Miguel Sano is day-to-day with a leg bruise. Byron Buxton didn’t get called up. Joe Mauer might retire at the end of the year. Eddie Rosario is out with a quadriceps injury. Mitch Garver suffered a concussion. September has been trying for a Minnesota Twins team looking to build hope for 2019.
“You gotta be a little bit cautious about over-evaluating things in a short stretch, especially at the end of the year,” said Molitor. “I’d much rather be not having all these people get opportunities and have a set lineup getting ready for a playoff game, but that’s the way it’s gone.”
While they will finish the year with a losing record after qualifying for a one-game Wild Card elimination game last season, September can be a time to showcase players that are part of the future.
“I don’t if we’ve learned enough, there’s always more to learn,” said Molitor, when to evaluate the Twins after they played contending teams like the Houston Astros, Yankees and Oakland Athletics in the final month of the season. “As you start to paint your canvas for ’19, you have a little bit more to sort through, given the fact that we’ve seen some of the guys, some more than others. But that’s always the project regardless of how you finish. You want to get a feel for how it’s going to shape.”
There are some players that have taken advantage of extended playing time in September. Kohl Stewart, the No. 4 overall selection in 2013, has shown signs of promise, Jake Cave is making a case for himself as part of the outfield mix next season and Willians Astudillo is just plain fun.
But Buxton and Sano need to pan out if the Twins are going to be competitive in the near term. Buxton battled nagging injuries all season long, while Sano bruised his lower left leg on an awkward slide on September 18. Buxton’s fractured big toe, hand and wrist injuries affected him at the plate, and he finished the year with only 28 games played and a .156/.183/.200 line. And if Sano’s injury symptoms linger, he could be out for the rest of the year and finish the season with a .199/.281/.398 line and 115 strikeouts in only 71 games played after making the All-Star Game last season.
“A lot of things influence” how 2019 will take shape, says Molitor. “Not only the people who are here but other people in your system who still might impact, hopefully. And whatever else that goes on in the baseball world in the winter time, which can sometimes be significant.”
Perhaps there is a major trade to be made, and prospects like Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff and Brusdar Graterol are among many prospects in a farm system that was replenished at the trade deadline. But it’s unlikely that any of those three players, who are all teenagers, will make an impact next season.
Fernando Romero, 23, was not recalled because he was approaching an innings limit, but pitched well immediately when he was initially called up in May before struggling in June. He could eventually become a 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation with Jose Berrios, 24, who made his first All-Star Game this year.
Eddie Rosario, 26, made an All-Star case for himself this season, hitting .311/.353/.537 in the first half. But he continues to be overly-aggressive on the bases and misses cutoff men in the outfield, and only hit .240/.262/.361 in the second half before injuring his quad in a Sept. 17 game.
There are other players worth monitoring — Stephen Gonsalves, Max Kepler, Tyler Austin — who all could be part of the mix next season.
And then there’s the Mauer question.
While he is not the All-Star catcher he once was, he has been much-improved from the .267/.353/.380 hitter he was from 2014-16 — the three years after suffering his career-altering concussion. He hit .305/.384/.417 in 2017, and has hovered around a .275-.280 average as the team’s primary leadoff hitter this season. Despite being one of the best hitters with runners in scoring position this season, this homestand could be his last in a Twins uniform.
“The professionalism, the performance, the things he’s done here in his hometown community for a number of years — it’s just been the full package. Everything that we can ask for Joe, he’s always been there to do it,” said Molitor.
“I’m hoping there’s a little sense of acknowledgement each and every time he steps on that field, from however many fans come out to games this week.”
This season always seemed like a bit of an outlier. The AL Central was not very good, outside of the Cleveland Indians, and a high-80 win total didn’t seem outlandish after the season Minnesota had in 2017. But that might not have been enough to make the playoffs, and even if Sano and Buxton had been healthy, there would be questions about the former’s strikeout rate and the latter’s ability with the bat.
There’s reason that this team could bounce back next year, but September has done little to quell fears of a continued rebuild. Finishing strong at home won’t solve everything, but it could leave things on a positive final impression going into an important offseason.