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100 wins in 2018

Posted by PSzalapski , 04 November 2017 · 1,960 views

blueprint offseason hotstove
What a year!
                    2016  2017  change
Actual Wins           59    85  +26
Improving by 26 games is quite a feat. So how did the 2017 Twins get there?
		    2016  2017  change
Actual Wins	      59    85  +26
Pythag Wins	      66    83  +17
Luck		      -7    +2   +9
Okay, so the actual improvement was more like 17 games. The "Luck" here is shorthand for the difference between their wins and the wins we should have expected given their run totals--in other words, the advantage the Twins had over a team that scores runs in the average distribution. It is a measure of the luck involved in when the runs scored, not in whether the runs scored.

Wait, so one-third of the 2017 Twins performance improvement was due to luck? Should we despair that the success is illusory and thus expect the Twins to sink back to mediocrity? Not quite. The 2016 Twins were quite unlucky, so it isn't bad that they changed that. You can't count on the number being much higher than +2 in 2018, but neither should we assume it will certainly be lower. Typical division winners outperform their Pythagorean record, and so the Twins should hope to do so in 2018. That this "luck" number is merely +2 should calm the Twins fans' insecurities; the Royals has a luck number of +8 in falling short of .500, and so Royals fans should acquiesce to their unavoidable rebuild period.

So enough about "luck". Where did the Twins' actual improvement in run-scoring and run-preventing achievements come from?
	            2016  2017  change
Luck		     -7    +2     +9
Hitters WAR          17.0  28.7  +11.7
Pitchers WAR	      1.8   7.0   +5.2
So three-fourths of the Twins' actual improvement was in their hitters. Let's take a closer look at it. Note that I am evaluating their hitters with hitting, baserunning, and fielding put together.
WAR	            2016  2017  change
Hitters		    16.0  24.9   +8.9		 
CF Buxton	     1.9   5.1   +3.2
C  Suzuki=>Castro    0.4   2.5   +2.1
3B Sano		     0.8   2.5   +1.7
SS Polanco	     0.6   2.1   +1.5
1B Mauer	     2.3   3.4   +1.1
LF Rosario	     1.1   1.7   +0.6
DH Grossman	     0.3   0.8   +0.5
RF Kepler	     2.1   2.4   +0.3
2B Dozier	     6.5   4.4   -2.1

CI Escobar	    -0.6   1.3   +1.9
4O Santana=>Granite -1.3   0.3   +1.6
BC Centeno=>Gimenez  0.8   0.7   -0.1
CI Plouffe=>Vargas   0.4   0.3   -0.1
MI Nunez=>Adrianza   1.5   0.9   -0.6
A nine-win improvement from your starting lineup is excellent, and the bench even improved a bit. Do you think that the Twins did nothing last offseason? Looking at the above, I see ten moves the Twins made (or avoided making) that altogether led to this twelve-win improvement.

Moves that worked

Staying committed to Buxton, Polanco, and Rosario: The Twins stuck with Byron Buxton through a rough May and June. It would have been defensible to have demoted him to work on his hitting in AAA. The Terry Ryan regime might have done just that, but Derek Falvey and Thad Levine stuck with him, most notably because his fielding was not just above average but the best in the league. In the end, Buxton refined his swing and started hitting like his promise always showed.

In the same vein, the Twins stayed consistent with Jorge Polanco, who spent the entire year as the starting shortstop. While he didn't have defensive talent to help him along, the confidence in his ability paid off as his hitting skyrocketed in the second half. There was pressure to demote Polanco, but faith in him was paid off well.

Similarly, Rosario found a better stroke and contributed more than most thought reasonable to hope for.

Replacing Kurt Suzuki with Jason Castro: Passing on extending Suzuki, the Twins figured they could do better, and did so with Jason Castro. Castro is under contract through 2019, so the move will continue to pay off.

Keeping Sano at third base instead of DH: There was fear that Sano in the field at third base could be a liability, but he has done quite well there. The Twins definitely expect more production from Sano's bat, but keeping him at third base should be at least the short-term plan, assuming his current shin injury is not an impediment for doing so in 2018.

Not trading Dozier: While his production declined a bit from a stellar 2016, Dozier was still the third-best of all the Twins. The leading rumor last year was that the Dodgers would have traded Jose De Leon, but the Twins wanted more. That judgment paid off, as we can only assume that the Twins would not have found most of Dozier's 4.4 WAR anywhere else.

Not giving up on Mauer against LHP: Like most Twins fans, I was disappointed in Mauer's overall hitting in the years following the concussion, and I was clamoring for them to platoon him. Instead, he hit a respectable .750 OPS against lefties, and more, there was no obvious choice to pair with as a platoon. The Twins should continue to decrease Mauer's appearances against lefties, but the urgency to make this platoon a priority is eased.

Keeping Eduardo Escobar despite a poor 2016. Escobar as a bench player contributed as the Twins hoped and not as they feared. While he might not play much again at shortstop, his bat is enough to warrant keeping on as a corner infielder.

Moves that bombed

Sticking with Grossman at DH: The Twins thought Grossman could hit, so they gave him lots more chances at DH. Well, we should now realize that he can hit...sort of. The Twins could have added a win or two with a better DH.

Giving chances to Vargas: I think we now know that Vargas is not a major league DH. Could Falvey and Levine have come to this conclusion a bit sooner?

Not bolstering the bench: While improvements here would have been marginal, the right set of moves may have added a win or two.

On to the pitchers.
		    2016  2017  change
5 Starters	     1.5   7.4   +5.9
Berrios		    -1.7   1.7   +3.4
Duffey=>Colon	    -1.6   0.1   +1.7
Santana		     3.8   4.6   +0.8
Nolasco=>Mejia	     0.4   0.8   +0.4
Gibson		     0.6   0.2   -0.4
Pitching was disappointing, but there is a bit of hope in that they indeed improved, and two young pitchers clearly took steps forward.

Moves that worked

Not trading Santana: My choice for team MVP, J. Ervin Santana was the only comfortable part of this rotation. The Twins could have traded him, as he isn't a legitimate top-tier ace, but they would have been lost without him.

Committing to Berrios: This was an easier decision given his solid start to the season, but they could have sent him to Rochester to start the year--and perhaps Terry Ryan would have done so. Instead, he now looks like a real pitcher who is ready to show the rest of the league his mettle.

Giving lots of chances to Mejia: While Mejia's WAR is disappointing from a competition perspective, it is in line with a player in his stage of development. Without starting Mejia early and often the Twins might have hurt themselves, but more importantly, Mejia's development in the majors should give him more confidence and experience to improve in 2018.

Signing Bartolo Colon: While his last month showed us that the Twins shouldn't press their luck, Colon gave the Twins just a dash of added success, however meek, that wasn't available anywhere else. Dillon Gee was just not going to get it done.

Raising the standard past Duffey: When you are used to seeing poor pitching, Tyler Duffey might have looked promising, but he really isn't. There's a chance he can improve going forward, but it isn't a big one.

Moves that bombed
Signing Nolasco and extending Hughes: Yes, this was an old decision, but the Twins paid too much for Phil Hughes (in dollars+years) and Ricky Nolasco (in losing Alex Meyer). If they could have found a better free agent pitcher in 2014-2016 to help them this year, it would have been a bump up in the win column.

Not having an ace: Easier said than done, but imagine how better off the Twins would be with an additional pitcher to start above Santana. All the other playoff teams had at least one top-tier starter, but the Twins are now stuck without one. I can't say that there was a move available to address this, but it remains an albatross the Twins will carry for the foreseeable future.

And the bullpen:
		    2016  2017  change
Relievers	     2.2   2.9   +0.8
Tonkin=>Busenitz    -0.4   0.7   +1.1
Milone=>Breslow	    -0.7  -0.1   +0.6
Rogers		     0.6   1.1   +0.5
Kintzler	     1.0   1.1   +0.1
May=>Belisle        -0.1   0.0   +0.1
Dean=>Duffey	    -0.4  -0.4    0.0
Boshers		     0.0  -0.1   -0.1
Abad=>Hildenberger   1.0   0.8   -0.2
Pressly		     1.0  -0.2   -0.8
The Twins couldn't even get three wins-above-replacement from their top 9 relievers--which is particularly problematic when you remember that a replacement-level team would win only 45 or so games.

Moves that worked

Calling up Hildenberger and Busenitz: These two relievers outperformed all but two of the Twins' bullpen members, and did so in limited playing time. Hopefully this teaches the Twins a lesson--but it may be more apt to say that Falvey and Levine are teaching the Twins this lesson already: trust your young players if you believe they are good. 0.5 WAR replacement players are just that: replacable and often replaced. Why replace them with other scrap-heap signings and waiver claims when you could replace them with young, ready-enough talent?

Moves that bombed

Sticking with Pressly, Boshers, Breslow, and Duffey: These pitchers should have very little shot at a competitive team's bullpen. They just don't seem good enough, and the latter three are in danger of being designated for assignment--if not this offseason, at some point in the future when the Twins find relievers who are worthy. Particularly disappointing is Tyler Duffey, whose transition to the bullpen has been frustrating for himself and Twins coaches alike.

Not finding other bullpen help: The Twins could have spent some millions improving their bullpen with options better than Belisle. The biggest flaws in the bullpen this year were injuries to Wimmers, Perkins, May, Chargois, O'Rourke, and Jay, though of course this is not reflective of a move that worked or failed; it's just too bad the Twins didn't have any other better options to turn to.

Signing Matt Belisle: Feel free to object to this one, as I agree Belisle was one of the Twins' only good options in the bullpen--but they could have and should have done better.

Becoming a real competitor

Reflecting on all of this, here are some moves that you might want to put into your off-season blueprint. The Twins need to get to 92 wins to have a good chance to beat the Indians and win the division in 2018, and it may take more than that. It is a lot easier to get there from 83 pythagorean wins than in any of the five seasons previous, so now's the time to go for it.

Expect more from Buxton and Sano: The Twins two most promising players underperformed as hitters in 2018: Buxton for the first half, and Sano with injuries and a minor slump. These two are on a excellent trajectory and still have a ton of promise. Neither of them should be a disappointment to anyone, and I am hoping for 10-12 WAR from them in 2018.

Keep Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana: These are the kind of players the Twins should want to acquire, not trade away. Should the Twins keep them till free agency, they can make them each a qualifying offer and thereafter win an additional draft pick, which is a better outcome than trading them for B-level prospects. They are both solid players, and I hope for them to repeat their 9 WAR together in 2018.

Sign or trade for a designated hitter: I do not like the idea of moving Sano to DH and relying on Escobar or converting Polanco or a prospect shortstop to a poor-hitting third baseman. It would be far easier to find some other upgrade at DH than it would to commit to prospects at shortstop/third base for the next few years. As long as Sano is near-average in the field at third base, let him stay there. Besides, Polanco projects as a better second baseman than third baseman, which the Twins will need after Dozier leaves in free agency for 2019. Keeping Sano at third keeps Escobar as a bench bat and infield fill-in and descreases the need to play players like Adrianza or Goodrum. A capable DH should be able to increase output by 1.5 WAR next year over Grossman.

Sign an elite reliever: It is going to be easier to sign a reliever here than a starter, and the Twins have to get better at pitching anywhere. Signing Wade Davis, for example, would improve the bullpen tremendously and let the Twins use Hildenberger, Rogers, Buesnitz, and players coming back from injury in roles they can bulid success in. Wade Davis has achieved 3 WAR several times in his career, and we could hope for the same impact, especially if used wisely.

Attempt to trade for an ace starter if it is posslble: This is a tough sell, so I won't belabor it. Hope for it, but it is unlikely. The Twins can't sell the farm for this, so it probably won't happen, but it is the biggest area the Twins could improve. They should at least try. As for signings, I'd make a semi-serious offer for Darvish or even Arrieta, but it likely won't have enough years or dollars to get either.

Plan on trusting young starters over any free agents: While some may think the Twins should sign a free-agent pitcher, the risk of another Nolasco contract is large. Even if the Twins find a pitcher better than Nolasco and on par or even a bit better than Kyle Gibson, it would not appreciably improve the team, as the Twins already have six starters at this level: Mejia, Stephen Gonsalves, Aaron Slegers, Fernando Romero, Felix Jorge, and of course, Gibson. You can hope for 1.0-1.5 WAR out of any of these players; why go hunting for expensive free agents for it? Perhaps one of them will break through and deliver 3 WAR. So altogether, I'm hoping for an increase of 4 WAR out of the three, four, and five starting pitchers even with no trades or free agent signings.

Plan on trusting young relievers over inexpensive free agents: The Matt Belisle signing is not one the Twins should repeat. While they should consider signing pitchers who are a step up from Belisle, signing a pitcher at Belisle's level (or even extending Belisle himself) is too weak an ambition to improve the team. The Twins have already shown confidence in Hildenberger and Busenitz, which should continue. The previously mentioned Perkins, May, Chargois, O'Rourke, and Jay are all options to help the Twins bullpen in 2018, as well as Jake Reed and John Curtiss after them. The Twins' farm system might be considered strong in relief pitching and 2018 is the year to start gaining from it. From the two through six relievers, the Twins can get 5 WAR better from just small improvements from each spot. One or two relievers will get worse and one or two may break through, but the 2017 baseline is so low that it will look like a new bullpen altogether in the aggregate.

Consider signing or trading for a bench bat, preferably outfield: Assuming that Rosario or Zack Granite can play center field in a pinch, it might make sense to find an corner outfielder with some pop against left-handers. Even without a full-time platoon, such a player would be valuable off the bench. The Twins were hoping they could ask this out of Grossman, but it seems that they don't trust him to play defense regularly. Furthermore, neither Rosario and Kepler should be taken for granted; if either get injured or go into an extended slump, someone will need to step in. Chris B. Young or Rajai Davis look to be the best free agent options that somewhat fit. Perhaps the trade market might have a younger or better right-handed hitter. An increase of 1 WAR is reachable here.

So all of these realistic, affordable decisions could result in an increase of 17 WAR, to bring the projected win total from 83 pythagorean wins (that is, wins with 0 luck) to 100, and it can be achieved with a modest payroll increase, few or no trades, and keeping the above average farm system going. Now I am not claiming that any of these projected performances are certain or even very likely. Even if the Twins make all these moves, players will get injured, slump, or just trail off into yearlong struggles. However, if the Twins execute an offseason plan to shoot for 100 wins, there's a chance they get 92 or 95, or even 102.

The time for the Twins to have low expectations is over. The Twins should be aiming for 100 wins, and they can do it with a little gumption and strategy.

  • Cory Engelhardt, tarheeltwinsfan, Platoon and 3 others like this

I think expecting 10-12 WAR from the combination of Buxton and Sano is a bit of a stretch at this point. You're basically asking them both to be at or near the level of a 2016 Brian Dozier to hit that number. While I think it'll take continued growth from both players to see this team become elite, I think we're a season away from expecting that, especially with Sano's weight and shin issues.

    • PSzalapski likes this

I don't disagree that it is a stretch, but it is a reachable stretch.I do expect both Sano and Buxton to be better than Dozier.I want 6 WAR from Buxton (just a small improvement over 2017 by hitting better all year) and 5 from Sano.

Nov 05 2017 09:15 AM
Nice post. I could have quibbles over who exactly to believe in, but I like the general thrust. Believe in the youth, and look for top line help from outside, not just roster filler. As your WAR analysis shows, there are not many roster disasters, so filler is not improvement. In all, I would take your blueprint over Seth's any day.
    • PSzalapski likes this

Nice article - you put in a lot of thought and effort. As you show, the biggest improvement can come from signing or trading for a quality SP. I lean to the "trade" side (Cole, Stroman). If a deal can't be made for an excellent SP, I'd look at Cobb and/or Chatwood. SP quality and depth are so important. 


I wouldn't mind a RH for DH, although I'm not totally convinced until we see how Sano recovers from surgery. He may need the DH spot more than expected, especially early in the year. I might wait until the season gets started to do a deal. Still, I think you've made a good argument for getting DH help.


And yes... an excellent FA RP please. No filler here.

    • PSzalapski likes this

If they want to have DH be an option for Sano, then they need a good-hitting 3B instead of a DH. That's much harder to find or fill. Do you want to shift Polanco from SS for one season only to shift him again to 2B in 2019, and also call up a SS prospect that isn't quite ready? Or start Escobar at third and hope for the best--1.5 WAR at the most, but possibly worse? I hate these options; instead, keeping Sano at 3B really is a big relief from hardship and pain. I think I'd rather have Sano on the DL to start the season than to have him at DH without hope of returning to the field.