Twins mailbag: Brooks Lee comps, trade deadline needs, cutting Jordan Balazovic

It’s been just over a month since my last Minnesota Twins mailbag column, and a lot has changed.

Back then, the Twins had the American League’s sixth-best record at 33-28 (.541), Royce Lewis had just returned from the injured list with a homer in each of his first two games and the first subscriber question asked when Brooks Lee would be called up from Triple-A St. Paul.

Since then, the Twins have gone 19-11 (.633) to rise to the AL’s fourth-best record, Lewis is sidelined again after another brilliant run at the plate followed by another frustrating injury and Lee is in the big leagues for the first time as his replacement.

Let’s open the mailbag and see what’s on your minds about a second-place team that’s currently slotted into the AL’s second wild-card spot.

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

Which former Twins player is the best career-long comp for Brooks Lee’s future upside? — Lee R.

These are always tricky, because it’s difficult to balance a top-30 prospect’s true upside, which is almost always a perennial All-Star, with their realistic downside, which is often not even reaching the majors. In this case, Lee is a big leaguer already, but the larger point remains. Even elite-level prospects have a wide spectrum of career outcomes.

Limiting this to former Twins, the comp for Lee that immediately comes to mind is Jorge Polanco, another switch-hitting middle infielder who came up as a shortstop before shifting mostly to second base. Polanco was an All-Star starter in 2019 and also played at an All-Star level in 2021, and he ranks 17th among Twins position players in career wins above replacement.

Injuries were a problem for Polanco late in his Twins career, but during his six-year peak from 2018 to 2023 he hit .270/.338/.455 for a 116 OPS+, with an average of 23 homers, 36 doubles/triples and 59 walks per 150 games. Lee is capable of batting quite a bit higher than .270, but he’s also no sure thing to develop as much power as Polanco, who topped out at 33 homers in 2021.

Stylistic-based quibbles and health-related variance aside, I think Polanco is a reasonable comp for Lee if the goal is the 50th percentile outcome rather than the best- or worst-case scenarios. Switch-hitting infielder with a 110-120 OPS+ bat who’s an above-average regular most seasons and an All-Star in his best seasons. I’ll bet the Twins would sign up for that again.

Of course, a week into his big-league career, Lee is hitting .450 and looking more like the second coming of Rod Carew.

Why did the Twins release Jordan Balazovic? — Jason C.

Two years ago, Jordan Balazovic was a consensus top-100 prospect coming off an excellent Double-A season. Now he’s headed to South Korea, with the Twins agreeing to release the 25-year-old right-hander from their Triple-A roster last week so he can sign with the Doosan Bears of the KBO. They likely got a small amount of money in return.

Balazovic once looked like a potential front-line starter, but his secondary pitches and command never progressed as hoped. His overall development was also repeatedly sidetracked by knee and shoulder injuries, as well as a broken jaw from an off-field incident two spring trainings ago. (There’s that wide spectrum of career outcomes for top prospects that I mentioned earlier.)

Moved to the bullpen last season in an effort to salvage his Twins career, Balazovic posted a 5.44 ERA with 134 base runners allowed in 81 innings as a Triple-A reliever. He received an unexpected call-up in the middle of last season when the Twins were desperate for fresh arms, but finished with a 4.44 ERA and 38 base runners allowed in 24 1/3 innings.

And that’s the totality of his big-league career with the Twins, who selected a 17-year-old Balazovic in the fifth round out of Canada as part of the Terry Ryan-led front office regime’s last draft class in 2016. Fortunately for the Twins, they also picked major leaguers Alex Kirilloff, Jose Miranda and Griffin Jax, plus Ben Rortvedt and Akil Baddoo, ahead of Balazovic in that same class.

If Simeon Woods Richardson stays healthy and pitches effectively, any talk of an innings limit in the second half? — John R.

I don’t think it’ll be a big factor. Simeon Woods Richardson totaled 118 1/3 innings in 2023 and 112 1/3 innings in 2022, so increasing the 23-year-old’s workload to 150 innings this year would be reasonable. He’s on pace for 155 innings between the majors and Triple A. I’d guess that his second-half workload will be based way more on effectiveness than innings.

Any talk of moving Louie Varland back to the bullpen? — Aaron H.

Nothing has really changed on that front.

Louie Varland may wind up in the bullpen again, like last year, but it’s not going to happen unless/until the Twins feel confident they have the starter depth necessary to get through an entire season. That’s impossible to know in early July, especially with Chris Paddack fresh off the injured list after a much-needed break and Woods Richardson still needing to prove himself.

How likely is it that the Twins will trade for a starting pitcher? — Steven S.

As part of my early trade deadline primer a few weeks ago, I suggested a front-line starter was the Twins’ biggest need. Paddack being shut down with shoulder fatigue and David Festa struggling in two fill-in starts are the only notable changes since, so it remains true. But the “front-line” part of front-line starter is key, because they’re not lacking in decent options.

Upgrading the playoff rotation would require adding someone better than Bailey Ober, the current No. 3 starter after Pablo López and Joe Ryan. And even upgrading the regular-season rotation would require adding someone better than Paddack or Woods Richardson, as well as in-house backup arms like Festa, Varland and ascending Double-A prospect Zebby Matthews.

That’s a much higher bar than simply needing a competent starter, and the cost to clear it would be substantial in terms of prospect capital, especially if Twins ownership isn’t willing to take on much salary.

Given next year’s likely constrained payroll, do you expect the front office to deviate from their past trade deadline strategy of targeting players with one-plus years of team control as opposed to pure rentals? — Paul J.

Yes. I suspect any trade that would add significant guaranteed 2025 salary is unlikely for the Twins after they cut payroll by $30 million this offseason and are below revenue projections due to lower-than-expected attendance.

I wrote about this topic two weeks ago, calling it “unfortunate and frankly sort of pathetic.” I’d love to be proven wrong, but the Twins deserve every ounce of skepticism based on how ownership handled this offseason.

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The Twins are averaging just under 22,000 per game, a decrease of about 1,200 compared to last season. (Abbie Parr / Associated Press)

How much do you attribute the lower-than-anticipated attendance numbers to many fans not being able to watch the Twins on television? — Mason R.

There’s room to quibble about how much each specific factor has led to the Twins’ decreased attendance, but it’s undeniable that their television mess, on the heels of their inactive, payroll-slashing offseason, brought rising fan morale to a screeching halt and turned off many devoted followers in a way that reinforced their longstanding suspicions about ownership.

Last season, the Twins won a division title and their first playoff series in two decades, and this season they’ve followed it up by playing at a 93-win pace. To do that and then not have your attendance increase is rare, but to see it actually decrease by 1,200 per game year over year requires a unique set of circumstances almost designed to push away customers.

There’s no logical on-field reason for a decline in attendance; in fact the opposite should be true, which lays bare the real reason. And unfortunately for fans, lower attendance and lower TV viewership leads to lower revenue, which in turn likely leads to lower payroll. It’s a vicious cycle and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if a team doesn’t actively fight against it.

Are the Twins OK with eating Randy Dobnak’s contract or why is he never a call-up option? — Joe V.

Randy Dobnak is owed the same amount of money regardless of where he’s pitching. His lack of major-league action since 2021 has been due to a finger injury that required multiple surgeries, and his subsequent struggles to get back on track at Triple A. He has a 4.65 ERA across 209 innings for the Saints the past two seasons, often struggling with control.

Dobnak has put together a good stretch recently, but he was never going to be ahead of prospects such as Varland, Woods Richardson and Festa on the Twins’ rotation depth chart, and fellow Triple-A veteran Caleb Boushley has been similarly effective for the Saints this season as well.

Barring a rash of second-half starter injuries, Dobnak’s best chance to get back to the majors will probably be as a long reliever.

Carlos Correa doesn’t have a stolen base since 2019. With players like Jose Miranda and Christian Vázquez running for the Twins, will Correa steal one this season? — Isaac K.

I doubt it. Carlos Correa was once an effective runner, stealing 27 bases at an 80 percent success rate in his first two seasons with the Houston Astros, but soon after that he made a conscious decision to stop running in an effort to avoid injuries. The last time he even attempted to steal was September 2022, which resulted in a caught stealing and an injury scare.

Like many players after a decade in the big leagues, Correa has also gotten much slower, ranking below average in sprint speed since 2022. I’d assume he could swipe a handful of bases per season while rarely being caught, but whatever minimal value that adds would be wiped away and then some the moment Correa got banged up on a slide and had to miss games.

Why don’t the Twins have their batters bunt to get an easy hit when there’s a shift? — John N.

I double-checked to make sure this question didn’t get stuck in the mailbag system for the past two years, but it’s indeed a new submission.

Since last season, when MLB changed the rules to significantly limit shifts, the Twins have 14 bunt hits and the average AL team has 16 bunt hits. They have bunted for hits at essentially a league-average rate.

One thing I’ve learned over the years: When you find yourself asking why one team doesn’t do an “easy” thing that would benefit them, it’s worth considering if they’re different than the other teams in that regard and if it’s truly an easy thing at all.

Jhoan Duran isn’t getting as much swing-and-miss on his curveball. Have the characteristics of the curveball changed or is his lesser fastball velocity making his other pitches easier to hit? — Chris W.

Both. Jhoan Duran has lost velocity on all three of his pitches this season, including his curveball being down an average of 1.4 mph. Velocity doesn’t just matter for fastballs, and as I wrote last month, each of the four homers Duran has allowed this season have been hit on off-speed pitches thrown below his peak velocity.

Beyond that, while Duran’s curveball is a great pitch on its own, pairing it with a 101-104 mph fastball the past two seasons helped it be even greater. When his fastball is down to 99-102 mph, opposing hitters have more time to react, in general, and the difference between his fastball and curveball doesn’t scramble their brains quite as much.

I miss hearing you on KFAN. Any chance that happens again? — James L.

Possibly. I chose to take a step back from KFAN appearances this season because of feeling overextended, in part as a result of some health issues that made going to the radio studio multiple times per week a little more taxing. I’ve had more MRIs than Royce Lewis this year, so I’m still trying to limit my pitch counts. Everyone at KFAN has been very understanding.

If you want to hear me talking Twins, the good news is I co-host a podcast called “Gleeman and The Geek” that releases an average of three episodes per week. We do a “free” show most Fridays, and typically do Monday and Wednesday episodes exclusively for our Patreon subscribers. I’d encourage anyone who enjoyed listening to me on KFAN to give the podcast a try.

(Top photo of Brooks Lee: Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins / Getty Images)

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