Everything seemed to be falling in place for the Minnesota Twins two years ago. But we all know what happened, and the 2020 Twins have to prevent it from happening again.
The 2017 team took a huge step forward, surprisingly finding itself in the Wild Card game against the New York Yankees, and expectations were high for 2018. Young players like Jose Berrios, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Miguel Sano seemed to be on the upswing and had a stable core of veterans like Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Kyle Gibson and Ervin Santana surrounding them.
The offseason played into the Twins’ hands, as well.
Jake Odorizzi was available for a song in a trade, giving the team another dependable mid-rotation arm with upside. Zach Duke, Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed were brought in to build up a bullpen that lagged behind a bit. And beyond that, Logan Morrison and Lance Lynn fell into the team’s laps almost literally.
Morrison popped 38 home runs the year before for the Rays, and not only didn’t get a qualifying offer but found the job market frigid — like many players did that winter. He had to settle for a one-year deal after spring training started, as did Lynn.
In Lynn’s case, it was even more puzzling. Sure, he had the qualifying offer millstone around his neck — but he was, if not a front-line starter, pretty close to it. Sure, his 2017 season was a bit uneven after returning from Tommy John surgery, but this was a guy whose first five years in the league produced nearly 800 innings with a 3.37 ERA (3.36 FIP) and just under a strikeout an inning.
Even with any “moving to the AL” adjustment baked in, Lynn should have been reasonably expected to be as good as Odorizzi, if not better. He should have given the Twins a solid, if not necessarily formidable, top four in their rotation of Santana, Berrios, Lynn and Odorizzi — with Gibson in that mix, as well.
Instead, the wheels fell off almost immediately. Polanco was popped for PEDs a couple of weeks before the season started. Santana had surgery on his middle finger which basically signaled the end of his MLB career. Sano dealt with assault allegations off the field and poor play on it.
He was even sent all the way down to Fort Myers to iron it out.
Buxton dealt with migraines early on in the season, then fouled a ball off his toe and was basically hurt and/or ineffective as a result of it for the rest of the year. Add to that the September controversy about the team not calling him up.
An abbreviated spring led to Lynn struggling. Morrison started slow, then dealt with a hip issue that was likely worse than people realized. Trevor Hildenberger and Alan Busenitz took a big step back. Reed started hot and faltered down the stretch. Phil Hughes‘ tenure with the club came to an end.
All of this is a long way of saying the 2018 season was an unmitigated disaster. Many of these things, on their own, could have waylaid the season for an erstwhile contender. The confluence of all of them led to the team going 77-85, missing the playoffs and firing the manager.
None of those things are going to happen with the 2020 Twins, but they’ve endured their fair share of turbulence, as well. And like 2018, this season has been anything but normal.
Randy Dobnak, who appeared to be on the outside looking in on a rotation spot to start the season, has made nine starts. They’ve been very, very good starts — but that’s as many as 60 percent of the Opening Day rotation (Odorizzi, Rich Hill and Homer Bailey) have made combined.
The offense has struggled a lot more than many expected, at least outside of the ageless wonder Nelson Cruz.
Both of the team’s top-two catchers are hurt — and Mitch Garver was in a slump before that. Luis Arraez has gotten off to a slow start. Polanco isn’t hitting for any power. Marwin Gonzalez is in a dreadful funk. Kepler is hurt. Josh Donaldson, the team’s prized acquisition and beneficiary of the largest free-agent contract handed out in team history (usurping Big Erv, interestingly enough), started slow and only got into seven games before dealing with calf injuries yet again.
Calf issues cost him significant time in 2018, but he’s more than made up for lost time with a slash line of .316/.500/.737 in the eight games since, pushing his season line to .244/.396/.512.
We’ve talked about depth in this space, and the Twins have it in spades. They’ve shown the ability to handle the adversity under the leadership of Rocco Baldelli — they are 27-18 through 45 games.
But this is where the rubber meets the road. The Twins open a three-game set with the Cleveland Indians on Friday night at Target Field. Once that wraps up, they head to Chicago for four with the White Sox to close out the head-to-head competition between the Twins and the other two teams atop the division.
This stretch will, without a doubt, set the course for where the Central will end up. The teams are separated by a total of a game and and a half — Chicago out front, the Twins a game back and Cleveland a half-game behind that.
Will the Twins be able to defend their AL Central flag? Will the upstart White Sox complete their run to the top? Or will Cleveland return to the form that saw it win three straight division crowns between 2016-18?
We’re about to find out.
Sure, it’s not exactly the same as 2018. But the Twins are facing plenty of adversity again. How will they respond?
Again: We’re about to find out.