The Minnesota Twins enter the 2021 season in position to contend in the American League with a loaded lineup and a strong pitching staff. Hey, there’s even a chance they could win their first playoff game since 2002. They have everything they need to make a deep postseason run — playoff curses aside. Good thing, too, because next year could be the last opportunity for the Twins’ current core to win a World Series.
The Twins have a lot going in their favor. They got out of spring training healthy and have a talented young group complemented by capable veterans with postseason experience. But elements of the roster are concerning. For example, Josh Donaldson is 35, and Nelson Cruz is 40. Both are being relied upon as anchors in the middle of the lineup, and they are coming off seasons where each showed signs of a coming decline.
Donaldson has battled back and calf injuries in two of the past three seasons. He may not be able to hold down third for much longer, and the Twins have to make this season count before he replaces Cruz as the designated hitter. At that point, as he slides down the defensive spectrum, the value of his $21 million salary dips dramatically.
That formula has worked out well for Cruz, but he began to show his age later in the year. His OPS plummeted 286 points in the second half of the season, and he’s turning 41 this July. How many more “Bombas” does he has left?
If Cruz’s second-half slump and Donaldson’s calf are fine, the Twins should be in good shape. But there are perils within the young nucleus as well. Most of these players are in their prime but are starting to show flaws.
The extensions Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler signed looked like bargains two years ago when the Twins were headed toward a 103-win season. But both players struggled last year, with Kepler hitting .228 and Polanco hitting .258. If Kepler can’t find a compromise in his production at the plate and Polanco can’t adapt to second base, Minnesota could be forced to move on via trade.
The same goes for Miguel Sano. The right-handed hitter has one of the best exit velocities in the league, but he has to make more regular contact. Coming off a career-high 42.6% whiff rate, it’s fair to wonder if Sano just is who he is as a hitter. That could alter their plans at first base heading into next season.
There is even uncertainty among the productive players who are driving winning. Byron Buxton hasn’t been able to stay healthy and his contract will expire in 2022. Jose Berrios has flashed ace potential but also has regularly shown signs of fatigue late in the season. Neither player signed an extension with the Twins before Opening Day, so both could be entering contract years next season. The Twins would benefit from both players driving winning next year, but it could also drive their contract demands to a level Minnesota can’t — or maybe won’t be willing to — match.
Trading either player would probably replenish the farm system. But it’s also not something a team does when they intend to win in the short-term. Nobody is going to be up for another rebuild.
The farm system itself could look much different a year from now. Prospects like Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, and Jordan Balazovic are on the verge of a call-up. They could form a whole new core for the team in 2022, but only if the Twins do not see the 2021 team as being close to the World Series. There is also a chance these players either take longer to develop than expected or don’t pan out at all.
Look at Royce Lewis, who had a meteoric rise after being drafted No. 1 overall in 2017 then wound up mired in Double-A. Now he’s rehabbing a torn ACL. Even prospects like Buxton have found their way to Minnesota only to struggle upon arrival.
The Twins need to be aggressive in their quest to win a playoff game. With their loaded farm system, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Derek Falvey and Thad Levine make a midseason deal to add an elite starter. This could send some of the top prospects out of the system, only increasing the urgency to win now. They could also be poised at any time to call up players from their system to play an impact role in the later months.
Going all-in also makes sense from a business standpoint. The Twins could have their eye on a prolonged run of success, but that might not happen considering the tensions between Major League Baseball and the Players Association.
With the two sides unable to agree on trivial matters, the labor situation could turn ugly heading into next year. We could see the Twins competing for a title in 2022, or they could be sitting at home while Major League Baseball plays reruns of all 19 Red Sox-Yankees matchups from this season.
This creates a win-or-else scenario for Minnesota. The core of the Twins is young and has the potential to get better over the next several seasons. But the Twins’ ultimate goal of winning a World Series is in front of them right now and could be a little further by this time next year.