About 600 columns ago, I wrote that the Minnesota Twins would win 80 games in the 2017 season.
They went on to win 85 and lose in the Wild Card game against the New York Yankees.
I made no such proclamation prior to the 2018 season. The Twins won 78 games and had roughly 10 things go wrong that on their own could have waylaid an MLB season for a team, let alone happening all at once.
Noting it this way isn’t an effort to, in pro wrestling speak, put myself over, but rather show that I’m not afraid of making these proclamations. I’m also not afraid of being held accountable for them, either.
But I’m upping the ante this time around — this year, the Twins will win 86 games.
I don’t know where that’ll leave them at the end of the season. It might be enough to win the division, pull down one of the Wild Card spots or at worst, leave them on the outside looking in of the playoff race but not by a whole lot.
But I’m convinced this is a really, really good Minnesota Twins club.
They won 78 games last year
On the surface, winning 78 games is not a great look. But you must consider that the following things went wrong last year:
- Miguel Sano had off-field and on-field issues
- Byron Buxton had migraines, went on a rehab stint and fouled a ball of his foot, which ruined the rest of his season
- Jason Castro tore his meniscus and played only 19 games
- Ervin Santana missed nearly the entire season with a finger issue
- Jorge Polanco was suspended for 80 games for PEDs
- Brian Dozier had a down season
- Logan Morrison had the worst year of his career
- Lance Lynn had the worst year of his career
- Addison Reed had the worst year of his career
Every team has bad luck, but the Twins were swimming in it all season long. Winning 78 games was, in part, a feather in Paul Molitor‘s cap as a manager.
He was fired.
Now let’s be fair — 90 losses was easily on the table as late as mid-September. The Twins lost to the Royals to fall to 67-81 on Sept. 15. They went 11-3 the rest of the way. And while that seems good on the surface, they also faced teams that were a lot less interested in winning than they were.
- 1-2 vs. Oakland
- 4-0 vs. Chicago
- 5-1 vs. Detroit
- 1-0 vs. Kansas City
So where did the team’s true talent-level lie? Their Pythagorean record was 77-85. BaseRuns on Fangraphs was right there as well.
So even if the last stretch of the season was necessary just for the Twins to meet their baselines, it has to be considered somewhat impressive that they threatened .500 with everything that went wrong.
Especially if one remembers what 2011-14 looked like.
The bullpen and rotation aren’t as bad as you think
Again, from a simple eye-test perspective these groups both look….fine. From 1-4 in the rotation they have competent, big-league caliber pitchers — which wasn’t the case when the Twins were in the business of losing 90 games a season — and it’d be foolish to suggest Martin Perez isn’t exponentially more interesting throwing 95-97 mph than he is at 91-93.
There are a lot of questions to answer with each pitcher, but again — it isn’t if they can’t potentially at least be decent.
- Jose Berrios — will he ascend to ace or stay in the current “really good No. 2 starter” range?
- Kyle Gibson — was 2018 for real?
- Jake Odorizzi — can he overcome his “times through the order” penalty?
- Michael Pineda — if he’s healthy, can he overcome his home run issues?
- Martin Perez — can he sustain his velocity, and can he hold off charges from Stephen Gonsalves, Kohl Stewart and maybe someone like Brusdar Graterol?
Again, this isn’t the age of Scott Diamond — each of these guys is capable of producing a plus-2.0 fWAR season without much needing to go right.
But if you don’t believe me, the nerds over at Fangraphs — and I use this term with endearment because I am one of them — have the Twins as the No. 14 rotation in the game.
That seems to line up fairly evenly with how the team is viewed on the whole, as most power rankings I’ve seen have them smack dab in the middle. And considering that most projections have them winning 80ish games, it makes sense.
Building a bullpen is actually a bit tougher than it seems.
Yes, it would have made sense for the Twins to sign Joakim Soria for the money he got, but adding Blake Parker — whose numbers over the last three seasons almost exactly mirror Kelvin Herrera‘s — was a shrewd move.
Parker is making $1.8 million this year with incentives possibly bringing the deal to $3.2 million.
Herrera, who spent the offseason recuperating from Lisfranc surgery in his left foot, signed for two years and $18 million.
If those terms sound familiar, they’re not entirely unlike what Addison Reed got. And for all the Twins fans demanding that the team supplement its bullpen with outside help, few realized that Reed sort of typified the risk of these sorts of deals. Reed was one of the more stable relievers on the market a year ago — and as far as we know, the first multi-year deal handed out by the Twins to an outside free agent reliever — and he had a rough 2018 season. There’s no sugarcoating it.
If Herrera has a tough year as Reed did, the White Sox — like the Twins this year — have to grin and bear it and hope for a bounce-back season.
Additionally, every addition leaves another pitcher with at least one foot out the door because of options and 40-man roster construction.
You may not think Tyler Duffey will ever be a useful reliever, but you might also have not thought Liam Hendriks would ever become anything special. Duffey’s 2017 as a reliever is more than enough to assure that he’d be a wanted commodity if he hit the waiver wire. At 28, he’s far from unable to continue evolving, and he has shown enough with strikeouts, walks and grounders to think his pitch mix could work out of the bullpen.
But let’s forget about Duffey — he had one more option and has been sent to Rochester. How about Matt Magill? Magill didn’t have the greatest of seasons last year — 3.81 ERA/5.08 FIP — but there are still plenty of things under the hood that could really make him intriguing.
On the surface first, one can see he fanned nearly a batter per inning — a good baseline to start from. He gave up far too many homers — 1.75 per nine innings — but if you dive into his pitch-type splits, there’s a lot to like. The swinging-strike rate on his four-seam fastball was 6.4 percent — not crazy, but not awful either — but check out the rest of his pitches:
- Cutter (184 pitches) — 21.2 percent whiff rate
- Curveball (161) — 17.4 percent
- Changeup (36) — 19.4 percent
- Slider (14) — 21.4 percent
Eight of the 11 homers allowed by Magill came on four-seam fastballs, of which he threw 614. That seems like a lot of fastballs, right? It would seem to stand to reason that he threw that many because of his walk rate (3.7 BB/9).
Most of the time, there are some tweaks that can be made that can help a pitcher in ways that never seemed possible to people outside the game like us. Commanding his pitches and/or switching up his sequencing could make Magill a markedly better reliever — and quite a find in minor-league free agency.
Like Magill, Adalberto Mejia is out of options. It remains to be seen what will happen with Mejia in shorter bursts velocity-wise — or if he could steal the No. 5 starter spot from Perez — but he’s too good of a talent to push aside for a reliever from the outside because of how volatile the role is.
Oh, and by the way — Fangraphs thinks the Twins come into the season with the 11th-best bullpen in baseball. That’s not going to make anyone forget about the Yankees or anything, but I’d wager that’s a lot better than people would have guessed.
There aren’t that many holes in the offense, and the bench is really good
The Marwin Gonzalez signing looms large here, as it already is showing up with him taking over third base until Sano is healthy. Without Gonzalez, the Twins were likely to go with Ronald Torreyes or Ehire Adrianza over there. Both are useful players, but both would likely be stretched as regulars.
This is what the lineup looks like when everyone is healthy:
- C- Jason Castro
- 1B- CJ Cron
- 2B- Jonathan Schoop
- 3B- Miguel Sano
- SS- Jorge Polanco
- LF- Eddie Rosario
- CF- Byron Buxton
- RF- Max Kepler
- DH- Nelson Cruz
Then add to that Gonzalez — never an All-Star but got MVP votes in 2017 — and Jake Cave, who filled in admirably for Buxton last year, and that’s a really nice offense. Torreyes will help the Twins out when needed but will almost certainly start the season at Rochester — pending Polanco’s current issue with his arm — but he and Adrianza are both really nice infielders coming off the bench. Mitch Garver can really hit and has been working on his defense, and don’t forget about La Tortuga, Willians Astudillo.
And for now, Tyler Austin will be in the mix as a thumper off the bench, perhaps to take on lefties late while hitting for Castro. This might be the best bench in Twins history.
They play a lot of games against teams not even remotely trying to compete
Let’s just go down the list of AL teams the Twins will face this season:
- Baltimore – legitimately the worst team in baseball
- Boston – defending World Champs
- New York – will contend for AL East crown
- Tampa Bay – never can be ruled out
- Toronto – retooling while awaiting Vlad Jr. and Bo Bichette
- Chicago – not there yet
- Cleveland – see next section
- Detroit – battling KC for last in Central
- Kansas City – yep
- Seattle – decent team but not figured to compete for AL West
- Houston – viable World Series contender
- Los Angeles – kind of mired in the AL ether even with Mike Trout
- Texas – could get ugly this season
- Oakland – Tampa Bay West
So of the 15 teams in the AL — including the Twins — at most one could say seven or eight are truly competing, and only one of the other teams trying is in Minnesota’s division.
That means the Twins will play nearly 60 games against non-competitive divisional foes and six games apiece against four more teams who are almost certainly not going to be good.
This is also something Cleveland used to its advantage last year, as it won 68 games last year against teams finishing under .500 — the most in baseball — on the way to a 91-win season and a first-round ouster in the playoffs.
Cleveland isn’t as good as you think
Let’s just get this out of the way — the starting five of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber might, in fact, be the best in the AL. All five of those guys could stake a claim to be the No. 1 starter for the Twins — or at least the No. 2.
But they’re also a mess in some very important spots. Roberto Perez is the starting catcher. In 210 plate appearances last year, he hit .168/.256/.263. ZiPS isn’t much more optimistic (.190/.284/.315), though he is a tremendous defender.
MLB.com lists their starting outfield right now as Jake Bauers, Leonys Martin and Tyler Naquin. The only problem is they also list Bauers starting at first base. Most likely, he’ll play first and Jordan Luplow will play left.
Bauers has significant potential, but hit .201/.316/.384 in almost 100 games with the Rays last season. ZiPS has him pegged for a 98 wRC+ (.240/.329/.406) which is pretty much identical to what Max Kepler has done the past three seasons. Martin’s projection is an 84 wRC+, Naquin’s is an 87 and Luplow’s is 90. Bradley Zimmer could be in the mix as well once he gets healthy (shoulder), but he’s also projected for just a 76.
For those wondering, wRC+ is a lot like OPS+, where 100 is average and each point above or below represents a percentage point away from league average.
Francisco Lindor is hurt, Jose Ramirez fouled a ball off his knee and might need a little time to return and Jason Kipnis won’t be ready to start the season, either. So as of right now, the starting infield is Bauers, Brad Miller, Eric Stamets and either Ramirez or Max Moroff.
Kipnis might not be a big loss and Ramirez and Lindor might be ready soon, but there are just a ton of question marks on this offense.
The bullpen has Brad Hand — who is an absolute superstar back there — and a bunch of question marks in Adam Cimber, Jon Edwards, Tyler Olson, Dan Otero, Neil Ramirez and Oliver Perez. Maybe Danny Salazar eventually figures in, but Fangraphs pegs them as the No. 15 bullpen in the game, worth 2.5 fWAR with 1.4 coming from Hand.
The short answer: this is a group that had a 4.60 ERA last year (13th in the AL) and it didn’t get better.
I’m not saying the Twins will win this division because the Indians have issues, but Cleveland has the all the hallmarks of a team that loses a lot of heartbreakers due to a wobbly back end.