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Matt Magill DFAd

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The 5 Biggest Twins Surprises at the All-Star Break

Needless to say, the Twins have – in general – been a huge surprise this year. Even the most starry-eyed optimist could not have predicted in March that at the All-Star break, they'd be ahead in the division by 5 1/2 games, on pace to win 102 and shatter the MLB home run record.

Within this shocking success, there have been several unexpected developments. Here are my picks for the five biggest (good) surprises so far in 2019.
Image courtesy of Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
1. Twins catchers lead the American League in OPS... by a mile.

Minnesota's backstop position, fueled primarily by the production of Mitch Garver and Jason Castro, has yielded a .913 OPS through 89 games. That's 41 points higher than second-place Seattle, and 111 higher than the third-place White Sox. Twins catchers lead all counterparts with 24 home runs.

This, to me, is the runaway winner for most surprising twist of the 2019 campaign. Back in the spring we were viewing this unit as a relative question mark, with Garver trying to back up a solid (concussion-punctuated) rookie campaign, and Castro coming off major knee surgery at 31. It's almost unfortunate that Castro's remarkably resurgent season – his current .860 OPS exceeds his previous career-best of .835, set when he was a 26-year-old All-Star back in 2013 – has been overshadowed by the theatrics of Garver, who's already almost doubled his rookie home run total in just 44 games. Not only has Garver been an all-around beast, rocking a .984 OPS that ranks 10th among MLB hitters with 150+ PA, but he's been incredibly clutch, slashing .417/.475/.778 with RISP, and his defensive improvements have been staggering.

2. Jake Odorizzi has allowed only 10 home runs.

He hasn't been the best in the rotation at limiting the long ball; Martin Perez has given up only seven. But that's always been a strength for the groundballing left-hander. Odorizzi has always been an extreme fly ball pitcher and, by the time Minnesota acquired him, it appeared his susceptibility to the home run might derail his career. In 2016, he gave up 29 homers in 188 2/3 innings (1.4 HR/9) and in 2017 he surrendered 30 in 143 1/3 innings (1.9 HR/9).

This year, Odorizzi has given up just 10 home runs in 88 2/3 innings, good for a 1.0 HR/9 rate. And that's AFTER allowing six in his past four starts. That Odorizzi has managed an above-average HR rate while giving up the most fly balls of any starter in the league (50.9%), in an era where balls are flying out of the park like never before, is completely bonkers. Consider that Justin Verlander, who will start Tuesday night's All-Star Game for the AL, has already given up 26 bombs at the break. His previous career high is 30. (He's uh... none too happy about this.)

Odorizzi's proclivity for keeping it in the yard seems plainly unsustainable from a statistical standpoint, and maybe it is. Perhaps his recent flare-up is a sign of what's to come in the second half. But I will point out two things: 1) He's been dealing with a blister lately, and 2) His stinginess extends back beyond this year, to the bulk of 2018. Odorizzi allowed only six homers in 20 starts after June 1st last year. Add those innings to this year's sample and he's surrendered just 16 bombs in his last 190 innings, all while yielding a constant stream of fly balls in the most homer-happy era in MLB history. Nuts.

3. Ryne. Freaking. Harper.

I can't believe it's taken me this long to get to him, but that just speaks to the ridiculous nature of the two accomplishments above. Harper has been nothing short of a godsend and, all things considered, one of the best Twins signings in memory. At a time where the team desperately needed right-handed relief help (especially because, unbeknownst to them, they'd be getting almost nothing collectively from Addison Reed, Trevor Hildenberger and Fernando Romero), the front office landed an absolute stud in the form of a 30-year-old minor-league signing, with zero major-league experience.

Harper has been fantastic from any perspective. His 2.92 ERA and 1.05 WHIP are pristine, as is the 38-to-8 K/BB ratio in 37 innings. Major-league batters are slashing just .223/.267/.353 against him, and this is all with his numbers being negatively skewed by a June outing where he gave up three runs in the 18th inning because Rocco Baldelli was forced to call on him for a third straight day.

This is an instance of self-scouting more than anything, as the Twins had Harper all last year in the minors. But they deserve plenty of credit for bringing him back, giving him a spring training invite, and believing in the validity of his stellar Grapefruit League results. His final appearance before the break, in which he notched a career-high four strikeouts with seven swings-and-misses on 15 pitches, looked to be an emphatic statement that his amazing first half was no flash in the pan.

4. Luis Arraez has all but locked up the second base job for 2020.

Coming into this season, Arraez was more of a fun novelty than legitimate prospect. He didn't make our preseason Top 20 Prospects list, appearing instead as an honorable mention, because the general sentiment was that – despite his undeniably amazing contact skills and lovable scrappiness – he lacked the power and athleticism to be an impact guy at the next level. Arraez has spent his entire season proving us all wrong.

In 54 games between Double-A and Triple-A, he hit .344/.409/.401. And it's a little tough to envision him going back down, given his .393/.453/.524 line in 95 plate appearances with the Twins. Despite having turned 22 in April, he looks mature beyond his years at the plate, swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone than any Minnesota batter other than Garver, with a lower whiff rate than even Willians Astudillo. As a result, he's drawn more walks than strikeouts, and he sprays liners all over the field.

In other words, there's been nothing artificial about Arraez's instant success, although obviously he's not gonna be a .400 hitter. And the sudden emergence of a hinting power – he has two home runs with the Twins, after totaling six in 367 minor-league games – suggests that further upside may be lurking. As a point of comparison, the previous tenant at second base, Brian Dozier, was hitting zero home runs in 58 games at rookie ball when he was the same age as Arraez is now. As we've seen time and time again, pop tends to come on late. It wouldn't take much to turn Arraez – who was on basically no one's radar four months ago – into a young MLB star.

With Jonathan Schoop due for a free agency after the season, I'm thinking Minnesota's plans are all but set for next year at second.

5. Byron Buxton is striking out at lower rate than the MLB average.

For years, we all dreamed about how fun it would be if Buxton – someway, somehow – could turn himself into a contact hitter, fully weaponizing that elite speed by putting the ball in play at a high clip. Sadly, the notion seemed to be just that: a dream, of the pipy variety. In parts of four previous MLB seasons, Buxton had posted the following strikeout percentages: 31.9%, 35.6%, 29.4%, 30.0%. From 2015 through 2018, his K-rate was seventh-highest out of 287 hitters to make 1,000+ PA in the majors.

It seemed the best realistic hope was a modest decrease, into the solidly higher-than-average range. This still could've easily made Buxton a star (he gained MVP votes with a 29.4% K-rate in 2017). Instead, he has completely remade himself at the plate, cutting down on whiffs to a drastic degree with only 59 strikeouts in 260 plate appearances. That's a 22.7% rate – fractionally lower than the big-league average of 22.8%.

As a guy who lifts the ball at a higher rate than anyone else on the team, and has otherworldly speed, I'd expect a higher BABIP for Buxton than his current .302. Which is to say I think there's more in the tank, even though he's been tremendous as is, with an .816 OPS and 24 doubles at the break. As long as he can stay healthy, I believe Buxton will be the team's top MVP contender without question by year's end.


~~~


I've obviously left plenty of other surprises on the table. Jorge Polanco is an All-Star. Max Kepler has already set a career high in home runs (this one wasn't THAT surprising to me). Ehire Adrianza has raked. Eddie Rosario is on pace for 36 homers and 109 RBIs. Eight different players are on pace for more than 3.4 fWAR, which was Rosario's final mark last year when we named him team MVP.

What positive developments have caught you off-guard in the first half? Sound off in the comments.

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31 Comments

Great article. Every year is full of surprises and disappointments, but boy, this season has been chock-full of them. Let's hope the second half is full of surprises as well. Good surprises, that is.

    • bighat and MN_ExPat like this
Great article indeed! But boy do I feel a need to comment!

1] Twins catcher leading the AL in OPS:

NOT surprised. I often commented why everyone thought Castro was going to be the #1 guy over Garver. I've always thought Garver was for real. And despite some ups and downs offensively...let him just be healthy because you've seen what he can do...i felt Astudillo would help. If there is a surprise here, and I guess there is, is how well Castro has come back from his surgery. I think he has shown now what he is, a really good catcher who performs best when not asked to play daily.

My problem here is, I'd love to bring Castro back on a 2yr or 1+1 deal. But no way back at his current salary. He's probably made twice as much $ on his current 3yr deal with the Twins...no, I'm not checking just speculating...but would someone be enticed to offer him a fairly decent contract for a few years? Or would they be scared by age and what is s til so-so overall career numbers? Would a 2yr $2.5-3M due it for an over 30yo catcher? Or am I dreaming?

2] Odorizzi:

He was a top prospect who pitched well but never great. The Twins got him cheap. Be had a good but not great 2018, despite a pretty strong finish. However, his final ranking numbers surprised me. A year older, approaching the age where a lot of pitchers really "get it" based on experience, with a new manager and PC, we are seeing real growth. I believe we are seeing the start to a 3-4yr stretch where he will be at his best. I'd really like to keep him.

But I'd say Perez is the bigger surprise. Also a former top prospect, what he has done is crazy! And I'm record, several times, for not liking this signing at all. Started off great, floundered while showing flashes, then finished the second half looking really good again.

3] Harper:

I'm right there with you! Some point to inherited runners scored. And I get that! It's an important stat! But not everyone is a FIREMAN who blows people away. And usage is also important. Inherited runs WILL score. It's inevitable. Context of situations a pitcher is thrown in to has to be considered. Regardless, his numbers state he has been quality overall. Surprisingly so.

4] Arreaz:

There were quite a few who balked at him being added to the 40 man as unnecessary. I was not one of them. Different talent, but I always compared him to Polanco. When you produce at every level, you have a tangible ability. And when you miss almost a full season and then come back to be the same player you were before, PLAYER! (Part of the reason I believe so much in Kirilloff and Thorpe). I am not yet ready to anoint him as the starting 2B for 2020 just yet. I need to see more. I need to see his 22yo build gain a little more muscle to be more than a patient and slap hitter. But I sure like what I see and wouldn't bet against him.

5] Buxton:

I have NEVER bet against this kid! No matter how undisciplined as a hitter he looked at times, you could always see what he was capable of. A truly great athlete, in any sport, always has 2 choices. One is to just wing it and trust in his talent. The second choice is to take that talent and do the WORK and make yourself better.

Look at his age and injury and milb track record. Injuries held him back true. But be was also rushed. His career path, eerily, matches Hunter.

Same could be said for Sano.

6] I'm adding Cron:

1B/DH types are a dime a dozen right? Cron has been OUTSTANDING day after day defensively at 1B. His bat has been solid. He's been producing at a high level. Even higher than his career season last year. How in hell did TB let him go and not play him daily at 1B?

7] Honorable Mention, Adrianza:

This is a glove first guy who hit in the minors but couldn't seem to establish himself with the Giants. The Twins picked him up on a flier and for the previous two seasons did what a utility infielder was supposed to do: play good defense and hit a little. Except, he hit better than just a little. Come ST 2019 we suddenly hit a ton, and then started the season downright awefull! Most everyone was ready to ditch him. And while he may still be the 25th man overall, all he has done is hit, make contributions, and prove himself as a viable roster player you'd hate to let go.
    • luckylager, Blake, Monkeypaws and 7 others like this

Other Surprises-

Schoop has an excellent throwing arm- 

Martin Perez - Has been a solid rotation piece

Jorge Polanco - STARTING ALL-STAR shorstop

    • Carole Keller, Blake, Jerr and 4 others like this
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Old Twins Cap
Jul 09 2019 05:23 AM

Should at least mention that Rocco has been resting his backstops, making sure they don't get run down. I will bet this becomes a new "thing" in baseball, much the way they rest pitchers to improve velocity and command. To Garver's and Castro's credit, they seem to like each other and generally "get it", which is rare enough these days. They also really smart people.

 

All season I have been talking to friends about Odorizzi:"Really? A 94 MPH fastball riding up in the zone is unhittable in MLB all of a sudden?" Had been until recently. Where he got that swing and miss magic I will never understand.

 

Teams that make a run in the playoffs always need two things: a rookie or two that provide an unexpected boost, and multiple guys having career-years. Twins got Harper and Arraez, and, Polanco, Kepler, Buxton, Cron, Castro, Rosario, Odorizzi and Perez making a run at each of those.

 

You don't win games on paper so Twins need to play well, but I like our chances for sure.

 

 

    • MN_ExPat likes this

I really enjoyed this and I am one who does not like Harper's rate of letting inherited runners score - 50%, but still he is a surprise. 

 

The biggest surprise - the team is in first place!

 

Number 2 is roster flexibility, the opportunity to use so many players in so many positions and keep winning.

 

Number 3 is my favorite player Arraez reminding us why a good batting average, a good at bat strategy, and consistency are so important to a team.

 

Number 4 Willans Astudillo is injured, but it is because of his fielding efforts.He has played every where and he plays hard.It is more than his anti-strikeout stance that makes him valuable on the bench.

 

Number 5 is Polanco who has been criticized for his time at SS and now is an All-star.

 

Number 6 is my controversial stance - that we are in first place despite a still questionable a pitching roster.

    • Jerr, Dman and blindeke like this
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In My La-Z-boy
Jul 09 2019 07:10 AM

The biggest/most pleasant surprise has to be Wes Johnson & the pitching staff. No major off season signings (Perez wasn't in high demand) - essentially the same staff as 2018. I would have never thought this group of 13 could get the job done as they have. Which is why I tend to agree w/Mikelink45 and am concerned about this 13's chances to hold off the Indians and go anywhere deep in October. 

    • Dave The Dastardly likes this
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lukeduke1980
Jul 09 2019 07:24 AM

 

Other Surprises-

Schoop has an excellent throwing arm- 

I love the Schoop observation - he's outstanding at turning double plays.

 

Along the same line - Marwin's arm has come up big in the outfield and at third.

 

Although it caught up with the team as everyone has been hurt lately - starting the season relatively injury free for 2+ months was a big surprise to me and helped the team gel and get off to a big lead on Cleveland

    • bunt_vs_the_shift likes this

This whole team has been a bunch of surprises, pleasantly so. the glow is still there! As you noted,it's good to see Buxton cutting down on his strikeouts. And hey, he has 42 RBI at the break, a very impressive stat for someone batting at the bottom of the order. I only hope hebecomes more than a .250 hitter.

    • Jerr likes this

I'm happy and excited about Arraez, but let's not hand him a starting job yet. In April, Austudillo was the best player not named Ty Cobb. 

 

Also, that I don't want to hand him a starting job speaks volumes for this team's depth. A few years ago we were giving away starting spots to unproven AA players.

    • Dantes929 and jkcarew like this
As far as Arraez's proclivity for the long ball...have to remember this all started with the "juicy" baseballs at AAA and the major leagues. He never hit using those balls in the lower minors. Only stands to reason his HR rates will go up.
    • Jerr and jkcarew like this

How about this:

 

There is only one starter or bench position player (Gonzalez) with OPS+ less than 100, and his is 96

There is only one starting pitcher (Pineda) with ERA+ less than 100, and his is 99

There is only one relief pitcher (Magill) with ERA+ less than 100, and his is 98

    • Jerr, Mike Sixel, diehardtwinsfan and 10 others like this

I will admit, I'm surprised by Kepler. After 3 consecutive years of being basically the same hitter in terms of results (OPS+ of 96, 95, 98 and with very similar BA, OBP, and SLG to go along with it), I will admit I was starting to think kepler might be who he was: an ok hitter & fine defender whose bat plays very well in CF and not so well in a corner spot. Happy to be wrong. career bests all over the place and playing at an all-star level.

 

But Martin Perez is still the biggest surprise for me. He's come back to the pack a bit after having a fantastic stretch moving into the rotation, but he's still a quality starter and he's not someone I would have bet on at all to start the season. I figured he was a flyer Levine took because he liked the guy from Texas and didn't expect much. He's been important, especially since the AAA guys I had higher hopes for have struggled.

    • LA VIkes Fan likes this

I think the season so far is a sum of lots of pleasant surprises that are (relatively) small. I think that's implicit in the Thrylos post above. Lots of players...almost all players...improving on recent norms. 

 

Regarding Buxton:

"As a guy who lifts the ball at a higher rate than anyone else on the team, and has otherworldly speed, I'd expect a higher BABIP for Buxton than his current .302"

 

How would the fact that Buxton's putting more balls in the air play with Buxton's speed to raise his BABiP? Buxton's BABiP is slightly down this year probably for two reasons...one, he's hitting the ball in the air more, specifically on the infield, and two, he's swinging earlier in the count (which is helping keep the K% down, but can lead to some softer contact as you try to cover the entire plate on almost every pitch you see). But I agree with the final conclusion in that I think Buxton is showing signs of more in the tank. But I think the primary drivers will be growth in BB% and also harder contact as he gets more confident with the new him.

 

How about this:

 

There is only one starter or bench position player (Gonzalez) with OPS+ less than 100, and his is 96

There is only one starting pitcher (Pineda) with ERA+ less than 100, and his is 99

There is only one relief pitcher (Magill) with ERA+ less than 100, and his is 98

That is crazy good. By contrast a few years ago at this point I think we only had one player with an OPS+ greater than 100 and that was our backup infielder (Nunez).I don't know if any pitchers at the time had ERA+ over 100.Some players improved the 2nd half but what a nightmare to have everyone with or near career worst years. What a dream to have everyone at or near career bests.Some guys will drop off but I think a false narrative here is that we have to keep pace with the Indians last 5 weeks. They are not a .700+ win % team........The pleasant surprise for me among others listed (Ryan. Freaking. Harper.near top of my list as well) is Pineda.After an understandably slow start to the season, 7 of his last 10 starts have been quality starts and 2 that missed out only missed out because he was just short of the 6 inning qualifier. That is fantastic for the back end of the rotation. His OPS+makes him the best #5 in the American League and he would be #2 or #3 on almost half the teams in the league.I also expect him to just get stronger and should help mitigate regression with a few other pitchers.

    • Mike Sixel likes this
Great article. My summary:

Martin Perez being a regular starter and allowing the fewest HRs on the team is much more surprising than Eggs’ number, IMO. I had no faith in Perez.

I don’t think Buxton is a surprise for anyone other than a handful of hot take fans that were ready write him off at age 23-24. It would be more surprising if a player of his caliber never materialized into some sort of player.

Cron would probably be my biggest surprise. When they picked him off of the heap, who saw a borderline All-Star coming?
    • bunt_vs_the_shift and In My La-Z-boy like this
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bunt_vs_the_shift
Jul 09 2019 01:51 PM

Throw Rocco, Wes Johnson, James Rowson, Falvine and the Twins analytics department in there for me.

 

It's always dicey to quantify coaching on team success/failure when they're not throwing the ball or swinging the bat. That said, in the FO, Falvine has hit on almost every one of their free agents, locked up Kepler and Polanco and they've definitely implemented an entirely new cultural approach. Overall, we're pitching better. We're hitting better. We're rotating guys and getting contributions from a number of players, including bench players and callups... 

 

I was skeptical on some aspects of the new approach, but these guys are killing it through the first part of the year and it seems like we've got some structure and process in place that could be sustainable. I'd like to give some credit where credit is due. 

    • Dantes929 and Reider like this

Interesting that there are no mentions of Pineda.Big Mike continues getting better seemingly with every start. 

 

Have a question about Arraez.Can he be selected Rookie of the Year if he doesn't have X minimum at bats?Lets say he hits .325 average with around a .400 OBP the rest of the year...say 200 more at bats.Would they vote a guy the top rookie with a .335 average and .410 OBP, but only 300 at bats?Could they?

The biggest surprises are 56 wins, 166 home runs, 119 team OPS+ (though dropping fast), and 115 team ERA+.

 

Individual improvements are less significant. The above stuff happened as a team.

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Nick Nelson
Jul 09 2019 04:03 PM

 

Have a question about Arraez.Can he be selected Rookie of the Year if he doesn't have X minimum at bats?Lets say he hits .325 average with around a .400 OBP the rest of the year...say 200 more at bats.Would they vote a guy the top rookie with a .335 average and .410 OBP, but only 300 at bats?Could they?

It's possible. But it'd require some pretty underwhelming competition.

 

As one example, Wil Myers won ROTY with the Rays in 2013 when he played only 88 games and made only 373 PA. His numbers weren't even that amazing (.293/.354/.478, 13 HR). 

Interesting that there are no mentions of Pineda. Big Mike continues getting better seemingly with every start.

Have a question about Arraez. Can he be selected Rookie of the Year if he doesn't have X minimum at bats? Lets say he hits .325 average with around a .400 OBP the rest of the year...say 200 more at bats. Would they vote a guy the top rookie with a .335 average and .410 OBP, but only 300 at bats? Could they?

they could.

There are no minimums to be eligible, only maximums.

To be eligible for ROTY, a player can't have accumulated more than 130 ABs or 50 IP, or spent more than 45 days on a 25 man roster outside September, in any previous year(s).

If a player meets that criteria, he is eligible for ROTY.

The biggest surprise for me is that the free agent signings have ALL exceeded even our wildest expectations.

 

Perez was supposed to be a back-end starter and long-man. He's now the #3 and has great numbers.

 

Schoop, we were just hoping he'd hit 20 HRs and fill the short term hole at 2B. He'll do that and probably more.

 

Cruz, we crossed our fingers and bet he had more in the tank. He does.

 

Cron, we flipped a coin and bet last year wasn't a fluke. It wasn't.

 

Parker's done what's been asked for the most part, it wasn't a bad signing.

 

Literally none of these guys have crashed and burned - to the contrary they've been huge additions that have pushed this team from a borderline .500 ballclub to a team that's 20 games over at the break.

    • Don Walcott likes this
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yarnivek1972
Jul 10 2019 11:23 AM

they could.

There are no minimums to be eligible, only maximums.

To be eligible for ROTY, a player can't have accumulated more than 130 ABs or 50 IP, or spent more than 45 days on a 25 man roster outside September, in any previous year(s).

If a player meets that criteria, he is eligible for ROTY.


As a practical matter, a midseason call up is behind from day one. A case in point is Frank Thomas. He amassed 240 PA in 1990 and put ungodly numbers, a 177 OPS+, far better than anyone else in the running. But he isn’t even listed in the voting results. Oddly enough, the runner up, Kevin Maas, had only about 300 PA.

As a practical matter, a midseason call up is behind from day one. A case in point is Frank Thomas. He amassed 240 PA in 1990 and put ungodly numbers, a 177 OPS+, far better than anyone else in the running. But he isn’t even listed in the voting results. Oddly enough, the runner up, Kevin Maas, had only about 300 PA.

as a practical matter, I agree.

I understood the question to be about eligibility, perhaps I read it wrong.

Re: Arraez and ROY:

 

Currently Luis Arraez is 4th in fWAR among AL position player Rookies behind Brandon Lowe 2.5 fWAR, Daniel Vogelbach, 2.1 fWAR, and Danny Jansen 1.2 fWAR.The only Rookie pitcher who should be in the conversation is O's starter John Means who is 7-4 with 2.50 ERA for that team, and should be the forerunner for the AL ROY award.If Arraez overtakes Lowe and Means regresses, then he has hopes.He would probably need to spend the rest of the season in the bigs for that to happen.

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Don Walcott
Jul 10 2019 02:30 PM

 

The biggest surprise for me is that the free agent signings have ALL exceeded even our wildest expectations.

 

Perez was supposed to be a back-end starter and long-man. He's now the #3 and has great numbers.

 

Schoop, we were just hoping he'd hit 20 HRs and fill the short term hole at 2B. He'll do that and probably more.

 

Cruz, we crossed our fingers and bet he had more in the tank. He does.

 

Cron, we flipped a coin and bet last year wasn't a fluke. It wasn't.

 

Parker's done what's been asked for the most part, it wasn't a bad signing.

 

Literally none of these guys have crashed and burned - to the contrary they've been huge additions that have pushed this team from a borderline .500 ballclub to a team that's 20 games over at the break.

Add Marwin into that group as a good signing. And Pineda turned out to be a good signing as well.

 

Dumping Addison Reed closed the circle a pretty rough group that were signed before last year. But this year, the FO got free agent signings about as right as possible. Just goes to show that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. And just because many free agents don't work out, it doesn't mean you never spend money on free agents to help build your team.

    • Mike Sixel and bighat like this

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