What kind of teams improve by 25-plus games and what happens to those teams the next season?
PECOTA projected the Twins for 78 wins this season, which seemed so optimistic and caused so many “huh?!” responses coming off a disastrous 59-103 season that I felt the need to write an entire article explaining the number. (The projection was even higher initially, but dropped from 80 to 78 following Trevor May’s second-ending elbow injury.) I expressed skepticism, going step-by-step through the individual projections and pegging the Twins more in the range of 75 wins, but then concluded my “PECOTA and the Twins, Sitting in a Tree” article from mid-February by writing:
Albert Pujols, Joe Carter, and the worst 100-RBI seasons of all time.
Albert Pujols is on pace for 106 RBIs. Albert Pujols has been one of the worst players in baseball this season.
I've already written about the deterioration of Pujols’ production at age 37 and with $125 million left on his contract, so I’ll try to avoid rehashing all of that now. However, the idea of a 100-RBI season being a bad season—not just mediocre or overrated, but truly bad—is interesting to me. The collective fight against RBI as a worthwhile measure of a hitter’s value has mostly been won at this point, but throughout the 1990s and even the early 2000s it remained a struggle. There are still plenty of holdouts, some of whom will perhaps get in touch with me regarding the claim that Pujols is having a bad season.
Minnesota is winning despite no expectations, shaky pitching, and the league's youngest lineup.
No one expected the Twins to be good this season. Competitive? Maybe. Decent enough to create hope for the future? Definitely. But actually good? No way. Minnesota was coming off a disastrous 59-103 year. Las Vegas pegged their over/under win total at 74.5. PECOTA projected them for 78 wins, and that was the most optimistic Twins projection you could find. They started the season surprisingly well, but a very rough stretch after the All-Star break left the Twins three games below .500 and pushed their playoff odds down to a season-low 5.3 percent on July 31.
And so they became sellers, trading Jaime Garciato the Yankees less than a week after acquiring him from the Braves, and sending All-Star closer Brandon Kintzlerto the Nationals. Neither deal brought back huge value, but because Minnesota was barely clinging to the periphery of Wild Card contention there was plenty of logic in trading a pair of impending free agents for three mid-level pitching prospects. After all, no one expected the Twins to be good. Staying above .500 for the entire first half was an accomplishment in itself, and now that they’d come back down to earth the focus on 2018 and beyond could resume.
Because the Astros needed another young star infielder, apparently.
It’s difficult for a former no. 2 overall pick and top-50 prospect to be overshadowed in their own infield while thriving in their first full season as a big leaguer, but such is life playing alongside Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Alex Bregman takes a clear backseat in Houston’s deep, powerful, MLB-best lineup, not only to star infield-mates Altuve and Correa, but also to George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, and at times Yulieski Gurriel, Carlos Beltran, and Josh Reddick. Bregman has spent much of the year batting seventh or eighth, only recently becoming a semi-regular in the top five spots with Correa on the disabled list.
Yet at age 23, he’s hit .270/.342/.473 with 21 homers and 71 total extra-base hits through his first 162 career games, totaling 4.1 WARP in one complete season’s worth of playing time. How does a player like Bregman make short work of the minors after being a top draft pick and consensus top prospect, and then live up to the considerable hype in the majors, all while flying under the radar? Having the best-hitting teammates in baseball plays a large part, certainly, but his initial struggles upon being called up last season also seemed to take Bregman’s hype off the burner and for whatever reason it’s still cooling.
After years of swinging at everything and frustrating everyone, Rosario may have had an epiphany.
Paul Molitor has always been a believer in Eddie Rosario’s swing. As a roving hitting instructor, Molitor worked with Rosario in the minors as far back as 2010, saying later that the left-handed hitter’s “ability to square up the ball” immediately caught his eye. Molitor replaced Ron Gardenhire as Twins manager in 2015, and during his first spring training at the helm he praised Rosario’s hitting ability on a daily basis. At the time Rosario was 23 years old and coming off a disappointing Double-A season in which he hit just .243/.286/.387 and was suspended 50 games for marijuana use, but Molitor believed.
Early that May the Twins needed outfield reinforcements and at Molitor’s urging they bypassed Aaron Hicks to call up Rosario, who was hitting just .242/.280/.379 with a 17/5 K/BB ratio in 23 games at Triple-A. For all the talk about his upside, Rosario had a sub-.700 OPS above Single-A for his career and it had been around 18 months since he was a productive hitter at any level, but as Molitor explained: “I wanted to give Eddie an opportunity to get up here. I’ve been around him enough to know that for that kid, it’s just been a matter of him learning to apply himself a little bit more consistently, and I think he’s been doing that.”
They're too good for the minors, but haven't stuck in the majors yet.
We have articles every day analyzing major leaguers and our prospect team does a fantastic job covering actual prospects, but there’s a player type that inevitably falls through the cracks. They’re too old to be considered prospects and have been deemed too flawed to be regulars in the majors, at least right now, but they’re also too good for the minors. Call them Quadruple-A guys or stat-head favorites or any number of other things. You know the type. In decades past BP championed the causes of hitters like Roberto Petagine and Erubiel Durazo, and before that Bill James (but definitely not Frank Costanza) had Ken Phelps.
Every once in awhile I get curious about those guys, if only because someone ought to be checking in on them. In looking over the current candidates I’m not sure that anyone warrants a full-blown “FREE HIM!” campaign like the old days—perhaps teams have just gotten better about giving them opportunities?—but plenty of intriguing names are having big seasons mostly out of sight. Below is my attempt to build the best lineup from Triple-A hitters who are at least 25 years old and have spent most or all of this season in the minors, with a focus on players I think could actually be assets to major-league teams.
Every contender needs rotation help and there are plenty of big-name starters potentially available.
If your favorite team is at or above .500, odds are you think they should add starting pitching help before the trade deadline. And they probably agree. As part of the Cubs’ surprisingly difficult fight to rise above .500 and properly defend their title, they kicked off the festivities by acquiring left-hander Jose Quintana (and his team-friendly contract) from the White Sox for a four-prospect package led by Single-A slugger Eloy Jimenez. Which other rotation-boosting arms may be on the move? Here’s my best guess at the top starters who could realistically be available before the trade deadline, and the pros and cons of each.
Trea Turner's first 162 games have featured some greatness, some goodness, and a few remaining questions.
No matter what happens during Trea Turner’s career on the field, he forever left his mark off the field by motivating Major League Baseball to change the way it handles trades of recent draft picks—the Trea Turner Rule, unofficially. Turner was drafted 13th overall by the Padres in 2014 out of North Carolina State, where he hit .342 with 113 steals in 173 games. After signing quickly for $2.9 million, he debuted by hitting .323 with 23 steals in 69 games between rookie-ball and low Single-A, establishing himself as a consensus top-100 prospect right away. And then that winter the Padres traded him. Sort of.
New general manager A.J. Preller was hell-bent on turning a 77-85 team into an immediate winner, giving up prospects, young major leaguers, and piles of cash to bring in Craig Kimbrel, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Matt Kemp, James Shields, Melvin Upton, and Derek Norris, among others. Myers was acquired from the Rays in a three-team blockbuster that involved Turner being dealt to the Nationals. However, because he was just six months removed from signing and MLB rules prohibited draft picks from being traded for a full year, Turner’s inclusion in the swap had to be masked as a “player to be named later.”
Minnesota's hitting and defense look ready for prime time, but the pitching remains a mess.
Monday was an off day for the Twins, and boy did they need it. As of Friday night they sat atop the American League Central, the unlikely owners of a 34-29 record following a disastrous 103-loss season. Then the second-place Indians came to town for a three-day, four-game series at Target Field and swept the Twins out of first place, thoroughly thrashing Minnesota by a 28-8 aggregate score. In less than 48 hours the Twins went from surprising division leaders to looking like merely something that the defending American League champions had to step over on their inevitable climb back to the playoffs.
Albert Pujols is one of the greatest players of all time, but the Cardinals version and the Angels version have been much different.
As a teenager, I took an annual trip to Arizona with my uncle to watch baseball. It started with going to spring training in March, but later we opted for the Arizona Fall League in November and I came to enjoy those trips even more. There were rarely more than a few hundred people in the stands, and the game results themselves mattered little; it was all about prospects furthering their development. As a young baseball fan who had begun down the path to baseball obsessive, I spent weeks before every trip reading up on prospects so that I’d know who to look for, and could impress my uncle with tidbits about players.
Our last trip to Arizona was in 2000. I was 17 years old and had started reading Baseball Prospectus, Rob Neyer, Baseball America, and old-school Bill James, so I was fully prepared for serious prospect spotting. Three times during our week-long stay we saw Albert Pujols' team. We sat a couple of rows behind the first-base dugout, which gave us an excellent view of the 20-year-old third baseman. I remember my uncle immediately making note of how huge Pujols was for the position. I dumped my prospect notebook, telling him that Pujols was a former 13th-round pick who crushed Single-A to get on the prospect map.
Taking stock of the Twins' young outfielder after his first 162 games in the majors.
Max Kepler was a project, albeit an expensive one. He left Germany as a 16-year-old in 2009 to sign with the Twins for $800,000, the largest bonus ever given to a European-born amateur. Back then Kepler was a lanky center fielder who oozed athleticism, raw tools, and inexperience, and for the next several years the Twins set about trying to mold him into an actual baseball player. Kepler made his pro debut in 2010 and spent three seasons in rookie-ball, upping his OPS there from .689 to .714 to .925, at which point the Twins promoted him to low Single-A for 2013.