Twins

How Depth Has Set the Minnesota Twins Apart in the AL Central Race

Photo credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

A 60-game season was bound to be zany. So far, so good for the Minnesota Twins.

Really any MLB season has the potential to be wild, though.

In 2018, the Twins made a bunch of moves that seemed sound at the time — signing Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison, Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed as well as trading for Jake Odorizzi — but could never get out of their own way on the downward spiral to a 78-84 season which got manager Paul Molitor fired.

But the best way to protect against that wide range of potential outcomes is to build the best and deepest roster with the resources at one’s disposal.

And as it has been noted a few times in this space, the Twins did exactly that.

And so far, it’s what’s set them apart from the rest of the class in the American League Central.

From the outset, it was pretty obvious the Twins had the talent to be the class of the division. Sure, Cleveland had the pitching and the White Sox had some young, splashy prospects ready to make some noise on the south side.

But Cleveland has seen struggles is in the outfield, where they came into Thursday’s action with an MLB-worst .149/.256/.222 slash line (34 wRC+). Their starting staff has been terrific, with an MLB-low 2.59 ERA — but that’s going to be tested with Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac demoted to the alternate training site for the near-term future, at minimum, due to their COVID-related indiscretions in Chicago.

Cleveland’s bullpen is also pretty good — 2.63 ERA coming into Thursday (third in MLB) — but it isn’t without some instability. Brad Hand has been a bit volatile on the back end — though effectively counterbalanced by modern-day Wild Thing James Karinchak — and some of the lesser-known entities have pitched well in the early going, though that is by no means a guarantee to continue. Adam Cimber and Phil Maton have really stood out, but certainly are not household names.

Basically, their offense is carried by Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana — and Lindor isn’t particularly hitting at the moment. Franmil Reyes — Cleveland’s answer to Eddie Rosario — has picked up the slack, but this isn’t a team that’s going to be known for offense.

They’re dead last in the AL with a .640 team OPS.

And while it’s against sputtering Detroit — who has lost its last nine games in a row — this weekend will be a test for Cleveland’s starting depth, as they’ll send Adam Plutko, Triston McKenzie and Carlos Carrasco to the mound. That’s not exactly going to make anyone forget about Clevinger, Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber, but it also lines them up to start Aaron Civale, Shane Bieber and Plutko against the Twins.

That’s about the best they can line up outside of swapping Plutko with Carrasco. This should be a good measuring stick for if the Twins can really add some separation between themselves and the rest of the division.

Chicago’s issues are more glaring — as former Baseball Prospects South Side editor Nick Schaefer noted in a series of tweets recently:

At a glance, the rotation and bullpen have been OK. The rotation is 12th in ERA and the bullpen is 11th.

But the issue, as Schaefer so aptly notes, is the methodology in roster building. About 15 years ago, this was called the “stars’n’scrubs” approach and it was, as it says, building a team around a few stars.

And to be fair, Luis Robert looks like a star already. Tim Anderson won the batting title last year. Yoan Moncada is a terrific infielder. Beyond that, Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez and Yasmani Grandal all have the ability to be slightly above average or more at their positions. In the case of Grandal, more like one of the very best at his position — though he hasn’t exactly produced at the plate yet.

But the team had a fair amount riding on the promotion of Nick Madrigal, which lasted all of five games before he separated his shoulder. Jimenez has tantalizing raw physical tools but is also a lot like Rosario when the game speeds up on him (i.e. iffy outfield play, limited plate discipline).

Nomar Mazara is a former top prospect and he’s largely been invisible. The only player on the bench doing anything is James McCann, and he’s largely blocked by Grandal — though they’ve shouldered the load more evenly than one might expect to this point.

Edwin Encarnacion has been a few steps behind Nelson Cruz up until now when it comes to defying Father Time, but through 16 games the 2020 season has been a real struggle. EE has hit .179/.246/.411 with only 10 hits in his first 56 at-bats, and at his age — it’s his age-37 season — it’s always possible he’s creeping toward the end of the line.

Beyond that, their rotation has some serious question marks. Lucas Giolito hasn’t been himself yet, but should round into form. Dallas Keuchel has been fairly good, but is striking out no one and is probably more of a No. 3-4 starter than a true No. 2 right now. Gio Gonzalez hasn’t looked particularly good, and Dylan Cease has been more smoke (3.16 ERA) than fire (6.14 FIP). Carlos Rodon has given them almost nothing, and beyond that it’s been one start from big-time prospect Dane Dunning and a couple appearances from Matt Foster in the rotation.

There just isn’t much depth here — especially with Michael Kopech opting out.

Foster has teamed up with Alex Colome to give the Sox some depth in the bullpen, but otherwise some of their best guys have been Ross Detwiler, Codi Heuer and Zack Burdi — brother of former Twins prospect Nick.

Sure, Aaron Bummer should eventually come off the IL and Jace Fry still has potential to be really good, but the team has already DFA’d and released Kelvin Herrera. They only got seven hitters into Reynaldo Lopez‘s season before he got hurt — against the Twins, no less.

Neither of these teams are particularly well set up to weather storms.

Meanwhile, the Twins are — and already have.

Kenta Maeda, Randy Dobnak and Jose Berrios have made five or more starts apiece. Nobody else in the rotation mix has made more than two, including Rich Hill, Odorizzi and Homer Bailey — all of whom figured to be leaned on heavily this season, especially the shortened season. Berrios himself has more starts (six) than Hill, Odorizzi and Bailey have combined (five).

And that’s before figuring that Michael Pineda will be off his suspension in a couple of weeks.

The bullpen was built for the long haul in a 162-game season, and that’s been even more apt in this 60-game one. Zack Littell got hurt and has been ineffective. Taylor Rogers had had some hiccups. Lewis Thorpe has been hit pretty hard.

But even still, the team has been built on depth out there. One could easily argue that Tyler Clippard — who has just shy of 70 big-league saves, more than 800 innings and a low-3.00s ERA under his belt — came into the season as the team’s No. 4 or 5 option to throw innings on the bridge to Rogers, depending on how one viewed Littell coming into 2020.

Beyond that, the Twins have Cody Stashak who had a good rookie season — and is also hurt — and even more depth beyond that. Caleb Thielbar has looked pretty solid in his career resurrection. Matt Wisler has been a revelation with his slider-heavy approach. Jorge Alcala is lighting it up in his nine innings of work (2.00 ERA, 9-3 K/BB). Outside of his first outing, Devin Smeltzer has been pretty good. Sean Poppen has potential with a heavy, mid-90s sinker.

In all, the Twins have used 20 pitchers — 21 if you count Ehire Adrianza — for an ERA of 3.46 (third in the AL). The White Sox have used 23 pitchers for a 4.11 ERA (eighth in the AL).

The offensive struggles across the league have been well documented, and the Twins are no exception. As things have trended upward, so too — at least at times — have the Twins. But this is still an offense without Josh Donaldson. Byron Buxton went on the IL on Thursday. So too did Mitch Garver, who is having a disappointing 2020 thus far. Miguel Sano has been heating up but his slow start has kept his numbers down. Luis Arraez has been in a season-long funk.

It’s basically been the Nelson Cruz show, with Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler playing supporting roles.

But where that’s encouraging is, again, in the team’s depth. Marwin Gonzalez can, and has, filled in all over the place. His bat has cooled recently, but at least there’s reason to believe he can turn it around. The same can’t necessarily be said for Danny Mendick, Adam Engel or Nicky Delmonico — some of the more heavily relied upon reinforcements for the White Sox on offense.

Alex Avila, at the very least, has gotten on base. Adrianza, like Gonzalez, is a capable utility player who hasn’t hit much this year but was pretty darn good (.272/.349/.416) while playing almost literally everywhere last year. Jake Cave is one of the very best fourth outfielders in the game, even though his play in limited exposure this year has been shaky.

Ryan Jeffers also came up and made his big-league debut in place of Garver on Thursday night, and had a pair of hits — including driving in the game’s first run on his first big-league hit. One could argue either his bat or his defense could give him a home in the big leagues — and if it’s both, that’s simply a bonus.

Everywhere one looks, the Twins are teeming with depth. Sure, it’s not ideal to have as many as four MLB starters on the IL at generally the same time, but Dobnak has been nothing short of sensational this season and he appeared to be on the outside looking in of the rotation before the season started with Odorizzi on the shelf. Relievers, again, like Wisler, Alcala and Stashak have stepped up while Trevor May and Tyler Duffey have been their typical excellent selves.

Look, anything can happen over the next 34 games. But no matter what actually does happen, the Twins are the team best built to win the AL Central.

Will it happen? We’ll see.

Will they make noise in October? We’ll see.

But again, they’ve been put in the position to do a lot of really, really good things the rest of the way — even if they can’t get everyone healthy at the same time.

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