One explanation for the Minnesota Twins’ poor start to the season is the absence of key contributors. Injuries have kept Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano off the field, and Jorge Polanco was issued an 80-game PED suspension before the year even began. Jason Castro has dealt with a lingering knee issue, and Ervin Santana has yet to make a start.
There have been other, non-injury related, issues as well: The bullpen has been unreliable, Jose Berrios has been up and down and a few of the Twins’ free agent signings have not panned out yet. Throw in the snow-outs and the Puerto Rico trip, and many in the clubhouse are eager to put April behind them and get into what they hope is a more regular rhythm.
“There’s that subconscious boost that you get by turning the calendar a little bit,” said manager Paul Molitor, whose team entered May with a 9-15 record.
“There’s not a lot of realism to that, because you’re still faced with coming out here and playing a game and trying to find a way to win. But yeah, you can think short term — winning a game. You think of putting together a series and winning some series. And hopefully it adds up to a better May than April, for sure, and we can start to avoid having to talk about this every day.”
Three players have embraced a “next man up” mentality, however. Max Kepler has stepped in for Buxton at center and entered May hitting .299/.358/.563. Eduardo Escobar is hitting .301/.348/.578 while replacing Sano at third and Polanco at short. And rookie Mitch Garver, 27, owns a .281/.324/.531 line in Castro’s absence.
“He’s always been labeled a guy that we thought could contribute with his bat,” says Molitor. “We see a lot of progress with defense, there’s things that he can do better, that him and Smitty [first base coach Jeff Smith] are working on on a daily basis.”
Garver says the increased playing time has helped him deliver with the bat.
“I think so. Maybe a little bit more playing time, but also just having that confidence about myself that I can hit at this level, I can hit some of the best guys out there,” he says. “Just knowing that within myself, being able to express myself as a player, I think that’s helping me out at the plate.”
Buxton and Sano are the “Glimmer Twins” that provided hope when the organization was in its depths of despair. Polanco, 24, was looking to establish himself as the shortstop of the future — or at least a replacement at second if Brian Dozier leaves in free agency. Castro is in the middle of a three-year, $24 million deal and represents the kind of pitch-framing catcher that the analytically-inclined front office is looking for.
Kepler, Escobar and Garver are not the only players who have played well early this season — Joe Mauer is looking like his old self, Ryan Pressly has been a reliable reliever and Brian Dozier provides a spark offensively — and other players like Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson and Eddie Rosario have shown flashes of brilliance. But Kepler, Escobar and Garver have consistently played well while the rest of the team has faltered.
Kepler has started to hit lefties, which allows him to play every day. He has a career .186/.249/.304 line against them, but is hitting .316/.350/.632 against southpaws this season.
“The progress has been (in his) confidence level,” says Molitor.
“You can see it in the at-bats, his ability to fight a lot more two-strike pitches than I’ve seen in the past. And not to mention that he seems to have a lot more comfort to be able to handle the off-speed pitches. He’s been real vulnerable to a guy who can spin it or really slow it down with a changeup and he’s been on those pitches as well.”
Defensively, Kepler isn’t quite Buxton, but he hasn’t been a liability in center either. He made 122 starts at center field in the minors — more than any other position.
“It’s part of the maturing process to be able to play wherever he has to defensively,” says Molitor. “He’s been getting the time out. A lot of it has to do with some of the things he has to break down, the tendencies of hitters and pitchers we have on the mound. But I think he’s comfortable out there.
“We’re just trying to keep that same mindset in the outfield that he has at the plate to stay aggressive and try to understand when it makes sense to take a chance to catch a ball.”
Escobar is a holdover from the Francisco Liriano trade in 2012, and is capable of playing both third and short in a pinch. He started the year as Polanco’s replacement, but has moved to third base in Sano’s absence, with Ehire Adrianza taking over at shortstop.
“He seems to like hitting it when he’s playing third,” says Molitor. “He’s very capable. He can get streaky and he can get hot. He’s got power for the size that he brings up to the plate. He’s doing a nice job and contributing offensively. He’s done a nice job defensively over there as well.”
Fernando Romero could be the next Twins player to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity. He was a surprise call-up after Phil Hughes had two poor starts, and could solidify a spot in the rotation while Santana is recovering from injury. Maybe a journeyman like Gregorio Petit or Matt Magill can have a career year, or Trevor May can get his career back on track after missing last season with Tommy John.
Buxton, Sano and Santana would all help the Twins climb the standings after losing 10 of their last 11 games in April. But for the time being, more players have to emulate Kepler, Escobar and Garver to buoy Minnesota in the meantime.