We’re on the home stretch; it’s Day 24 – the 80% mark – of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, and today I round out my AL Central coverage by looking at the Minnesota Twins. Having yesterday called a breakout performance from Kole Calhoun given his new role as the Angels’ everyday right fielder, I am once again focusing on a player who could shine if given the appropriate chance. After a flash of his offensive potential in September, and the cautionary move of incumbent catcher Joe Mauer to first base, Josmil Pinto should this year get his opportunity to shine.
As Aaron Gleeman prefaced in his Twins essay for the 2014 Baseball Prospectus Annual, “Prospect lists are considered pornography in the state of Minnesota.” Everyone knows the names by now; Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer, Kohl Stewart, the list goes on – together, the jewels of Minnesota’s stacked farm system are expected to be the backbone of the next great Twins team, a group capable of dominating the AL Central for years upon years. Such a possibility doesn’t seem too unrealistic either at this point, making it easy for Minnesota fans to largely ignore whatever happens in 2014 and simply dream of the future. They might want to pay attention however, to one of the less heralded products of their minor league system; after making his MLB debut last September, Josmil Pinto will be competing in Spring Training to fill the recently-vacated position of Joe Mauer as the Twins’ Opening Day catcher.
At 5’11 and 210 pounds (he has apparently “packed on 15 to 20 pounds of muscle this offseason” as if to provide a perfect #MuscleWatch example), Pinto possesses the prototypical stocky build of a catcher. Signed by Minnesota as a 16 year old way back in 2006 however, the native Venezuelan only began playing full-season ball in 2010, and attracted little attention from prospect aficionados until his breakout 2013 season ( this despite his being added to the Twins 40-man roster after the 2012 season in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft). Considered by scouts to be little more than organizational filler prior to last year, Pinto proceeded to hit .309/.400/.482 across Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester, bashing 48 XBH (including a career high 15 HRs) in 128 games while also displaying a patient offensive approach that belied his youthful power (66 BBs to 83 SOs). While his production was still dimmed by the numbers of Buxton, Sano, and alike, the Twins saw fit to give him an opportunity at the top level; called up to cover for (you guessed it) an injured Mauer on September 1st, Pinto immediately set about staking a claim for the full-time job, batting .342 over 83 PAs, and continuing to show off his power potential with 5 2Bs and 4 HRs.
With Mauer’s injury struggles officially forcing him to first base this past offseason, it appeared Pinto’s offensive display had done enough to secure the role of everyday catcher going forward. What may hold him back, at least to start the season, is not his bat but glove; though he still represents an considerable upgrade from the since-released Ryan Doumit, the 24 year old profiles as only a passable receiver (at best) for the moment, and will now face competition from the freshly signed Kurt Suzuki in camp. Though he has the arm to deter runners – he threw out 5/11 base stealers in his September cameo with the Twins – there is still work to be done on his mechanics and game calling, presenting Minnesota management with a dilemma; as ESPN’s Keith Law wrote, “The Twins will face a tough decision this year on how to work Pinto into the major league lineup; he needs to catch every day to improve his receiving — and he’d probably be better off doing that in Triple-A — but he’s also their best candidate to give them some offense behind the plate.”
Sending Pinto back to Rochester for a spell however, or even placing him in a significant time share with Suzuki, makes little sense for a Twins team focused on the future. While the veteran catcher is a fine placeholder, he shouldn’t be taking valuable reps away from the youngster’s development, his replacement level production something the aforementioned Gleeman recently pointed out: “in the past three seasons Suzuki hit .235/.290/.353 while throwing out just 25 percent of stolen base attempts and rating very poorly in pitch-framing analysis. Suzuki hasn’t been a starting-caliber catcher since 2009”. With the Twins rightly waiting for the cavalry to arrive before truly launching their attack on the AL Central, there seems to be little reason to not get the offensively-ready Pinto additional majors experience in the meantime, and see if he can become an at least average defender, rather than wasting his bat down in the minors.
The battle to be Minny’s starter may simply come down to who plays better in Spring Training (though Pinto has already begun inauspiciously by sitting out the last few days with a back injury). He doesn’t need to be a Molina brother behind the plate, but if Pinto can show just a few signs of progress, Twins GM Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire should give him the chance to shine – and improve some more – everyday. Heck knows, he won’t have the attention as their top rookie for long.
When I checked the alphabetical AL standings and saw Houston were next up in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I groaned aloud. I can only equate writing about the Houston Astros to the chore of doing ironing; no one wants to do it, it’s not enjoyable, relaxing, or even educational – it just needs to be done if something is to be presentable. However depressing the Astros are though, the show must go on. So having yesterday dealt with Detroit’s frittering away of the opportunity to cement themselves as the class of the AL, today I’m faced with previewing a team that has lost 324 games over the past 3 seasons (including their last 15 of 2013), and will once again be picking first in the amateur draft this summer. The last time they weren’t doing so, way back in 2011, the Houston Astros selected George Springer.
As a Phoenix Suns fan, I was all aboard the respective Riggin for Wiggins/Sorry for Jabari/Concede for Embiid tanking trains entering the 2013-14 season. Of course, they’ve gone on to be annoyingly half-decent this season, neither good enough to contend nor bad enough to bottom out, and have thus probably entrenched themselves in the mediocre middle ground of the NBA for the next half-decade in the process. The best amateur talent is available only to the biggest losers after all, a fact especially true in the lottery-free draft practiced by MLB. So I can understand the bold approach of Jeff Luhnow’s Houston Astros; the whole concept of systematically rewarding teams for being atrocious is an inefficiency to be exploited by those shameless enough to do so. Sometimes you have to be bad to get good. And the Astros of this decade have been really, really, REALLY bad.
Having in 2013 become only the the 12th team since 1900 ever to lose 111 games, their third consecutive 100+ loss season, the Astros are finally primed to begin the climb back to relevancy – starting in 2014. The first installment of (un)deserved riches should hit the field this year, a crop of young talent led by 2011’s 11th overall pick George Springer. And if the dynamic center fielder is anything to go by in terms of the general sort of talent on the way, all the painful losses will have been well worth it.
Ranked by both ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball America as the 19th best prospect in professional ball, Springer tore up the minors in 2013, narrowly missing a historic 40-40 season (he only had 37 HRs to go with his 45 SB) on his way to posting a .303/.411/.600 line between Class AA and AAA. He actually improved as he progressed too, upping his line from .297/.399/.579 in Double A to .311/.425/.626 at Triple A – overcoming a .028 drop in BABIP in the process. His isolated power also soared at the higher level – from an already-impressive .282 to a frankly outrageous .315, with Fangraphs recently estimating further gains: “At 6’3″, 205 pounds, Springer has a muscular frame that projects well for future power development if he adds some weight over the course of his career.” Just for good measure, as if his hitting didn’t make him an elite prospect already, Springer also possesses plus speed, a tool he utilized well not only the basepaths, but parlayed effectively into playing a rangy center field.
Before Houston fans need to go take a cold shower however, we should mention the strikeouts, and the odd peripherals that led Keith Law to label him “a mold-breaker”. Seriously, they’re like some weird baseball experiment; despite more than a quarter of his plate appearances last year ending in a strikeouts (161Ks to 589 PAs) and a horrific 65.3% contact rate, the 24 year old also demonstrated above-average plate discipline, drawing 83 walks (good for a 15.4% BB% in his 266 Triple-A PAs). By the numbers, Springer apparently swings hard at everything in the zone regardless of the count, missing at a mindless rate, yet also has the eye to lay off the junk. As Jeff Sullivan put it, “It’s not that he misses a bunch of unhittable pitches. He actually misses more hittable pitches.” The question of whether this unintentional experiment will befoul Springer’s admirable average at the top level of the sport will soon be answered however.
Asked what to expect of the UConn product in 2014, GM Jeff Luhnow vouched ”I think George Springer will be a starting outfielder in Houston this year.. Whether it happens Opening Day or sometime during the season, he’s a special talent.” Most projections have him on track to make it in May, thereby both delaying the start of his service clock and allowing Springer the chance to get some Triple A repetitions in right field – the acquisition of Dexter Fowler presumably pushing him to the corner when he reaches the majors. Once he makes it to Minute Maid Park though, expect big things. Though he would be the jewel of several other teams’ minor league systems, Springer is somehow only the 3rd best prospect in the Astros setup, which already the best in the game is expected to add heralded NC State LHP Carlos Rodon with the first overall pick in this years draft. Springer’s arrival will mark just the beginning of a stream of top prospects then, though his should be among the most memorable.
For the third consecutive day, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series stays in the AL Central. Yesterdays celebration of exciting Indians pitcher Danny Salazar saw me most definitely jinx Cleveland’s chances of returning to the playoffs, a destination Detroit has made a habit of easily reaching recently. And while nothing has changed this winter regarding the expectations of the Tigers, in that they’re still widely viewed as World Series contenders, the pack of players that has fallen short for the past two seasons has been shuffled. In the biggest deal of the offseason, 1B Prince Fielder was sent from Motor City to Texas; Detroit in return received financial relief, positional liberation, and Ian Kinsler.
When word came down of this winters big-name swap between the Texas Rangers and Detroit, the prognostication that followed was decidedly mixed in immediately conferring a ‘winner’ of the blockbuster; whereas Dave Cameron of Fangraphs opined “If you’re a Tigers fan, this is a deal to celebrate”, ESPN’s Keith Law expressed a preference to “rather roll the dice on Fielder than Kinsler” (at least from a purely baseball perspective).
I initially agreed with Cameron that Detroit had got the better deal; after all, in swapping Fielder for Kinsler, the Tigers acquired much more than just the second baseman. In their exchange of two players with similar WARP levels, Detroit also secured significant financial relief – saving $76 million in future salary obligations. As Cameron put it: “The Tigers turned a $168 million +3 WAR player into a $92 million +3 WAR player, once you account for the cash they’re sending to Texas”. Not only that, but they freed up their problematic 1B/DH logjam – the loss of Fielder simultaneously permitting Miguel Cabrera to slide back across the diamond to his natural position (after being predictably overmatched at third for the past two seasons), while allowing Victor Martinez to occupy the DH position full-time. Such realignment would leave top prospect Nick Castellanos to slot in at third, Kinsler manning second in place of the departed Omar Infante, and the defensively-excellent Jose Iglesias holding down shortstop. In one trade, the previously imbalanced (and defensively woeful) Tigers infield was solved – which in combination with the savings offered, seemed to represent a coup for Detroit.
If only it were that simple.
No longer trapped by Fielder’s contract, Detroit seemed destined to make another move. Instead, GM Dave Dombrowski chose to… Doug Fister Heist.” href=”http://dugoutperspective.mlblogs.com/2014/02/17/hello-baseball-the-doug-fister-heist/” target=”_blank”>trade away their underrated cost-controlled starter Doug Fister to the Nationals in a deal for three lesser players? Not go out and sign the other starting outfielder (Shin Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, and Curtis Granderson were all still available) which they have so desperately needed for the past two seasons? Neither lock up Cy Young Winner and impending free agent Max Scherzer to a long term contract, nor ensure the best hitter on the planet – Miguel Cabrera, whose contract expires in 2015 – finishes his career a Tiger? Sure, the Tigers replaced the departed Joaquin Benoit with Joe Nathan, but the other shoe – which in December especially, seemed to be dangling by a thread just millimeters from the earth – is still yet to drop.
Which brings us on to Kinsler, and more specifically, Keith Law’s fear that “Compared to Fielder, Kinsler is showing greater signs of decline”. It’s hard to argue with Law’s assessment; second basemen are notorious for their rates of attrition, and the numbers have been already begun trending downward for the Tiger’s new acquisition. Per the Baseball Professor, his rough indicators of production have experienced a sharp decline over the past three seasons:“In 2011, Ian Kinsler combined for 62 HR and SB. In 2012, that total fell to 40. Last year it was just 28.” Furthermore, playing mostly in the incredibly hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Kinsler slashed .277/.344/.413 and posted an OPS+ of 105 in 2013; for comparisons sake, the man he is replacing in Detroit – Omar Infante – had a mark of 113. Of perhaps even more concern for Detroit fans – and an admittedly popular narrative this winter – are the struggles of Kinsler away from Texas, a perception corroborated by his significant home/road splits; over his career (2399 PAs) the Arizona native bludgeoned his way to a .304/.387/.511 line at home, compared to just .242/.312/.399 on the road (2392 PAs).
All this is not to say Ian Kinsler will be a bust in 2014 – far from it. Once again, he will most probably be an above-average second baseman, perhaps even an All-Star again, and has apparently been working hard this offseason to take advantage of Comerica Park’s quirks and quieten down laymen like me. He’ll presumably offer a much more viable leadoff option than either Austin Jackson or Torii Hunter, and can’t help but add to Detroit’s absent running game. His contract (a front-loaded $62 million over the next four years) remains a bargain in comparison to Fielder, who also exhibited signs of decline in 2013 and is unlikely to age gracefully himself. The positional reshuffle subsequent to his arrival may even help crucial pieces stay healthier late into the season. But his new team have wholly failed to take advantage of the favorable situation created with the removal of Fielder, and look set to enter the season with the same holes that saw easily win the AL Central, but be bounced in the ALCS. It’s World Series or bust once again for the Tigers, and question marks surround their their new second baseman; fairly or not, the spotlight is on Kinsler.
In Part II of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I revisited the struggles of BJ Upton in his first year as an Atlanta Brave (and then watched Twitter in horror as both Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman signed extensions, antiquating comments I’d posted only hours earlier). Today my focus shifts to the NL Central, as I attempt to find something worth writing about concerning a team which will be lucky to top 75 wins. Though the Chicago Cubs team that breaks from Spring Training may not be all that exciting, help is on the way in the form of their loaded farm system. Javier Baez is the crowning jewel of that minor-league stash.
“Baez could end a 40 HR shortstop. That’s his ceiling. That’s actually a possibility. Likely? Not sure. But its possible. How many prospects in baseball can make such a claim? That’s a truly elite ceiling. That’s a generational talent.” – Jason Parks, Baseball Prospectus.
40 HRs. That’s Giancarlo Stanton-like power from a guy listed at 6’0, 195 lbs. A guy who is only 21 years old. A guy who plays shortstop (for now at least – more on that later). A guy who ZiPS projects for 28 homers, 18 stolen bases, and a .486 slugging percentage over 515 plate appearances were he to make the big club this year. Meet Javier Baez, the top prospect of the Chicago Cub’s farm system, and no. 7 across baseball according to Keith Law’s Top 100 Rankings.
The Puerto Rican split 2013 across High-A and Double-A, raking at both levels to post a final triple slash line of .282/.341/.578, crushing 37 HRs in the process. It bears repeating, this is a shortstop – widely regarded as the lightest hitting position of all – drawing Gary Sheffield comparisons. So how does Baez hit for so much power relative to his frame?
“Baez has the best bat speed of any hitter in the minors right now, and the ball explodes off his bat like he’s splitting atoms with contact.” – Keith Law, ESPN.com Insider.
And you don’t have to simply take the word of Law if you’re not an ESPN insider.
Even in slow motion, Baez’s bat is a blur. And if you’re wondering where that specific pitch ended up, well, it went a long way.
Alongside Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant, and Jorge Soler, Baez is quite simply, the future of the Cubs. Unfortunately for that rare breed of tortured fans who bleed cubbie blue, it’s unlikely that Baez sees significant time up in the majors in 2014. Though his monstrous stats (and GIFs) suggest otherwise, there is still significant room for improvement. The aggressive approach that produced so many dingers also led to 147 strikeouts over 130 games, which in combination with his meagre 40 walks, suggests Baez still has plenty to work on regarding his plate discipline.
Then there’s the fielding issue. Playing exclusively at shortstop, Baez recorded 44 errors last year. While he has the tools to succeed at the position, boasting a plus arm and solid instincts, Baez is still prone to pressing – leading to unseasoned mistakes. Much like his approach to breaking balls, his fielding will improve with more repetitions, one of the reasons why Baez will be starting the year at Triple-A Iowa. In an announcement at the close of the Cubs Convention, Jason McLeod – director of scouting and player development for the club – said of the decision to keep their prized asset down, “Our goal for Javy is to have him play shortstop for as long as he possibly can”.
And while Cubs fans might protest, the decision makes sense. With Starlin Castro firmly entrenched at the shortstop position, it’s no surprise that Chicago has opted to further develop Baez – who purportedly will also take reps at second and third base – while simultaneously suppressing his service time. At this point, barring anything drastic, it seems safe to predict we won’t see the prodigious slugger until at least the second half of the season. While Baez is saying all the right things – “I just have to be patient, work hard and do my routine every day… It is tough, but once you keep working, it will happen.” – you can bet he’ll be smarting to make an immediate impact when his time comes. I wouldn’t want to be a pitcher in the Pacific Coast League until that moment arrives.
I Have A Good Feeling About This Year.
— Javier Báez (@javy23baez) January 25, 2014