fuld is terrible.  Not that Milone is anything particularly special, but he's made himself into a serviceable major league pitcher despite a fastball that doesn't break 87 miles per hour unless there's a stiff breeze behind him.  But he mixes his pitches well and generally keeps the walks down, so he's not the worst option you could have as a fifth starter - though I promise you he'll have games where he's missing his spots where you'll believe he's pretty much the worst.

That's it for the starters, so now we're on to the bullpen which is going to be awful.  Glen Perkins will close of course and he's pretty awesome.  I have a tendency since he's a Minnesotan on a Minnesota team (and also I'm kind of a shithead sometimes) to assume he's being locally overrated but Perkins really is an elite closer.  Since he took over the closer role permanently in 2013 he ranks 9th in saves (on a terrible team), 13th in K/9, 58th in ERA, and 22nd in FIP, and 25th in WHIP among all pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched - that's pretty damn good!  And he has four more extremely affordable years on his contract (including this season).  I kind of love the guy, but they should probably be listening at every trade deadline.  Some team in win-now mode who is desperate for a closer might do something foolish, and he's a very valuable trade chip.  For now, I'm just going to love watching him, and he's young enough he could be the closer when the team is in contention again (they will!), but you know, think about it.

I'm not saying shop him, not at all.  I'm just saying if say, the Dodgers and their bottomless pit of money find themselves in a dogfight for the division they could come sniffing around.  What if Kenley Jansen's injury festers and he's out all year, and terrible Brandon League and unproven Chris Hatcher aren't getting the job done?  Between Perkins's skills, proven closer status, and super nice contract he'd be an attractive option.  Maybe you can pry Kyle Seager or Julio Urias away.  That would be pretty stupid on the Dodgers' end, but that doesn't mean it can't happen.  They have a super deep farm system and they clearly want to win and they want to win now.

Casey Fien will be the main setup guy after another pretty good year even if he did slip a bit.  It's a smidge disconcerting, however, that his K/9 dropped from 10.6 in 2013 to 7.3 in 2014.  His velocity was actually up so there's a decent chance this was just a weird blip, but there was also a huge jump in contact rate.  Keep an eye on this guy.

Brian Duensing was brought back for some reason and he'll be the sole non-Perkins lefty even though he's really quite terrible at pitching.  He has been decent at getting lefties out in his career, but his inability to strike anyone out drives me crazy and he should never, ever pitch to right-handed batters.  I really don't know why they tendered him other than continuity and familiarity which, as you know, the Twins value to an absurd degree.  I'd rather just roll the dice on Caleb Thielbar.  Granted in his two seasons he's shown reverse splits and if the Twins looked at that then bravo, but I guess I don't buy the front office is that sophisticated.  There aren't really any other in house options for a lefty bullpen guy which is sad in and of itself, but there's always plenty of crappy lefty arms out there you could probably snag for a minor league deal.  In the long run I suppose it doesn't matter, but giving $2.7 million to a terrible Duensing is kind of gross.

The rest of the bullpen is pretty much a mess.  Tim Stauffer is a failed starter who's dealt with a couple of really significant injuries and he's probably the best of the group.  Mike Pelfrey is absolutely terrible and should be released but instead the Twins are putting him in the pen which also pissed him off, so this is just a great situation all around.  J.R. Graham pretty much made the team because he was a Rule 5 pick and has to be on the big league roster or be sent back to his original team, and I literally have no idea who Blaine Boyer is.  This is not an impressive collection of arms, and to make it even worse the only guy in the entire bullpen who is under 30 is Graham.  It's a group of old, failed pitchers.  I prefer my bullpen made up of hard throwing young guys with at least one who isn't sure where the ball might be going all the time.  That's fun.  This is a garbage fire.

It's not like the team's going anywhere anyway.  You could roll with 25-year old Michael Tonkin, 25-year old Stephen Pryor, 26-year old Lester Oliveros, 22-year old Nick Burdi, and 22-year old Jake Reed and be just as well off, if not better, and it would be a lot more fun.  Or hell, throw Meyer and/or May into the pen to start like the way the Orioles have handled Kevin Gausman.  I don't know.  I'm not entirely certain this team has a coherent plan beyond "waiting for 2016 and hoping all the prospects are good" but whatever.

All in all, the starters could be decent this year, and will most likely be the best the Twins have had in a few years.  The bullpen, however, is going to blow a lot of games.


O. Guillen said...

Chris Sale also started off in the bullpen. That turned out okay.

John R said...

I completely agree with everything you stated here. And since your submission, the whole Santana thing blew up and threw a wrench in what was already a very shaky plan. Ugh!