You’ll have to forgive projection systems for their pessimism regarding the 2016 Minnesota Twins. But those systems don’t necessarily see a team that won 83 games a year ago after losing 90 in four straight seasons. They don’t quite fully grasp that the team will have a full season of Miguel Sano. Or for that matter, even a full season of Ervin Santana. Or Trevor May in the bullpen working in tandem with Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen. That bunch was never fully clicking together, and that’s reason for some bullpen-related optimism.
A common phrase that’ll come up in statistical circles regarding the Twins in 2015 and moving forward is “cluster luck.” The best way that I know to simply explain it is this: the Twins scored more runs than the tried and true measures that lead to scoring runs would have predicted. Ultimately, a team that allowed more runs than it scored finished over .500. Technically, that isn’t “supposed” to happen. And of course baseball is a game with improbable happenings, but in a season of 162 games, these things usually have a way of leveling out. Not because each of those outcomes are necessarily interrelated, but because they ultimately foretell the true talent level of the team.
In essence, the view of last year’s Twins team was a “true talent” of about 79-80 wins. They won 83. That isn’t really wild.
In short, the components don’t match the finished product, sort of like American-made cars a decade or so ago.
But these projections see a team with poor plate discipline — 1,264 strikeouts and just 439 walks — that finished eighth in the AL in runs scored despite finishing 10th or worse in hits, home runs, steals, walks, strikeouts and each of the triple-slash line statistics. In short, the components don’t match the finished product, sort of like American-made cars a decade or so ago.
But before anyone jumps down my throat, it doesn’t mean the Twins are doomed to head down the same road a second time, and this time fall into the manhole they left so recklessly uncovered. Maybe Rosario regresses, but a full season of Sano should be nothing but positive. Nobody knows quite yet what Byung-Ho Park’s adjustment will be like, but replacing Torii Hunter’s offensive contributions shouldn’t be too terribly hard.
Replacing him in the clubhouse might be a different story.
But if the narrative was that Hunter was the key cog in a clubhouse that badly needed a rejuvenation, shouldn’t some of that carry over with basically the same team intact? More likely, how the team plays will carry the narrative, which is a story that all too often is the other way around.
The pieces are in place for this to be a successful team. The offense top-to-bottom should be filled with offensively competent players, with John Ryan Murphy likely siphoning playing time from Kurt Suzuki all season long until the job is more or less his. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do in full-time duty; he’s mostly hit lefties pretty well as a caddy for Brian McCann in New York, but the belief among people in the game is that he has the chance to be an above-average offensive catcher.
Eduardo Escobar has now put together two fairly good offensive seasons at shortstop, and is trending closer to Mr. Right than Mr. Right Now at the position. Since the start of the 2014 season, Escobar has hit .268/.312/.425 while passing the eye test at shortstop; just four of his contemporaries out of 22 with at least 900 plate appearances in that time frame have a higher slugging percentage or OPS. One of them is no longer a shortstop, and wasn’t last year anyway (Hanley Ramirez), one is currently hurt (Jhonny Peralta) and one is universally regarded as one of the very best players in the game (Troy Tulowitzki).
As a bunch they’ll have to stave off a bit of regression, but by and large this looks like a league-average offense, with potential for even more. If Park proves to be a revelation as some projection systems suggest, that could be the jump-off point.
The starting rotation isn’t exciting, but should be steady.
The starting rotation isn’t exciting, but should be steady. Whether or not the staff on the whole breaks the five-year skid of ranking dead last in MLB in strikeouts per nine innings might be a different story, though an early-season promotion of Jose Berrios or even Tyler Duffey could move the needle in that respect. So too will moving to harder-throwing, higher-ceiling arms in the bullpen like Michael Tonkin and Ryan Pressly rather than Brian Duensing and Blaine Boyer. Every other reliever in the bullpen has shown good stuff and/or strikeout potential at some point in their career, and the trio of Jepsen-May-Perkins in the back end should excite fans. Not only can they at least somewhat reasonably expect each to stick together all year, but simply working together in harmony is something that never happened last year.
Remember that May was in the rotation to start the season, and worked with Perkins a bit toward the middle before the latter’s second half collapse and injury issues. When the Twins acquired Jepsen on July 31, Perkins had 29 saves and just two blown saves, a 2.36 ERA, .572 OPS against and a 37-6 K/BB ratio in 42 innings/37 appearances.
And afterward? From Aug. 1 on, Perkins made 17 appearances: 6.00 ERA, three saves/one blown save, 6.00 ERA, 1.007 OPS against, 17-4 K/BB ratio and four home runs allowed in 15 innings.
So while the team didn’t make a big bullpen addition, adding Jepsen with an additional year of control should prove shrewd for general manager Terry Ryan. Having a full season of May in the bullpen should help too; as a reliever he’ll be better than any free agent that was available this offseason. Casey Fien also showed more late in the season after coming back from arm issues — including more than a strikeout per inning in the final month of the season — and moving him into the middle innings provides more familiarity as well as a very, very low walk rate. Lefty Fernando Abad would be miscast as a specialist — skipper Paul Molitor has already wisely noted this — but has good stuff and was incredible in 2014 with the A’s. The rest of his career has been a rollercoaster ride, but on a minor-league deal it was a good gamble. And if things go south, Taylor Rogers can step in right away and neutralize left-handed hitters; collectively between Triple-A and the Arizona Fall League they managed to hit just .177/.209/.193 off the 25-year-old lefty.
All told, this Twins team has a lot more potential than a calendar year ago.
All told, this Twins team has a lot more potential than a calendar year ago. But now it has expectations. It is not terribly likely, but certainly possible that the team plays better but finishes with a worse record. That may sound counter-intuitive, but just stick with me here; they’re on the right track, but still maybe a season away from real contention. Keys to this season include assimilating a few more of the kids, and getting Byron Buxton a bit closer to his ceiling.
If all that can happen, there’s no reason this team can’t win 83-85 games. That’ll put them in the thick of it at the end. Their floor should be relatively safe at about 76-78 wins as well.