Twins

Minnesota's Biggest 'What-ifs?' In the First Half of the Season

Photo Credit: David Richard (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Twins were coming off consecutive AL Central titles and had World Series aspirations at the beginning of the season, but they are 39-50 at the All-Star Break. The season has been a disappointment, to say the least.

It’s easy to wonder how the Twins would have fared if a few things turned out differently. Looking back at the first half of the season, there are five major “what-ifs” that could have changed their fortunes.

What if there hadn’t been a COVID outbreak in April?

Every team wants to get started on the right foot. The Twins went 9-15 in April, which essentially ended their season before it started. The best parallel is 2018 when Minnesota was coming off a Wild Card berth and missed the playoffs after going 9-15 to start the season, including a 1-9 stretch that sealed their fate.

The 2018 team saw five of their games in April get moved because of inclement weather, including four in one week. This year more long breaks in action were part of the reason why the Twins couldn’t gain traction early. A COVID outbreak led to three losses in April 2021, and the team went 1-7 following that break. And that’s not including the home game against the Boston Red Sox that was postponed due to social unrest.

The Twins lost too many games in late spring to catch up in the summer. If the Twins were able to isolate themselves from the pandemic and avoid disruption in their schedule, there’s a good chance they finish the month closer to .500. Had they held serve in April, they would have had a better chance to catch up in the Central and carve a pathway into the playoffs.

What if Byron Buxton stayed relatively healthy?

We’ve asked this question before. It seems like Buxton has had trouble staying healthy every year since he was drafted in 2012.

Buxton played at an MVP level when he was healthy, hitting 10 home runs with a wOBA clip of .491 and a 2.7 fWAR in just 103 at-bats. At this point in his career, Buxton, 27, is unlikely to play 150 games in a season. However, the Twins would be in a different place had he avoided multiple month-long injuries this year.

So far this season Buxton has only played in 27 of the team’s 85 games due to hamstring, hip, and hand injuries. The void he left was difficult to fill. Max Kepler, Kyle Garlick, Gilberto Celestino, and Rob Refsnyder can’t quite replace Buxton in center. The Twins have a 97-53 record with Buxton in the lineup and were 12-15 when he was healthy this season.

If he had stayed healthy, Buxton may have kept the Twins afloat despite everything else that went wrong this year.

What if the Twins kept Polanco at shortstop?

Jorge Polanco has been one of the mainstays in Minnesota’s core, but he was a limited fielder at shortstop. With Royce Lewis expected to begin this season in Triple-A, Polanco was moved from shortstop to second base. As a stopgap, the Twins signed one of the league’s best defensive shortstops, two-time Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons, to a one-year, $10.5 million deal.

The COVID shutdown in April was partially caused by some players who didn’t get vaccinated, including Simmons. He has also been underwhelming at the plate, hitting 231/.302/.308 with just three home runs. However, it’s his defensive ability that hasn’t been up to his standards (-4.7 UZR/150). Polanco displaced Luis Arraez at second base, and Arraez has become a super-utility player, logging innings at left (143.2), third base (163.2), and second (188). Injuries have limited him defensively, but Arraez continues to be one of the team’s best contact hitters, slashing .296/.365/.381 in the first half.

Keeping Polanco at shortstop would have been risky. He was expected to be moved to second base in the near future, and it made sense to get him as comfortable as possible in his new position. Like Arraez, Polanco has dealt with injury, but his hitting has not declined (.252/.318/.431 with 12 home runs this year).

However, by keeping Polanco at shortstop for one more year, the Twins would have had a better chance of avoiding the COVID shutdown in April and saved over $10 million to add more pitchers in the offseason. They would have been able to make the fielding situation work, especially with how well Polanco and Arraez have been playing.

What if the Twins kept more of their own pitchers around from last year?

The pitching turnover in the offseason was significant for a team that gave up the fewest home runs in the league last year and had the fourth-best ERA (3.58). The starting rotation lost veterans Rich Hill and Jake Odorizzi and replaced them with J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker. The bullpen lost reliable relievers in Trevor May, Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard, and Matt Wisler and replaced them with Alexander Colomé and Hansel Robles.

The result? A pitching staff ranked 27th in baseball with a 4.98 ERA and who have given up 134 home runs — 28th in MLB.

So what if the Twins decided to keep some of the arms they let get away last offseason?

Odorizzi was injured last year and only made four starts. But he owned a 3.51 ERA and a 4.3 fWAR in 2019 and was an All-Star that year. The Houston Astros signed Odorizzi to a three-year, $23.5 million deal over the winter, and he currently owns a 3.61 ERA and a 17.2 walk-to-strikeout ratio — his best marks since his All-Star season.

With how much Shoemaker struggled, Odorizzi would have been a huge upgrade as the No. 4 starter, especially given how he flourished under pitching coach Wes Johnson. The Twins could have still signed Happ as the No. 5 starter.

It was unlikely that May, 31, would be retained given that he got a two-year deal with the New York Mets. But Wisler and Romo were affordable options who had success last year.

After being released by the Twins, Wisler struggled with the San Francisco Giants and has since found success with the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s holding opposing hitters to a .212 batting average and owns a 1.07 WHIP since arriving in central Florida.

Romo, 38, signed with the Oakland A’s, where he continues to throw frisbees and still finds ways to generate swings and misses. Romo’s stat line (4.22 ERA, with an ERA of 4.22, 1.16 WHIP, and 3.10 FIP) has been consistent with his past few seasons and is worth the one-year, $2.5 million contract he signed with Oakland.

Colomé and Robles were unable to fill the gap left by Minnesota’s bullpen exodus. It’s hard to look at this and not come away thinking that the Twins could have alleviated their pitching woes had they kept more of their staff from last year.

What if Kirilloff and Larnach made the team out of Spring Training?

A major storyline coming out of Spring Training was whether Alex Kirilloff or Trevor Larnach were going to make the major league roster. The Twins instead chose to platoon the position for the first two weeks of the season.

The front office and coaching staff seemed to be banking on their organizational depth to get by until they felt a call-up was necessary, but injuries and slow starts made it hard to justify rolling out Jake Cave and Kyle Garlick every day.

Kirilloff got the nod and secured a spot on the big-league team by hitting .265/.315/.450 with eight home runs while spending more time at first base instead of the outfield. Larnach has been taking most of the innings in left field since being called up in May. The lefty has slashed .247/.343/.412 with seven home runs so far this season.

Starting on Opening Day is a lot of pressure for a rookie, but Kirilloff and Larnach’s calming presence would have been handy when the team was struggling in the first weeks of the season. Plus, the additional major league at-bats would have helped their development. Both Kirilloff and Larnach have been pitched to like veterans and have still shown that they were more than ready to be big-league hitters, even though it’s often prudent not to rush prospects.

Kirilloff and Larnach both needed time to find their spot on the field, and it looks like the Twins have figured out what their roles will be. But considering how well both of them have played in their rookie seasons, they would have provided more value for the Twins in April than Cave, Garlick, and Refsnyder.

Obviously, hindsight is 20/20. But because of the way things have gone, the Twins are going to be sellers at the deadline in a year where they thought they could break the playoff spell.

These “what-ifs” are fun to debate, but the Twins’ front office should look at what they could have done to avoid some of the missteps that led to them being 39-50 at the All-Star Break.

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