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Article: Is This Front Office Truly Enlightened About Pitching?

jake odorizzi anibal sanchez
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#1 Nick Nelson

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:01 PM

We're about to find out.

When Derek Falvey was hired to run Minnesota's baseball ops, he brought with him a rep as a pitching guru, partially responsible for constructing the enviable staff in Cleveland. That group, of course, wasn't assembled through big-money free agent signings, but through savvy trades and superior development strategies.

So it comes as no surprise that he's attempting to apply this same model with the Twins. It's why he was hired.While Ivy League educations are now becoming the norm at 1 Twins Way, it didn't take a Harvard grad to see that Minnesota needed to seriously upgrade its rotation for 2018.

Opinions differ on the seriousness of their attempts, but the Twins did take a shot at top names like Yu Darvish and Chris Archer this offseason. When they deemed the threshold for acquiring these potential aces too high for their liking, Falvey and GM Thad Levine lowered their gaze substantially and pivoted to a pair of extremely low-risk – and seemingly low-upside – options.

On Friday, they signed free agent Anibal Sanchez to a non-guaranteed deal that will max out at $5 million if he sticks and earns incentives. A day later, they traded shortstop prospect Jermaine Palacios to the Tampa Bay Rays for right-hander Jake Odorizzi.

These certainly aren't the kinds of authoritative, high-impact additions fans hoped to see. In terms of money, commitment length, and player capital, the Twins gave up very little to bring the two aboard. It appears Falvey is going all-in on his revamped department's ability to maximize these assets and extract hidden value.

Between the two cases, there is a common thread worth keeping an eye on.

Suite of Arms

Ever since he arrived in 2016, Falvey has been systematically and continually building out the organization's baseball operations. His inspired outside hires have included Director of Baseball Operations Daniel Adler and Director of Minor League Operations Jeremy Zoll, both renowned for their intelligence and analytical chops.

Falvey is a strong believer in collaboration, astutely understanding that successful execs surround themselves with the right people and listen to them. To this end, he has put a clear focus on pitching specializations. Last summer, the Twins brought in former big-league hurler Jeremy Hefner as a data-driven video scout. In December, they lured Josh Kalk – considered a pitching analytics expert – away from the Rays as a senior analyst.

That latter name is interesting with regard to Minnesota's newest player acquisition.

Kalk is of course very familiar with Odorizzi, who threw almost 700 innings in Tampa after being picked up in the 2012 James Shields trade. The right-hander was highly effective in 2015 and 2016, posting a 3.53 ERA and 3.98 FIP. With those kinds of numbers, he'd be a slam-dunk add for Minnesota – especially at the cost of Palacios, a good-not-great prospect who was buried on the org depth chart.

Of course, Odorizzi wasn't that same pitcher in 2017, producing career-worsts in ERA (4.14 ERA) and FIP (5.43). But it stands to reason that Kalk and others see something fixable.

Leveraging the very same PitchF/X data that Kalk is said to have excelled with using in Tampa Bay, Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs argued over the weekend that Odorizzi may be one adjustment away from turning the corner. The piece is worth reading, as Sawchik lays out pitch usage, location, release points and more to establish a fairly convincing case for Odorizzi's issues being correctable.

The Anibal Challenge

Turning around a pitcher like Odorizzi – a former first-rounder and top prospect who's still only 27 and has a recent track record of MLB success – isn't a monumental undertaking. Far more ambitious was the assignment Minnesota's brain trust took on a day earlier, with the signing of Sanchez.

When news came down on Friday afternoon that the Twins had reached agreement with the embattled right-hander, it hit like a ton of bricks, for numerous reasons. Pent-up frustration of a long and unfulfilling winter, punctuated by the recent Darvish letdown, surely factored.

But there's also this: Sanchez has been one of the worst starting pitchers in the league over the past few years. Twins fans have watched from up-close while his $80 million contract with the Tigers deteriorated into a liability they paid $5 million to cut loose after last season.

In 2017 Sanchez faced the Twins far more than any other team, and posted an 8.69 ERA against them. In 2016 he went 0-4 with a 10.13 ERA in four starts against Falvey's Indians.

This front office has has seen Sanchez at his worst, extensively, and they still wanted him. In an odd way, that kind of inspires confidence.

While it's easy to draw parallels, this isn't in the same vein as ill-fated past investments like Kevin Correia or Jason Marquis. It could easily end up the same way, but the Sanchez signing wasn't simply an attempt to procure veteran innings, regardless of their quality. It's said to be an "analytically driven" move.

And, at a glance, there is some validity to it. Last September, Tigers reporter Evan Woodbery wrote that while Sanchez's time in Detroit was assuredly coming to a close, "There will be a team (or perhaps several) enticed by his peripherals, which remain incredibly, absurdly, inexplicably strong for a pitcher with a 7-ish ERA."

Sure enough, it would seem the Twins weren't alone in having interest. Although Sanchez's contract is non-guaranteed, it is a major-league deal, meaning that he will occupy a 40-man roster spot in camp and is entitled to more compensation if he gets cut than your typical non-roster invite (e.g. last year's nonconventional pet project, Craig Breslow).

The fact that an MLB contract was required to get this done suggests Minnesota was not bidding against itself. Despite the ugly numbers, Sanchez has some legitimately appealing qualities. His 3.59 K/BB ratio in 2017 would've outranked every Twins starter. He induced a spectacular 15% swinging strike rate over his final four starts and averaged a strikeout per inning in the second half.

Just like Odorizzi, the 34-year-old hurler's biggest weakness last year was the long ball.

Although his fastball has gradually lost its oomph, becoming entirely too hittable in the process, Sanchez's splitter-changeup remains a powerful weapon. He also has that much in common with Odorizzi, who himself leans on a vaunted split-fingered change, having learned the grip from former Rays teammate (and current free agent) Alex Cobb.

It's worth noting that Fernando Rodney, another newly minted member of the Twins pitching staff, features a "magic changeup" of his own. The changeup was said to be a key focus that Neil Allen brought over from Tampa's system when he came on as pitching coach, and while he has moved on, that emphasis evidently has not.

The Big Gamble

In acquiring Odorizzi and Sanchez, the Twins are minimizing their material risk. They've only given up an expendable prospect and about $11 million, tops. They're not tied to either pitcher beyond 2018 (though Odorizzi will be arbitration-eligible again in 2019).

But in another sense, they're taking a huge risk, by betting so strongly on their own ability to help these pitchers cut down on long balls and reach another level of production. Misguided overconfidence would be hugely detrimental, because this pitching staff needed a much bigger jolt than the 2017 versions of Odorizzi or Sanchez would provide. Much bigger.

The Breslow experiment, while carrying far lower stakes, went down as a whiff on Falvine's first analytically driven attempt to uncover a diamond in the rough. Will these ventures, overseen by a collection of brilliant minds in the front office and guided by a new pitching coach in Garvin Alston, turn out more favorably?

For a team that's already making a number of precarious gambles in the rotation, with players like Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia figuring to land spots, rounding out the mix with Odorizzi and Sanchez is a harrowing choice, even if the mindset behind it is sound and reasonable.

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#2 bustedstuff88

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:17 PM

Maybe we are all missing the point here and the Twins braintrust is really just gearing up to make a COLOSSAL free agent splash in 2019?

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#3 Dman

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:21 PM

I really like your article but I still don't know what to think of the acquisitions.A part of me is happy that the FO is doing something but also dumbfounded and scared that they might be wasting precious time with the window of talent they have.

 

I hope they are the smartest men in the room so to speak and make these moves work out.The thing is it feels like a crap shoot to some degree.

 

If they do turn both of those pitchers around I will be one happy Twins fan but if this is sort of the same thing we always get by grabbing out of the bargain bin I will be extremely disappointed.

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#4 Mr. Brooks

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:26 PM

Maybe we are all missing the point here and the Twins braintrust is really just gearing up to make a COLOSSAL free agent splash in 2019?


The Twins have no shot at Harper, Machado, or Kershaw.
Not sure anyone else fits the description of colossal.
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#5 Parker Hageman

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:27 PM

Although his fastball has gradually lost its oomph, becoming entirely too hittable in the process, Sanchez's splitter-changeup remains a powerful weapon. He also has that much in common with Odorizzi, who himself leans on a vaunted split-fingered change, having learned the grip from former Rays teammate (and current free agent) Alex Cobb.

 

 

Just a point of clarification: Sanchez does not throw a splitter or a split change. He has a circle grip that moves more similarly to a splitter movement -- which is probably why Fangraphs has it quantified as such.

 

Sanchez changeup.PNG

 

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#6 jimmer

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:41 PM

At least one writer feels we've had a great offseason.

 

https://www.mlb.com/...son/c-266702116

 

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Modest proposal: Sign Lynn.

Bottom line: The Twins have already had a great offseason with the trade for right-hander Jake Odorizzi to go with the earlier additions of relievers Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney and the signing of right-hander Anibal Sanchez. But with ace Ervin Santana sidelined until May or June because of a finger injury and with their young starters still figuring things out, the Twins could go a long way toward flat-out winning the offseason with one more starting pitcher.

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#7 Mr. Brooks

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:48 PM

I think there are a lot of pitchforks due to come out, if there isn't a good starter still being targeted.

#8 Mike Sixel

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:53 PM

If Kalk sees something.... Shouldn't he have pointed that out last year, when he and ordozzi were on the same team?
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#9 laloesch

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:54 PM

At least one writer feels we've had a great offseason.
 
https://www.mlb.com/...son/c-266702116
 
Twins
Modest proposal: Sign Lynn.
Bottom line: The Twins have already had a great offseason with the trade for right-hander Jake Odorizzi to go with the earlier additions of relievers Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney and the signing of right-hander Anibal Sanchez. But with ace Ervin Santana sidelined until May or June because of a finger injury and with their young starters still figuring things out, the Twins could go a long way toward flat-out winning the offseason with one more starting pitcher.


I agree. Sign Lynn. He'll be expensive but signing him would make this team a division contender. A rotation of Santana, Lynn, Berrios, Odorizzi and Gibson / one of the many 5th rotation options is a strong starting five.
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#10 Deduno Abides

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:57 PM

Good article. This may be one of the three big issues of the year, along with (1) will Buxton, Sano, Rosario, Kepler and Polanco each take another step forward; and (2) will the brain trust and new pitching development staff start to graduate more major contributors after years of promise?
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#11 laloesch

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 07:57 PM

I think there are a lot of pitchforks due to come out, if there isn't a good starter still being targeted.


I'm just going on a gut feeling but i still feel they are looking for one more starter from the remaining free agents as well as keeping an eye on Archer. If Kepler is the center piece of a deal to acquire him, i'd be working hard to make that happen assuming Tampa is open to trading him.

#12 Otwins

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 08:19 PM

The bullpen and the rotation is better than last year. The front office does not like the prices on ace pitchers and we are not one player away. If we stay in the playoff race they may be willing to pay the price at the trade deadline. I like what they have done so far and they are still in position to do more.

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#13 Otwins

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 08:23 PM

 

If Kalk sees something.... Shouldn't he have pointed that out last year, when he and ordozzi were on the same team?

Maybe he did.Might be why Odorizzi finished well.

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#14 KirbyDome89

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 08:43 PM

I'm not certain it's fair, no matter what kind of results are delivered, to measure the FOs enlightenment based on either of these two. 


#15 Twodogs

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 08:43 PM

So am I wrong in assuming that at some point in the season the staff will look like this?

1 Santana
2 Berrios
3 Odorizzi
4 Gibson
5 Mejia, Sanchez, Hughes, May

I don't think I'm really going to include Gonsalves or Romero in the mix as I think they both need to build arm strength so they can at least pitch 150 - 170 innings which won't be this year but hopefully next year.

It at least shows that the Twins might have a little bit of depth and some competition going forward in the rotation.

I'd still like to see a Cobb or Lynn signing, 4 years 60mill with an opt out or something then this could be the rotation

1 Santana
2 Berrios
3 Lynn/Cobb
4 Odorizzi
5 Gibson
All those guys in the 5th spot becomes the 6th spot in case of injury, for instance to start the season with Santana on the shelf for a couple of months. I think a staff like that puts the Twins into 90+ win territory. They will still struggle to win the big game so not likely a WS rotation but if they are on Pace to win 90+ then maybe they can find that guy at the deadline like Houston did with Verlander??

Again I know I am just dreaming, but that's what being a Twins fan is all about.
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#16 Mr. Brooks

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 08:53 PM

I'm not certain it's fair, no matter what kind of results are delivered, to measure the FOs enlightenment based on either of these two.


Why not? They went into this off-season with starting pitching as a priority, quite a few options, and these are the two guys they hand picked.
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#17 nicksaviking

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 09:11 PM

Why not? They went into this off-season with starting pitching as a priority, quite a few options, and these are the two guys they hand picked.


But it doesn't mean they were their top choices.

#18 Mike Sixel

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 09:13 PM

But it doesn't mean they were their top choices.


Doesn't matter who their choices were, this is what they accomplished so far.... Usually you judge people on actions, not what they wanted to do, but didn't
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#19 KirbyDome89

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 09:33 PM

 

Why not? They went into this off-season with starting pitching as a priority, quite a few options, and these are the two guys they hand picked.

I'm as pissed as anybody about how the offseason went. 

 

IMO Sanchez has no chance to contribute in any meaningful way, but he's a flier so what are we really expecting? Odorizzi is a wild card. He might bounce back a bit, or he might be the guy that he was last season. You could argue he's a flier too. I'm not going to determine the competency of the FO based on a couple low upside guys. 

 

They aren't off to a great start; they did nothing last offseason, and they haven't done near enough to address the pitching this offseason either. That's a failure. As tired as I am of being told to have "patience," with the FO (and trust me I am,) I think rebuilding pitching organization wide is going to take quite a bit of time, so they're getting a mini pass here. I realize the opportunity the current club has, and I've been harsh in criticizing the FO for not taking advantage as of now. However, I think the long term development of pitching i.e. drafting and development is just as much a part of enlightenment, and so I'm not going to dismiss their aptitude for pitching altogether just yet. 

Edited by KirbyDome89, 18 February 2018 - 09:35 PM.

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#20 frightwig

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Posted 18 February 2018 - 09:35 PM

 

So am I wrong in assuming that at some point in the season the staff will look like this?

1 Santana
2 Berrios
3 Odorizzi
4 Gibson
5 Mejia, Sanchez, Hughes, May

 

Yes, I expect that the April rotation will be Berrios-Odorizzi-Gibson-Hughes + Sanchez or Mejia in the #5 spot. (Rhett Bollinger reports that Hughes is "at full health," so he'll definitely be in line for a job, with 2 years left on his contract.) Maybe they'll send Mejia to AAA to start the season--I think he has an option year left. While Santana is out, Sanchez/Hughes/Mejia will have a chance to show that they should get to stick around.

 

In June, Trevor May is expected to return. They say that they'd like to give him another chance in the rotation, but I'd guess that depends on how the team looks when he gets back.

 

Finally, we may see Romero and/or Gonsalves in the summer if they look great in AAA and there's an opening.

 

If they sign anybody else like Lynn or Cobb, they'd just be adding to a crowded field of back-end starters--and I'm not convinced that Lynn or Cobb would improve the situation. And I think adding either would mean giving up a draft pick and cutting someone from the 40-man, no?

 

Anyway, yeah, Odorizzi strikes me as a better version of Sanchez. He could be a fine mid-rotation starter if the Twins have the magic solution to cut down on his HR rates. Otherwise, Steamer projects a 4.74 ERA, 4.83 FIP, 4.94 xFIP and 0.9 fWAR in 24 starts (137 IP). And that's even with a decrease in his HR/9 from 1.88 to 1.59 HR/9. Obviously that's not going to push the Twins back towards another WC game.

 

The Twins coaches have their work cut out for them. I'm not super psyched about this trade, but we'll see.

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