For years, Patrick Reusse had his “Turkey of the Year” column. Twins Daily and Aaron Gleeman release their top prospect lists every spring.
While I can’t compete with those, I have written something in recent years that I hope can become a regular rite of passage.
The first one was pretty fortuitous. Entering the 2017 season, the Minnesota Twins were coming off a 103-loss season the year before. I predicted they’d turn that around with a 21-win improvement — an 80-win mark they cruised past by five wins before losing to the New York Yankees in the American League Wild Card game.
For one reason or another, no such column appeared prior to the 2018 season. The Twins took a step back, going 78-84 in a season which led to the dismissal of manager Paul Molitor. The column returned prior to last season, and sold the Twins way short — predicting 86 wins against an actual total of 101.
It’s time to up the ante.
This year, the official prediction? Let’s go with 97 wins.
The Twins return basically all of the offense from a team that hit .270/.338/.494 last season. In the spots where players have departed, stronger replacements are in place. Gone are C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop — both off to Detroit on identical one-year deals — but their spots in the lineup are being replaced by Josh Donaldson and Luis Arraez, respectively.
Donaldson brings immediate, added star power to a lineup that already includes a proven entity in Nelson Cruz and developing ones in Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver and a few others. Only one player has posted a higher WAR via Fangraphs than Donaldson since his 2013 breakout — the inimitable Mike Trout — and that’s even with his injury-marred 2018 season.
Donaldson bounced back with another terrific year in 2019 with the Atlanta Braves, and will now be looked upon as another stabilizing force in perhaps the best lineup in the AL — if not all of baseball.
Arraez, meanwhile, hit .334/.399/.439 in 92 games last season. And while it came with a .355 BABIP — usually outside of the range of sustainable — most projection systems don’t see him as a Danny Santana-level fluke. While Santana hit .319/.353/.472 in 2014 and then .215/.241/.291 the next season, Arraez’s Steamer projection forecasts he’ll hit .312/.369/.415. That’s a 109 wRC+ — down from 125 in 2019, but still putting him in the running to be the fifth- or sixth-most valuable hitter in the team’s lineup.
Expecting the Twins to post the raw numbers they did last season would seem foolish. That’s especially true of their MLB-record 307 home runs hit, but even their triple-slash line might be difficult to replicate, pending any cosmetic changes to the baseball. Somehow, that’s like the fifth most pressing issue league-wide right now — an unfathomable thought just three or four months ago.
But if the baseballs return to, say, 2018 levels and the Twins can simply repeat their wRC+ figure of 116 from last season — fourth in MLB — that’d still be a very good offensive season. The last team to meet or exceed that number over the full season was the, uh, 2017 Houston Astros, who hit .282/.346/.478 as a team for a 121 wRC+ — more than 10 points better than the No. 2 team (Yankees, 109).
Team defense can be difficult to evaluate, but by most measures on Fangraphs, the Twins lagged behind in 2019. As a team, they were 9.1 runs below average which ranked 21st across MLB, with most of that coming on the infield.
- First base: -14.1 runs (22nd out of 30 teams)
- Second base: -4.7 runs (29th)
- Third base: -2.0 runs (25th)
- Shortstop: -3.8 runs (30th)
Fangraphs doesn’t do the outfield as a whole, but the Twins were fourth in center (10.4 runs), 14th in left (-7.0) and 10th in right (-1.0). Between UZR and UZR/150 — both of which do show entire outfield totals — the Twins were probably somewhere in the Nos. 8-10 ranking among outfields defensively.
Another way of looking at this is defensive efficiency, a stat housed at Baseball Reference. Generally, it attempts to show what percentage of batted balls a team turns into outs. For the Twins, that mark was .673 — 27th in MLB. For the Astros, the MLB leader in this respect, that mark was .717. The league average mark was .688.
So yeah, the Twins have some work to do there.
But it’s not all bad news.
In upgrading from Sano to Donaldson at third base, the Twins are swapping out a player who was minus-5 in outs above average — 118th overall via Statcast — to one who was plus-8, 18th in MLB among qualified infielders. There’s no way of knowing what effect Sano will have defensively at first base, but it’s down the defensive spectrum for a reason. Furthermore, plenty of shaky defenders at other positions have developed into respectable first basemen — and Sano clearly has the physical talent to do it.
Up the middle might continue to be a question mark. Polanco and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (minus-16) were tied for the worst in outs above average last season, and Arraez (minus-6) wasn’t much better when considering he only got into slightly more than half the team’s games last season.
For what it’s worth, much of the starting pitching on this club is fly-ball oriented. Newly-acquired Kenta Maeda has a career groundball rate of 40.9 percent — remembering of course that the MLB average is typically around 45.0 percent. Jose Berrios is in the same vicinity (40.7 percent) and Jake Odorizzi is kind of the poster child for working up in the zone, letting batters hit the ball in the air and still getting outs.
His career groundball rate is just 33.1 percent.
Another one to keep an eye on is Michael Pineda, who is a curious case. After inducing grounders at a career-high 50.9 percent rate in 2017 before he was injured, Pineda returned in 2019 and posted a 36.1 percent mark. His career rate is 42.1 percent, so either he’s able to tailor his repertoire based on the perceived strengths around him — i.e. where his defense is best — or there’s something else going on here, because his career rate is nothing close to what he’s posted in any single season.
He’s never been within 3.0 percent in either direction over a full season.
Anyway, there’ll still be ample chances for the Twins to turn grounders into outs — especially when someone like Randy Dobnak is pitching — but it appears through shifts and employing more fly-ball pitchers, they’ll try to curb this issue as much as possible until some sort of change is detected. That’s still possible, of course, with as young as Arraez and Polanco are.
But ultimately, it feels like this year’s defense — and how good it will be — is predicated solely on keeping Byron Buxton healthy. Everything funnels to, and from, there.
The rotation is largely re-made behind Berrios, and wasn’t as bad as many critics felt in 2019 in the first place. True enough, Pineda and Odorizzi are back. That has to count for something, considering both were able to hear pitches from other teams and sign elsewhere before ultimately returning. That means that when the rotation is back to full strength — assuming Pineda’s return from suspension in mid-May — 60 percent of its production from 2019 will return.
That group posted a 4.19 ERA (11th in MLB) and its total of 16.6 fWAR ranked seventh. In other words, it was somewhere in the top one-third or so among MLB rotations, with Kyle Gibson (4.84 ERA in 160.0 innings) the primary defector from the group. There’s little surprise Gibson struggled with a 51.4 percent groundball rate in front of shaky infield defense, something that should be less of an issue with the Texas Rangers.
In Gibson’s stead will be a few different pitchers, though primarily that’ll be Homer Bailey‘s role. Bailey, a righty about a year-and-a-half Gibson’s senior, provided similar value between two teams last year (4.57 ERA in 163.1 innings), but did so in a different way. That is, one that might be more sustainable with how the Twins are constructed.
Bailey was especially impressive with the A’s after he was traded, fanning 8.4 batters per nine while walking just 1.8 with a 4.30 ERA (3.65 FIP) in 73.1 innings. However, his groundball rate was about 10 percent lower than Gibson’s — something that should play better in front of Minnesota’s outfield defense and with an ostensibly less springy baseball.
As noted here multiple times, Bailey got better as 2019 went on. After a ghastly 2018 season (1-14 record, 6.09 ERA) which saw him shipped as a salary dump and cut the next day, Bailey started the year as a flier for a struggling Royals team but became a rotation mainstay for a playoff contender by the end of it.
In six August starts, Bailey posted a 3.86 ERA and held opponents to a .624 OPS. In four starts in the last month of the season, those marks narrowed to 2.28 and .563.
With Bailey entering his age-34 season, there’s no guarantee he can continue on that trajectory. However, it’s easy to forget he was a big-time prospect over a decade ago and pitched his way into an extension worth more than $100 million. The talent is definitely there. And on a one-year deal — as opposed to the three-year one Gibson got from Texas — the Twins have the luxury of cutting bait if he doesn’t replicate his 2019 form.
If Rich Hill is healthy in June as he expects, that could be the precursor to such a move. Hill had primary revision surgery around Thanksgiving — an alternative to Tommy John that isn’t without risk, but shortens the recovery time significantly. Time is of the essence for a pitcher who turns 40 in less than a month, but if he can return and simply give the Twins 50-75 innings anywhere near his usual caliber of work, his signing will prove to be a boon.
Hill threw 191.1 innings between 2018-19 with a 3.29 ERA (4.01 FIP), 10.4 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 1.12 WHIP. Again, if he can come anywhere close to that in 2020, that’s a huge value for his $3 million salary with escalators based on innings pitched and starts — things the Twins would gladly pay if triggered.
But the Twins have adequately insulated themselves against heavily relying on Hill, not only by signing Bailey and even Jhoulys Chacin, but also by trading for Maeda. Maeda’s yearly raw numbers are completely indistinguishable from Berrios’ to the naked eye, and he gives the team four years of club control with “pay-as-you-go” salaries dictated by performance.
The tl;dr point is this: the Twins upgraded on what was already a pretty good rotation, and they still have Dobnak, Lewis Thorpe and Devin Smeltzer in reserves if necessary. Top prospects Jhoan Duran and Jordan Balazovic aren’t far off, either.
This’ll likely be an eight-man unit with the first six spots locked in:
That’s a strong mix of young and old, flamethrowers and finesse guys and groundball/fly-ball pitchers. A recent position-battle column breaks down the merits of most of the options here — existing and hopeful — so we’ll just get down to the nitty-gritty.
Twins relievers posted a 4.17 ERA (10th in MLB), but by FIP (3.92, first in MLB) and WAR (7.3, third) it was one of the finest units across all of baseball. Now, it’ll get a full year from Littell and Duffey — both of whom yo-yo’d a bit last year — as well as Romo, and the addition of Clippard shouldn’t be ignored, either.
Nor should the fact he was grabbed from a pretty good Indians bullpen, either.
But even the last two spots should be noteworthy. Matt Wisler seems like a good option for one of them, likely because speaking of options — he’s out of them. The former top-100 prospect definitely has big-league stuff, but is running out of chances to show it before becoming an Oliver Drake-level journeyman. Candidates for the other spot include Cody Stashak, Fernando Romero, Sean Poppen, Jorge Alcala and an army of non-roster invitees who have some level of intrigue, as well.
Poppen throws a 95 mph sinker, Romero is just one year removed from being talked about as a lights-out closer, Stashak had an insane 25-1 K/BB ratio last year and Alcala is a fastball-slider guy with significant swing-and-miss potential.
It wasn’t long ago guys like this were mainstays in the Twins bullpen — not just candidates for it. The times are changing.
There are a ton of reasons to expect big things from this Twins team, and it all rolls downhill from the culture Derek Falvey, Thad Levine and Rocco Baldelli have created and fostered. The team is immensely talented, well-run and has depth both in the majors and minors to weather any potential storms that would otherwise derail a potentially successful season — like what happened in 2018.
So why fewer wins than in 2019? It’s pretty simple — the rest of the Central should be better than last year. Maybe the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers will still each lose 100 games, but the Indians are still going to be solid and the Chicago White Sox will be markedly better in 2020 after adding Dallas Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal, among others.
This is a White Sox team the Twins bullied for 13 wins in 19 meetings last year. In all, nearly half (50) of the team’s 101 wins came against AL Central foes last year — a number I suspect will go down. I just don’t think they can replicate a .658 winning percentage against the Central again — a 107-win pace if played out over the full season.
The same number of wins the Astros had last year. Huh.
Anyway, that’s how I see it. The Minnesota Twins will win 97 games, and the AL Central, this year. Now to get past those damn Yankees….