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2016 Report Cards: Infield

As the newly installed Minnesota Twins leadership navigates its first offseason, the challenge is twofold: evaluating the personnel already in place, while supplementing and improving the existing core.

As we await more movement on the latter front, let's review the roster that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are inheriting, and how it fared in the most recent season.
Image courtesy of Rick Osentoski, USA Today
We'll start our case-by-case review of the 2016 Twins with a look at the infield. Each player who accrued at least 50 plate appearances, and remains in the organization currently, gets a write-up below.

Brian Dozier, 2B
2016 Stats: 691 PA, .268/.340/.546, 42 HR, 99 RBI, 104 R, 5.9 WAR
Contract Status: Signed through 2018 for $15 million

Dozier easily had the best season of any Twin, and in fact his performance measures as one of the best in franchise history. He was a one-man wrecking crew, piling up 82 extra-base hits (tied with Colorado's Nolan Arenado for third-most in the majors) while swiping 18 bases on 20 attempts. He filled the stat sheet and single-handedly produced offense in a way we've rarely seen.

For this elite power to come from a middle infield position, along with steady and occasionally spectacular glove work at second base, only increases the relative value of Dozier's output. In a sea of disappointing performances, the veteran clubhouse leader delivered one for the ages – which sadly would do little to stem the tide for an historically inept team.

2016 Grade: A+

2017 Outlook: If he's still here, Dozier will enter 2017 as the featured centerpiece in a powerful lineup. Will he continue to bat leadoff, as he did for every game in August and September, or move to a more traditional run-producing spot at the heart of the order?

Eduardo Escobar, SS
2016 Stats: 377 PA, .236/.280/.338, 6 HR, 37 RBI, 32 R, -0.6 WAR
Contract Status: Signed through 2017 for $2.6 million

It was a rough year for Escobar. Just when it appeared he had found a home at shortstop, overtaking the position in 2015 and earning an Opening Day nod this past spring, he was derailed by middling production, injuries, and the emergence of an exciting rookie who captured the manager's favor.

By season's end, he had fallen back into his familiar old utility role. In September and October, only two of his 19 starts came at shortstop, and he dragged across the finish line offensively with a brutal .348 OPS. The 27-year-old bottomed out at the exact wrong time, reflected by a meager $500,000 raise this offseason.

2016 Grade: D-

2017 Outlook: Escobar is undoubtedly as motivated as ever to bounce back and prove himself next year, but as things stand he will be heading to camp as a backup, capable of filling in around the diamond.

Joe Mauer, 1B
2016 Stats: 576 PA, .261/.363/.389, 11 HR, 49 RBI, 68 R, 1.0 WAR
Contract Status: Signed through 2018 for $46 million

In some ways, Mauer revived hope in his ability to be a solid contributor. Following a 2015 season that was the worst of his career, he raised his OPS back to a respectable level while matching his highest home run total (11) since the MVP campaign in 2009. His walk rate rebounded to 13.7 percent, placing him among the league leaders, and as a result he led all Twins regulars with a .363 OBP.

In other ways, though, 2016 was a reaffirmation of Mauer's diminished ability. The three-time batting champion saw his batting average drop for a third straight year, sinking to a career-low .261. His characteristically pedestrian home run total was accompanied by only 22 doubles, his fewest in a full season. Defensively he was nothing special.

2016 Grade: C

2017 Outlook: Turning 34 next March, Mauer remains entrenched at first base by virtue of his contract and reputation, but reduced playing time will be a very real possibility if his bat shows little life in the early part of the season.

John Ryan Murphy, C
2016 Stats: 82 PA, .146/.193/.220, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 4 R, -0.5 WAR
Contract Status: Pre-arbitration, under team control for ~$550K in 2017

With Kurt Suzuki and Juan Centeno moving on, Murphy is the only member of the 2016 Minnesota catching group set to return. Unfortunately, he was also the worst performer. After starting his Twins career with a 3-for-40 slump, Murphy was demoted to Triple-A, where he continued to hit poorly. He posted a .609 OPS in Rochester, then returned to the majors as a September call-up, collecting three hits in his triumphant return and then finishing out 6-for-38.

It was, from any perspective, a disastrous first year for a player whose offensive capabilities were always more hypothetical than material. Defensively he is above-average, with strong athleticism behind the plate, but he doesn't shine enough there to offset the staggering lack of production we've seen since his acquisition. Not even close.

2016 Grade: F

2017 Outlook: Barring further moves, Murphy figures to slot in as the backup to Jason Castro. Most of his starts will hopefully come against lefties. If the bat doesn't turn around quickly, then I'd expect Falvey and Levine (who of course played no part in trading for Murphy) to move on quickly.

Byung Ho Park, 1B
2016 Stats: 244 PA, .191/.275/.409, 12 HR, 24 RBI, 28 R, 0.1 WAR
Contract Status: Signed through 2019 for $9.25 million

Along with Murphy, Park was Minnesota's biggest offseason splash a year ago. The fact that both players spent large chunks of the season in Triple-A certainly glares as an indictment of Terry Ryan and his efforts to bolster an 83-win team. Park, though, was not quite as discouraging a case.

The vaunted power was there, clearly. There were some memorable, mammoth shots among the dozen that the South Korean slugger sent over the fence during his time with the Twins. But he was generally overmatched by MLB pitching, and his average sagged until it dropped below .200 and he was demoted in early July. In Triple-A, the story was much the same – great power accompanied by little else – until he underwent season-ending hand surgery.

The ailment that placed him under the knife – a damaged tendon in his right hand – bothered him in addition to wrist tendinitis, and certainly might help explain his difficulties swinging the stick. He was also acclimating to a new league, a new country and a new culture. And consider this: if Park exchanged 10 strikeouts for 10 singles during his time in Minnesota, his line turns to .237/.316/.456. That's the kind of production you can live with from a DH.

2016 Grade: D

2017 Outlook: Park will likely be ticketed for Triple-A initially next spring, but it would be no shock if a big showing earns him the DH job with Minnesota. Generating more contact will be the decisive factor.

Jorge Polanco, SS
2016 Stats: 270 PA, .282/.332/.424, 4 HR, 27 RBI, 24 R, -0.1 WAR
Contract Status: Pre-arbitration, under team control for ~$550K in 2017

Finally breaking through after cups of coffee in 2014 and 2015, Polanco enjoyed a very successful rookie season. He consistently made contact, put up strong numbers, and operated as the everyday shortstop in the final months.

There is plenty to like about the 23-year-old's offensive profile. He swings from both sides, makes plenty of contact and sprays line drives. But his ceiling at the plate is limited, and his proper home in the infield is very much in question. Polanco's aptitude at shortstop, a position he had mostly stopped playing in the minors, was iffy at best.

2016 Grade: B

2017 Outlook: He has arrived, no doubt about that. Based on the demonstrated preferences of Paul Molitor, Polanco is the favorite to start at shortstop for now. But with the team focusing intensely on run prevention, the wisdom of plugging in a blatant defensive liability at the infield's most important position is suspect. Of course, a Dozier trade would open up Polanco's ideal spot.

Miguel Sano, RF/3B
2016 Stats: 495 PA, .236/.319/.462, 25 HR, 66 RBI, 57 R, 1.3 WAR
Contract Status: Pre-arbitration, under team control for ~$550K in 2017

It was a disappointing sophomore season for Sano, but only in the shadow of his prodigious talent and the incredibly high bar he set as a rookie. Without that context, a .781 OPS and 25 jacks from a 23-year-old who fell just short of 500 plate appearances due to injury ain't bad at all.

Sano started the year miscast as an outfielder, and spent the second half alternating between DH and third base, where he managed to commit 15 errors in 42 starts. Cleaning up his defense, and lowering his egregious 36 percent K-rate, will be critical in taking the step to stardom.

2016 Grade: B-

2017 Outlook: The decision to release Trevor Plouffe was an indication that the Twins are ready to move forward with Sano at the hot corner, despite his mistake-prone showing in 2016. Lessons learned from the trials he faced should lead to greater resolve and focus moving forward. He remains an MVP-caliber talent at the dish.

Kennys Vargas, 1B
2016 Stats: 177 PA, .230/.333/.500, 10 HR, 20 RBI, 27 R, 0.6 WAR
Contract Status: Pre-arbitration, under team control for ~$550K in 2017

It's been quite the rollercoaster ride for Vargas. He burst onto the scene with a prolific MLB debut as a September call-up in 2014, then opened as designated hitter the following season. He nearly played his way out of the team's plans during the ensuing summer, with an embarrassing demotion to Double-A speaking loudly.

He opened 2016 in Rochester and started slow, then heated up in May and June, earning his way back to the majors. Upon returning, he tore it up for six weeks, got demoted due to a roster crunch, then came back in September and slumped.

With all the ups and downs, it's tough to know what to make of Vargas. But this much is evident: he's a big switch-hitter with immense raw power, whose walk rate (13.6%) and Isolated Power (.270) would have both ranked near the top of the league if had he qualified.

His uneven performance carried many positive signs, but time is running out for the 26-year-old. As a guy whose sole value proposition is mashing the ball, he needs to start doing so with a lot more consistency.

2016 Grade: B

2017 Outlook: Having been optioned to the minors three times already, Vargas would typically be in a position next spring where he'd need to head north with the Twins or be exposed to waivers. But the club successfully petitioned for a fourth option year (per Mike Berardino) so sending him back to Triple-A is on the table. The door is open for signing a plug-in at DH; otherwise, it might come down to a Grapefruit League competition between Vargas and Park.


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45 Comments

Very generous grades. Glass half full, if you ask me.
    • Thrylos, TheLeviathan, mikelink45 and 1 other like this

Very generous grades. Glass half full, if you ask me.


Generous on who? These sound mostly fair to me though I think I'd give Sano a C based on defense pulling down that offensive B-. I think we want to grade the offence worse than we should as a whole based on the record where as we had an OK offence with terrible pitching.

Going to the War ratings on ESPN - Dozier is easily an A, he ranks number 10 in the overall, all position, rankings.  At second base he is third behind Altuve and Cano, and not much above Kinsler (Fangraphs).  

Fangraphs has Mauer 18 out of 23 1B.  My curve does not have that a C, maybe a C- would work, but that is slipping the curve quite low.

We do not have a SS in the ranked 23 so I would say that Escobar was an F this year and Polanco showed bat, but not glove and therefore is a C. 

Miguel Sano earned 1.3 war, just a notch above what Danny Valenzia had at number 22 on the 3B rankings.  If Sano were DH he would have ranked 9th and I would give him a better grade, but as a 3B he is a C at best and I have a hard time going that high with his K's, his Errors. 

At Catcher Murphy deserves his F.

Vargas continues to show potential, but was only here a little while and had to spend too much time in AAA so give him a D.

Park gets an F. 

 

Not high grades, but based on Fangraphs this would be my report card for the infield. 

    • Lefty74 likes this
I would withhold the plus from Doziers grade due to his and the team's soul crushing start.
    • Thrylos and TheLeviathan like this
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theBOMisthebomb
Dec 27 2016 09:17 AM
Hard to disagree with your analysis. My only issue is with the Park grade of D. We found out he might have been hurt frome the get go and he still posted a 0.1 WAR. That feels like a C grade and I'm still bullish on Park's future.
    • Thrylos, Oldgoat_MN and HitInAPinch like this

Anyone know why Vargas was given a 4th option year? Seems unfair to him on some levels.

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EddieMatthews
Dec 27 2016 11:12 AM

 

Very generous grades. Glass half full, if you ask me.

I agree, very generous.  Dozier didn't break .800 on OPS, and is an average defender.  His BA although career best is still Maueresce.  Maybe if he were in the 3 hole his numbers would have been better.  

 

I agree on Mauer, so I would use him as a standard for Polenco, Sano, Vargas.  No one should get a B if they cannot hit for the MLB average, field to the MLB average, and make MLB plays such as knowing which base to throw to, where to take cutoff throws, and put the ball in play.

 

These guys need to stay after school to bring their grades up to C.

Well written, Nick.

 

I could drop a grade or two by a third (is that how +/- works?) here and there, but overall agree.

Thank you for the article and hard work Nick, much appreciated. But with exceptions of Cozier and Mayer, IMO, you could almost give the entire remaining infield a grade of "incomplete."

I get that things go wrong sometimes and guys get hurt, but for various reasons, the entire infield was unsettled almost the entire year. At the risk of repetition:

Escobar: injured and stuck on the bench behind other guys not bitten by the bug.

Sano: the entire RAF fiasco to begin with

Park: Korean import and hurt almost all season.

Vargas: flashes but still no long term, consistent playing time and a ridiculous roster crunch demotion.

Polanco: young and talented but still a rookie and playing mostly SS. ..a spot he hadn't played all season!

This is not to bash the players, FO, Monitor or anyone. Rather, to me, it's a glass is half full scenario. Imagine some health, guys actually playing where they should and being used properly,and maybe/probably one more infield option brought in. Even with the trade if Dozier, we could be looking at a much improved infield in 2017.
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mickeymental
Dec 27 2016 12:05 PM

it boggles the mind to think that a 103-loss team could have enough "roster crunch" to keep from taking an extended major-league look at vargas.

    • Oldgoat_MN likes this
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howieramone2
Dec 27 2016 12:14 PM

 

it boggles the mind to think that a 103-loss team could have enough "roster crunch" to keep from taking an extended major-league look at vargas.

All he has to do is beat out Sano at DH.

 

it boggles the mind to think that a 103-loss team could have enough "roster crunch" to keep from taking an extended major-league look at vargas.

 

The problem is we have too many players who can only play 1B, which will continue to be a problem this year regardless of win-loss record.

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mickeymental
Dec 27 2016 12:56 PM

 

All he has to do is beat out Sano at DH.

maybe so for 2017. but for 2016, when the alleged "crunch" occurred, sano was splitting his time pretty evenly between rf/3b/dh/dl. seems like the twins missed a chance during a lost season to find out a lot more about the potential for vargas's future either as a contributor or a trade chip ...

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howieramone2
Dec 27 2016 01:12 PM

 

maybe so for 2017. but for 2016, when the alleged "crunch" occurred, sano was splitting his time pretty evenly between rf/3b/dh/dl. seems like the twins missed a chance during a lost season to find out a lot more about the potential for vargas's future either as a contributor or a trade chip ...

Vargas has no trade value. Remember, they tried to sell him overseas.

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mickeymental
Dec 27 2016 01:29 PM

 

Vargas has no trade value. Remember, they tried to sell him overseas.

again, maybe so -- he's already 26 and might have washed out with more plate appearances. but he's also a switch hitter who posted an .833 ops (while showing flashes of ability from both sides of the plate during three seasons of limited play). hard to establish "trade value" when you're seen as a aaaa player ...

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Nick Nelson
Dec 27 2016 01:51 PM

For what it's worth, in his report about Vargas getting a fourth option last month, Berardino also mentioned that Vargas "was drawing some trade interest." I tend to think that the strengths mentioned in his write-up (switch-hitter sporting patience and power from an intimidating physique) would catch the eyes of a team, but obviously no one is giving up much of consequence for him at this point.

 

Anyone know why Vargas was given a 4th option year? Seems unfair to him on some levels.

I too wonder about this. I haven't heard any explanation. There doesn't seem to be anything all that unique about his situation. He was added to the 40-man after 2013, was optioned in each of the next three years. I guess he must have met both criteria here? http://screencast.com/t/fQXjIBcU

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bluechipper
Dec 27 2016 01:56 PM

 

I agree, very generous.  Dozier didn't break .800 on OPS, and is an average defender.  His BA although career best is still Maueresce.  Maybe if he were in the 3 hole his numbers would have been better.  

 

I agree on Mauer, so I would use him as a standard for Polenco, Sano, Vargas.  No one should get a B if they cannot hit for the MLB average, field to the MLB average, and make MLB plays such as knowing which base to throw to, where to take cutoff throws, and put the ball in play.

 

These guys need to stay after school to bring their grades up to C.

Brian Dozier had an .886 OPS and was 1 HR short of the MLB record for HRs by a 2B. That's a no question A+.

    • howieramone2 likes this
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bluechipper
Dec 27 2016 01:59 PM

Miguel Sano deserves some sort of a pass for the RF thing, but he was still disappointing last year, and a grade in the C range seems more appropriate.

I don't know that I can give Dozier an A+. Yes, 42 homeruns is a ton, especially for a 2b. But he got that with a "greatest of all time" type second half. He was awful. Like questioning if he needs to be sent down for a week or 2 awful for the first half. Consistency has to count for something. And batting average has to count for something. Putting up out of this world numbers when your team is completely out of it is only impressive to an extent. He was expecting this team to compete when the season started and felt that he needed to be a big part of that. And he was at the head of the line when it came to not performing to start the year. I'd give him an A-. Still by far the best player, but being bellow replacement level for the first couple months has to hurt him a little. Cuz it really hurt the team.

​I'd guess it's also a big part of the reason we aren't seeing huge interest in him. The Dodgers and Cardinals are the 2 teams he makes the most sense for. And they're both really smart front offices. You can't fool them by just throwing 42 homeruns in their face and expect them to dish out 3 of their top 10 guys. 42 homeruns is not sustainable. The best chance for a huge return for Dozier is to keep him and hope he gets off to a huge start knowing there's no pressure this year cuz the team is expected to suck. If he hits 20 in the first half you'll get 3 top 5 to 7 prospects from a team with an injury or just a need for some right handed pop. Mark Trumbo is a much better option for a team just looking for right handed power as he'll "only" cost a 1st round pick and it appears that his price tag isn't going to be that high as him and every other big right handed bat not named Cespedes seems to have terribly misread the market this winter.

Dozier (primarily leadoff): .546 SLG, 42 HR, 99 RBI.
Mauer (primarily 3-Hole): .389 SLG, 11 HR, 49 RBI.

Name one other team that is this stubborn.
    • Oldgoat_MN, Sconnie, DocBauer and 1 other like this

Mauer tied his highest home run total (11) since the MVP campaign in 2009, i.e. one less than Park had in 244 PA.

 

 

    • Broker likes this

Sano's grade is high but I think the rest of the grades are very close to what I would assign. 

 

Sano was not terrible but let's face it, we expect a lot more from him. 

    • bluechipper likes this
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TheLeviathan
Dec 27 2016 07:44 PM

Grades are a bit bullish, especially relative to expectations set out at the start of 2016.  

 

All he has to do is beat out Sano at DH.

He did. Vargas had a .833 OPS to Sano's .781 OPS.

 

(Almost) no team in baseball would think Vargas had an inferior year.

    • Sconnie likes this
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Lee-The-Twins-Fan
Dec 27 2016 09:24 PM

Murphy's 'F' grade should be an incomplete. He only had 82 PA. Yes, he hit poorly, and then was sent down. 

 

The only other one I'd question is Kennys Vargas' 'B' grade. I'd probably give him a B- or C+. He also didn't have a lot of PA. I'm amazed at his stats – .230 BA, .333 on base and .500 slugging, for an .833 OPS. You wouldn't think that of a .230 hitter.

 

Maybe he is worth a 'B' after all...

    • Oldgoat_MN likes this

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