That Went Well – A Minnesota Twins preview

Target Field (Terry Foote)

Welcome to the 2020 team preview series on Sox Machine! For newer fans of the site, these will be posted prior to the first time the White Sox play against an opponent during the season. For long-time followers, well, here’s an additional bit of normalcy back in to your life.

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That went well. For the second time this decade, the Minnesota Twins managed to boost their win total by over 20 wins en route to a playoff berth. The single most obvious cause of their ascent into the 100-win club in 2019 was a near-doubling of their home run total from 2018; they whomped 307 of them. There are many reasons one could point to for this sudden increase. There’s the juiced ball, the revamped coaching under the leadership of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, and the fact that many of the Twins’ young players were reaching their peak development ages in the power department. With the exception of 38-year-old designated hitter Nelson Cruz (who chipped in a team-leading 41 homers), every Twins lineup regular was between the ages of 25 and 29.

Another underlying reason was the new personnel that the Twins brought in over the winter. As a Sox fan, it was frustrating last winter to watch the Twins make a real effort to patch holes on their roster and get better, despite that they were never going to enter the season as favorites against Cleveland. Indeed, Minnesota’s novel strategy of employing a lineup without any real holes shockingly bore fruit. While cromulent stopgaps C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop have now departed for Detroit, the aforementioned Cruz remains as a menacing threat, and supersub Marwin Gonzalez — baseball’s ultimate Band-Aid — will be around this again to help keep the Twins’ afloat if a regular has to miss time.

What’s frightening about this year’s Twins is that Cron and Schoop are effectively being replaced by far superior players. The Twins made one of the strongest moves of the winter by inking Josh Donaldson to a four year, $92 million deal in late January. One of the best players of the last decade, the 34-year-old Donaldson arrives fresh off of a 6-WAR season in Atlanta and should be a significant improvement on Minnesota’s already-strong division odds. Sliding in at second base is Luis Arraez, who’s basically what you all hope Nick Madrigal will be. Arraez slapped his way to a .334 average in a half-season of work in 2019, while posting just 29 strikeouts over 366 plate appearances.

The Twins saw dramatic improvements from their incumbents as well. Shortstop Jorge Polanco got slapped with an 80-game PED suspension in 2018, but came back to post a star-caliber season in 2019. While no great shakes defensively, Polanco learned how to put a charge in the ball last season, and was particularly dangerous swinging from the left side (.891 OPS). Mitch Garver had a breakout season for the ages, and thanks to improved framing skills and a stratospheric .630 SLG, he’s gone from off-the-grid to baseball’s top catching tier heading into 2020. Max Kepler‘s offense finally caught up to (and arguably surpassed) his strong outfield defense in 2019 and he functioned as an unconventional power-hitting leadoff man in Rocco Baldelli‘s lineup.

Miguel Sano has frustrated Twins fans like crazy over the last several years, but he finally erupted in 2019 by hitting .271/.376/.618 after June 28. With Donaldson in tow, Sano will slide from third over to the cold corner this season, which suits his defensive “abilities” far better. Possibly the only Twins regular that didn’t show substantial improvement last season was left fielder Eddie Rosario, but he still weighed in with his usual complement of extra-base hits despite swinging at absolutely everything under the sun.

If there’s a place on the Twins’ roster where people try to poke holes, it’s the starting rotation. However, with an offense like Minnesota’s, all the pitching really needs to do is tread water, and the Twins’ staff is built to do just that. There’s a lot of depth behind staff leader Jose Berrios, whose frequent gems are offset by enough rocky outings to keep him from being called a bona fide ace. When he’s on, Berrios gets you with his offspeed stuff, and an improved changeup in 2019 was an interesting development for the curveball-heavy righty. Jake Odorizzi gained some extra velocity in his first year in Minnesota and was able to earn more strikeouts with his fastball as a result. He was stellar on a per-inning basis last year, but he doesn’t pitch particularly deep into games.

After much drama surrounding the multi-team Mookie Betts trade, the Twins eventually were able to acquire Kenta Maeda, who’s a big boost to the rotation. Maeda’s slider and change are nasty offerings, and he’s murder on right-handed hitters (.589 career OPS-against). Homer Bailey‘s usage of his bad sinker went down by 11 percent last year and his usage of his good splitter went up by 11 percent last year. It’s not much of a shock that this resulted in him being useful for the first time since 2014, and he’s a great depth add for Minnesota. Rich Hill is 40 years old and still spinning curveballs. He was extremely effective for the Dodgers last season in a short stint before being shut down with elbow surgery. Reportedly Hill’s recovered well, but the injury and the age raises questions as to whether he can keep posting strikeout rates near 30 percent.

Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer were slated for more work prior to the acquisition of Maeda and prior to the shortening of the season (which enabled Hill to get healthy), but they’re two big reasons many had underestimated the Twins’ pitching depth. Both had short-season success last year despite coming from way off the radar. Dobnak began 2019 driving Ubers and slinging sliders in Low-A; he ended it as a postseason starter. Smeltzer arguably wasn’t a top-30 prospect in the organization before last season, but the lefty’s changeup propelled him to the bigs and he wound up throwing 49 effective innings between the rotation and bullpen. We know the Twins have figured out some strong coaching techniques for hitters, but if they’re able to also sculpt former nobodies like these two into quality major league pitchers, there’s going to be tough times ahead for their AL Central opponents.

***

The old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his lifetime.” This quote comes to mind because fixing holes in a roster by using free agents or trade feels like “giving a man a fish.” It’s a hole patch used to temporarily address a positional weakness in an organization’s ability to develop their own players. While the Twins have done their fair share of external acquisitions over the last few years, their true strides have been with coaxing the best performance out of players they’ve acquired and developed internally. They still have a top-10 farm system despite recent graduations and the talent pipeline isn’t stopping anytime soon. The Twins seem to have learned to fish for themselves.

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Friday, July 24: Jose Berrios vs. Lucas Giolito
  • Saturday, July 25: Rich Hill vs. Dallas Keuchel
  • Sunday, July 26: Kenta Maeda vs. Reynaldo Lopez

Probable Lineup

  1. Max Kepler – RF
  2. Josh Donaldson – 3B
  3. Nelson Cruz – DH
  4. Jorge Polanco – SS
  5. Miguel Sano – 1B
  6. Eddie Rosario – LF
  7. Mitch Garver – C
  8. Luis Arraez – 2B
  9. Byron Buxton – CF

Pitching

(Photo Credit: Terry Foote)

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John SF

The flip side of the Twins big success last year in developing lower ranked prospects and players is that some of their very tops draft picks have underperformed.

Scary to imagine what happens if Royce Lewis, for example, ever finds his ceiling.

I’m hoping for regression from practically the entire Twins roster. If they can even just hold steady they are obviously at least as good as the Sox’s ceiling this year.

But with the new playoffs allowing 2.67 teams per division, we only need to really be better than any 1 of the Twins, Cleveland, Astros, A’s, Yankees, Ray’s, Angels, Blue Jays, Red Sox.

(Barring an unexpected Mariners or Rangers surge, I guess).

As Cirensica

It is so nice to see these series back. For many reasons. Thanks Patrick. I am so excited about the White Sox this year. Can’t wait to see this game.

PauliePaulie

Timmay in the leadoff spot vs. RHP?
Come on, Ricky.

jorgefabregas

A lot of scoreboard watching will be ambiguous with the playoff spots. However, rooting interests are clear when a division team is playing the NL, so let’s go Reds!

shaggy65

In general I’m rooting for the Tigers and Royals to steal as many games as possible from the Twins and Indians.

lil jimmy

Age catches us all. Nelson Cruz is 40. as I recall, 40 is old.