Set to embark on a new season, the Minnesota Twins are once again getting very little respect from national pundits.
Entering last season, most win projections pegged the Twins in the high 60s or low 70s, which Minnesota blew past on their way to 83 wins and nearly a wild card berth. But experts are expecting Minnesota to dip below the .500 mark in 2016 after an overachieving first year with new manager Paul Molitor.
Whenever a team improves by a 13-game margin as the Twins did last season, it’s fair to wonder if the success was fluky. Analytics websites attributed last year’s fast start – highlighted by a really good 20-7 May – to uncharacteristically clutch hitting that couldn’t be sustained and a pitching staff that escaped jams more often than normal. While the team backtracked in late summer and affirmed the doubters, their gritty push to the finish that kept them in the playoff race until the season’s penultimate day provided some belief locally that the Twins could be for real.
Nationally speaking, there aren’t many folks buying in. Analytics website FanGraphs.com has the Twins finishing with 78 wins. Same goes for most gambling websites that have set win totals for each team. More trendy within the AL Central stable are the World Champion Kansas City Royals, the supposedly improved Detroit Tigers (projected to win 13 more games this season) and last year’s Sports Illustrated championship pick, the Cleveland Indians, who had sabermetrics on their side all of 2015, unlike the Twins.
Internally, the Twins have high hopes, but that doesn’t mean they can ignore the possibility of regression. If the 2016 Twins wish to avoid a swoon and make the postseason, they’ll need to be watchful of a few red flags.
For one, the team can’t afford second-half slumps for Brian Dozier or Glen Perkins.
Dozier hit .256/.328/.513 in the first half of the season, smacked a pair of walk-off home runs, hit a bomb in the All-Star Game … and then broke down afterward. The second baseman hit a paltry .210/.280/.359 after his All-Star appearance and finished the season with 148 strikeouts. He also dealt with a hampering hip injury that may have come about from overexertion in the team’s first half. The Twins need a steadier year from Dozier in the leadoff spot to set the table for big boppers Miguel Sano, Trevor Plouffe and Byung Ho Park.
Perkins mirrored Dozier in that the All-Star Game seemed to spark a downward trajectory for his season. After being unhittable for the season’s first half with a 1.21 ERA and an opponent’s batting average of .188, Perkins became a liability down the stretch with a 7.32 ERA and opponent’s average of .360.
The lefty had on-and-off back spasms throughout the season’s second half that kept him rusty as he saw trade acquisition Kevin Jepsen take over the closing duties. With Jepsen now around for the entire season, as well as Trevor May in a setup role, the leash on Perkins may not be as long. That may be the type of pressure he needs to stay fit and hold down the ninth inning role for an entire season. That’s what the team has to be hoping.
The Twins also have to strike the delicate balance between giving young players some leeway and pulling the plug too quickly.
Minnesota touts a young outfield of proverbial question marks. In one corner, Eddie Rosario: an energetic young man who took the team by storm last season, turning a stint that wasn’t supposed to last more than a couple weeks into a starting role with the club down the stretch. Can he improve on his breakout performance from last year, or will his abnormally high BABIP come back to earth and his 8:1 K/BB ratio begin to haunt him?
In another corner, Miguel Sano: a 270-pound man being asked to patrol the outfield and lead the team in home runs. His 18 homers in half a season last year wasn’t a fluke. He is a generational power hitter. The question the public is asking, though, is why the immense Sano has been given an outfield glove instead of being stashed at first base or DH. How many errors will the team tolerate if the outfield experiment goes south?
And in the middle, there’s Byron Buxton, an A-plus defender with a strong arm who will continue the pattern of Minnesota employing defensive stars in center field. He’s yet to show he can hit major league pitching, however. Buxton will have to do all he can to avoid the fate of Aaron Hicks, who tarnished his career by hitting so poorly when he reached the Major League level that he couldn’t hang with the team. But unlike Hicks, Buxton is a top-three prospect in baseball, and the Twins can ill afford to damage his psyche.
In each of these cases, the Twins may be faced with decisions. If Rosario struggles, do they replace him with Oswaldo Arcia or Max Kepler? If Sano can’t play the outfield, what then? If Buxton can’t hit, do they give him another stint in Triple-A? The way these decisions are handled could impact the season greatly.
Finally, while most of the Twins’ top offensive talent has already reached the Major Leagues, much of their pitching talent is still on the verge of a call-up, and the Twins shouldn’t be afraid to push them forward if they can help the staff.
Starters Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey will begin the year at Triple-A, while the Twins send the much-maligned Ricky Nolasco into the starting rotation, likely just to bolster his trade value. In no way should Nolasco remain in the rotation if Berrios, Duffey or Meyer light up Rochester.
Hard-throwing bullpen arms like Jake Reed, Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois and Mason Melotakis, at various levels of the farm system, could climb the ladder quickly to provide relief help, too. Their exclusion from the current roster is acceptable, but Fernando Abad, Ryan Pressly and Michael Tonkin should not be untouchable if they slump in the middle of the season or earlier.
The Twins got a huge offensive lift from their youth last season, and it’s very possible their young pitchers could provide the boost this year if they get a chance.
Now that something is truly on the line for the Twins, they’ll need to be more decisive about personnel decisions. Fringe players can’t be given trials at the expense of the big league club. And struggling players need to be held accountable if they don’t pan out.
The pipeline of talent the Twins have been grooming since Terry Ryan’s return is finally on the verge of making noise. It’s up to management to handle them correctly.