WARNE: Twins Begin Sell-Off Amidst Disappointing Season

Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t have to be this way.

The most talented bunch of Minnesota Twins since the inaugural season at Target Field — argue, if you must — faced some seriously bad mojo all along the way, but it still shouldn’t have resulted in a team heading into the final two months of the season more than five games under .500, completely out of the Wild Card race and an afterthought in the weakest division in the game.

There were a handful of moments a person could look back at as particularly damning. One or maybe a few from this list on their own would be the death knell of a season, but when combined they paint a vastly different picture:

Miguel Sano’s sexual assault allegations didn’t place any direct effect on the 2018 Twins — outside of if you believe in karma, I suppose — but it was part of a rolling snowball down a hill that included a brutal leg injury that cost him a big chunk of the second half last year, and contributed to the rough start that got him sent back to High-A Fort Myers for a reboot.

That reboot ended just a couple days ago — a direct reaction to the trade of Eduardo Escobar. More on that in a bit.

Jorge Polanco’s suspension for performance-enhancing drugs again is more surface-level than anything. Polanco takes arguably the best plate appearances — non-Joe Mauer division — on the team, and while he was capably covered by Escobar and even the surprising Ehire Adrianza, there were stretches early in the year where the offense needed the length that Polanco would have provided.

That was magnified even more clearly when Sano hit .186/.252/.330 in the 25 games between the team leaving Puerto Rico and his three-level demotion, leaving the team to scramble with Escobar sliding to third and Adrianza playing every day.

The concern about Ervin Santana’s finger — which required capsular debridement surgery in early February — was initially muted with him likely returning in late April or early May. Fernando Romero’s strong MLB debut helped stem the tide, but when early May bled into him being placed on the 60-day disabled list on May 5 and pulled off his rehab stint at the end of the month, it pretty quickly became a lost season for the veteran righty.

Santana can be a free agent at the end of the year — he has a team option for $14 million that’ll likely be declined — and will head into the open market with more uncertainty than anything, assuming he’ll make just 10-12 starts in this, his age-35 season.

Byron Buxton’s injury started out as migraines, oddly enough. Buxton dealt with them in Puerto Rico — in fact, he was scratched from the Game 1 lineup and didn’t play in Game 2, either — and when the team headed to St. Petersburg, he was placed on the disabled list as a measure to get the Twins some added outfield depth with a short bench.

With a Wednesday activation looming, Buxton fouled a ball off his toe in a Sunday rehab game with High-A Fort Myers. And while initial X-rays indicated no break, it was later revealed that Buxton had a hairline fracture in his big toe. That led to a hasty activation from the disabled list, and after he hit just .122/.140/.163 in 17 games, he was put back on the disabled list with toe issues and hasn’t resurfaced in the big leagues since — dating all the way back to May 29.

Once Buxton successfully rehabbed his toe injury, he was left in Rochester to get his game back up to speed — and 10 days later injured his hand on a swing. It was fortunately not a fracture — and especially not a hamate issue — but the collateral damage is that he’s hit just .233/.309/.411 in 19 games at Rochester.

Sano’s reboot was also cushioned by how Escobar played — if someone told you the third baseman for the Twins hit .274/.338/.514, would you have been surprised? — but again was part of a bigger team problem. Getting Sano back in control — read this however you feel best fits — was more important for the large picture than 2018, though it obviously had a huge effect on how this year has gone as well.

The 1-8 road trip that went through both ends of Chicago and Milwaukee was also a crushing blow to the team’s dwindling playoff odds, though to be fair, there has never been a time this season where “Twins” and “playoffs” could rationally be uttered in the same sentence. Feel free to invoke Jim Mora at your own discretion here.

But the White Sox part of that stretch really put into focus what has plagued the Twins all season long. Sure, most of their offseason moves have flopped — and in truly stunning, unison fashion somehow — but this team still had the pieces in place to stay afloat in the American League Central if they simply beat the teams actively trying not to win this year.

The Twins are 3-3 against Detroit this year, 7-5 against the White Sox and 3-6 against the Royals. Combined, that’s a 13-14 record against three teams a combined 86 games under .500.

The Royals have won just 32 games all season. Reframed, that’s nearly 20 percent (18.8 percent) of their wins for the entire season. You can go ahead and lump the “swept by Kansas City” part of the tweet above into here.

Meanwhile, the division-leading Cleveland Indians — up 8.0 games on the Twins at the start of business Sunday — have buried the competition, going a combined 26-8 against the Royals, White Sox and Tigers.

The difference between those two records? A 9.5-game difference in the standings.

And as a result, the Twins have found themselves sellers, with two big deals coming down while the team has been in Boston taking on the Red Sox.

The first was shipping Escobar to the Arizona Diamondbacks. And while fans have lamented the trading of a clubhouse favorite, the writing was on the wall with him slated to hit free agency at the best possible time for him. He’s in the midst of a two-year stretch that has seen him hit .264/.324/.479 with 36 home runs and 54 doubles in 227 games.

Not only that, but he’s shown tremendous versatility, playing third, second and short as well as a little left field, pitching and catching. He has an infectious demeanor about him that makes it impossible not to have a smile on your face when he’s in the same room. That demeanor is most easily seen from his series of “Escobar Name Game” videos that the team produced over the last two years in Spring Training.

His postgame interviews are must-watch television, as well.

But while his clubhouse presence will be missed, getting Sano back to the big leagues was also important, and doing so while diminishing the playing time of Escobar (trade chip), Brian Dozier (trade chip) and Jorge Polanco (key piece of the future) was never going to be a viable option, either.

Beyond that, if the Twins truly wanted to bring Escobar back to Minnesota, they’ll have the same chance as 29 other teams when he declares for free agency after the World Series. With playoff odds hovering around 1 percent and the trade deadline just a couple days away, moving Escobar was the smart play.

So let’s take a look at the return, and how they’re viewed by the industry (with prospect rankings):

  • RHP Jhoan Duran – No. 19 on Arizona list/No. 22 on Minnesota list places a 65 on Duran’s fastball, as the big righty — 6-foot-5, 175 pounds — is more sizzle than substance at this point. That’s fine; he’s just 20. He has a three-pitch mix he’s still working on, and his fastball is heavy. His groundball rates the last three seasons — across a few levels — have consistently been in the 50-55 percent range.

The MLB average is about 45 percent, and Duran is clearly a cut above that. He’s mixed in some strikeouts across different levels, and it’s not uncommon for a pitcher of his type to still be searching for consistency in not only how to locate his repertoire, but flat out just how to use it. That’ll become even more important the further he ascends up the latter with the Twins.

Baseball America had Duran 10th on their list, and say he’s known for his “big-time arsenal” which features a heater that has touched 98 mph, a curve that needs some work and changeup that is little more than a “show-me” offering at this point.

Duran will head to Low-A Cedar Rapids, which will be fairly familiar to him, as he’s played in the Midwest League all season long with the Kane County Cougars. Duran has a 4.73 ERA in 64.2 innings with 71 strikeouts (9.9 per nine innings) and a 1.50 WHIP.

Duran faced Cedar Rapids on July 9 — box score here — tossing five innings of two-run ball as the Cougars beat the Kernels, 3-2.

  • OF Ernie De La Trinidad – NR on Arizona/Minnesota lists 

Baseball America says De La Trinidad, 22, has lots of power for a player his size — 5-foot-9, 165 pounds — but doesn’t project as a big-league regular at this time.

De La Trinidad has reported to High-A Fort Myers, a promotion from Low-A Kane County, where he hit .311/.403/.442 with eight home runs and 23 extra-base hits in 91 games this season. De La Trinidad was a 19th-round pick for the Diamondbacks out of UNLV in 2017, and he carried an impressive 48-45 K/BB ratio this year prior to the trade.

De La Trinidad went 1-for-3 with a single in his Fort Myers debut, pushing his active hitting streak to 10 games.

  • OF Gabriel Maciel – No. 11 on Arizona list/No. 17 on Minnesota list puts the highest grades on Maciel’s hit (50), run (65), arm (50) and field (60) tools, while saying the switch-hitter has a chance to hit with “an advanced idea of how to control the strike zone, especially given how young he is.”

Maciel was hitting .287/.362/.333 through 68 games at Kane County — which also displays the power which gives just a 30 grade — and has reported to Cedar Rapids, where he has already gotten his Twins career underway.

Baseball America says Maciel is a bit undersized, but can hit the ball to all fields and may develop into a plus-defender with his speed.

The Twins didn’t stop there on Friday night, as they also moved right-handed reliever Ryan Pressly to the Houston Astros during the game. According to Dan Hayes of The Athletic, the Pressly trade was consummated during the fourth inning of Friday’s game against the Boston Red Sox. That was also a possible/probable reason he wasn’t used in the 10th inning, as Matt Belisle gave up a walk-off homer to Red Sox star outfielder Mookie Betts.

Jul 28, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Ryan Pressly (55) delivers a pitch during the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Pressly deal to Houston — a homecoming of sorts for the Texan — was a bit more surprising, as news broke almost immediately after Betts’ homer left the park to end Friday night’s game.

Pressly still has a year of control left before he’s eligible for free agency, and is one of the most physically talented pitchers the Twins have had in their bullpen in recent memory. He has, however, been unable to turn his repertoire of an upper-90s fastball and two plus breaking pitches into consistent weapons, as over the last two seasons he’s posted an ERA of 4.17 (3.84 FIP) with a 1.25 WHIP and slightly high HR/9 of 1.3.

In fact, each of the last two years have been slightly off-kilter for the 29-year-old righty. Pressly had an unsightly 4.70 ERA in 2017, but did so while fanning a batter per inning. Home runs were his primary bugaboo, as he allowed 1.5 per nine innings to push his FIP to 4.36 — even as all his other peripheral components were strong.

This year, he corrected the home run issue (0.9 per nine) and got the ERA down (3.51), but his WHIP — or as I like to call it, reliever blood pressure — was 1.36, or a bit on the high side for a pitcher coming into tight spots in the seventh and eighth innings.

Houston is a great landing spot for him. His fiancee is from there, and they’ve taken very good pitchers and pushed them to new heights under the tutelage of pitching coach Brent Strom. Pressly is a stand-up character in the clubhouse and a very good pitcher, but the combination of a number of relief arms floating around in the system who need a look as well as the potential for a big return made the deal too good to turn down for the Twins.

So about that return:

  • P Jorge Alcala – No. 10 on Houston list/No. 11 on Minnesota list had Alcala up to No. 7 on their June list of Astros prospects, and his carrying tool is a big fastball which could reach 100 mph in short bursts out of the bullpen. For now, he’ll start, where he’s more likely to work in the mid-90s with a slider in the upper 80s and a curve in the lower 80s. They also noted his “aptitude for making adjustments” — a key factor in starting versus working out of the bullpen — and he’s just 23. He’ll most likely head to Chattanooga when all is said and done and he makes his Twins debut.

Baseball America lists Alcala among the many successes Houston has had in Latin America signing pitchers, and they say he could be a devastating late-inning reliever if he doesn’t make it as a starter, where he draws comparisons to Chicago’s Reynaldo Lopez.

Alcala has split the year between High-A Buies Creek and Double-A Corpus Christi — where he’s still more than two years younger than the average player — and has posted a 3.29 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 79.1 innings (9.3 K/9), 4.0 BB/9 and a WHIP of 1.21.

  • OF Gilberto Celestino – No. 15 on Houston list/No. 14 on Minnesota list 

The 19-year-old Celestino’s profile is carried with 55 or better tools in hit, run, arm and field. He doesn’t have one standout tool, but has drawn comparisons to young Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. for his ability to play center with a strong arm and superior instincts.

Baseball America notes that Celestino was among the top players in the 2015 July 2 class — the one where the Twins signed Wander Javier — and that he’s known for “plus defense in center field and developing power at the plate.” They see his ceiling as a plus defender in center with 15-20-homer power and a .270 batting average.

Not bad.

Celestino got a late start to his season, but has spent the last six weeks at Low-A Tri-City, hitting .323/.387/.480 with 12 of his 41 hits going for extra bases. That’s pretty impressive for a 19-year-old, who is exactly two years younger than the average player in the New York-Penn League.

Again, it didn’t have to be this way. The Twins were never able to sync up their offense and pitching — with key contributors like Dozier and Max Kepler riding massive slumps at different points while being among the only two to stay healthy among the subpar performers — and honestly, it shouldn’t have mattered.

The Central was there for the taking — and the Twins let it slip through their fingers. They still have a bright future and 2019 should be a really, really fun season. The Twins have plenty of money coming off the books, a solid, young core in place and the ability to supplement and lock down some of those players for years to come.

While the 2018-19 winter may be a ton of fun, it has been miserable for Twins fans in the meantime — and the hits are going to keep coming.

Don’t be surprised if one or two more fan favorites are dealt before the book is closed on this trade deadline.

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