Just because somebody takes a step back, it doesn’t mean they need to turn around. While the Minnesota Twins were only able to muster 73 wins, the hope is that they learned a few key lessons along the way, as well. Consider it a disappointing yet necessary consolation prize.
For this team, lessons were plentiful.
While the rest of the AL Central was mostly unexciting, save for the postseason-bound Chicago White Sox, the hometown nine have plenty to learn from their rivals. And while the other teams have uncertain future outlooks themselves, at least they aren’t reading this from the cellar.
Use your down years to acquire and develop young pitching
While the Tigers finished the year with a sub-.500 record again, their spirits seem higher than most teams thanks to their progress in the second half of the season. They even posted a 36-34 record after the All-Star break. Sure, that’s not going to set the league on fire, but for a team that has picked in the top five selections of the last four MLB drafts, they’ll gladly take it. Part of their second-half success can even be attributed to one of those high draft picks.
Casey Mize had plenty of promise when he was the clear-cut top talent in the 2019 draft, and the Tigers happily selected him 1-1. Now, the team is finally seeing him grow into an impact starting pitcher at the MLB level. He went out and gave them an excellent sophomore campaign, pitching to the tune of a 3.71 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP while cutting his walk rate considerably (4.13 BB/9 in 2020, 2.45 in 2021). Not only that, but he was able to miniMize (sorry) damage with the best in the league. With runners in scoring position in 2021, opponents only hit .162 off Mize (fourth best in MLB according to Inside Edge).
Tyler Alexander may be an unsung hero on the club after converting to a starter mid-season. He had a solid 3.51 ERA after making the move from the bullpen. His August through September stretch was particularly impressive, as he had a 2.91 ERA and 1.17 WHIP.
The Twins can appreciate the fact that the Tigers used their down years to stockpile high-ceiling starting pitchers, and now they’re starting to see their seeds blossom as they head into next year.
Kansas City Royals
Lock up your stars to team-friendly extensions early in their career
One of the biggest stories of this season was one of the game’s biggest catchers. Salvador Perez had a season to remember, as he belted a record 48 home runs and knocked in 121 runs. While it didn’t significantly affect the AL Central race, his performance was eyebrow-raising nonetheless.
What makes it even more remarkable is that this season was the final year of a very team-friendly extension that Salvy signed before the 2017 season. That deal was worth just over $52 million over five years. He’s since signed another extension with the Royals, this time for more guaranteed money: $82 million over four years with a club option for the 2026 season.
The Twins should take note of his season and recognize that their small-market division rivals were able to get 3.4 fWAR out of their franchise icon (worth roughly $27.2 million) while paying him only $14.2 million. His extension may have looked questionable at some points over the past few years, whether it was from lost time due to injuries or just more mediocre production. Yet, they kept the faith in their guy, and he rewarded them with a monster year.
Maybe the Twins can replicate that same faith with some of the players that they’ve already locked into team-friendly deals, such as Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sanó. They could also look to lock up some of their core players before they get too deep into arbitration, such as Luis Arraez or Mitch Garver.
Find and develop a buzzsaw for the back of the bullpen
Cleveland had a mostly forgettable year, as their biggest weapon was diminished due to injuries. Their starting rotation has been a strength for the last several years, despite being a revolving door of contributors. When one frontline starter was traded, two more seemed to take their place. That door seemed to shut this year finally, but they were able to open a window in the form of a late-inning relief star.
Their rookie closer, Emmanuel Clase had a breakout year with a 1.29 ERA (4th-best in MLB) in 69.2 innings pitched. His devastating cutter regularly hit triple digits and gave opponents fits. They often chased this pitch as it trailed down or away, as 66% of his strikeouts were out of the strike zone. When they were able to make contact on Clase’s pitches, very little damage came from it as opponents were held to just a .240 slugging percentage (third best in MLB).
Many fans and national pundits were perplexed when Cleveland acquired Clase from the Texas Rangers in exchange for Corey Kluber. Now, everyone can see what the Cleveland brass had in mind. The Twins can use this trade as a model for themselves, as bullpen stability is uncertain next season. Sure, they have some solid arms in the form of Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers, and Caleb Thielbar, but the first two are headed into a contract year, and the latter is on the north side of 30 years old.
It should also be noted that Cleveland had another top-end reliever in the form of James Karinchak. But after the league put their foot down on foreign substance use by pitchers, he couldn’t seem to stick around. The season just seemed to slip right through his fingers. It may sound tacky, but he couldn’t keep his grip on the closer’s role for some reason.
Chicago White Sox
Make the trade for a big-time starter in a contract year
The Mighty Whiteys, as Ron Gardenhire once called them, were able to waltz into the postseason this year with key contributors across the roster. However, one of the biggest dogs in the fight was former Twin Lance Lynn. The burly right-hander shoved this season, pitching to a 2.69 ERA with 176 strikeouts. He stymied opposing lineups with upper-tank fastballs and old-school grit. Right-handers, in particular, had a tough time against Lynn, as he held them to a putrid .182 batting average (ninth best in MLB).
Chicago’s front office went out and traded for him after he posted stellar numbers with the Rangers last season, giving up a promising young hurler of their own, Dane Dunning. The risk was considerable, but the Sox saw that their window for contention was wide open and pulled the trigger.
If the Twins want to contend with their division rivals, a similar risk will have to be made. It might take giving up one or multiple young players that Twins Territory already loves (Arraez, Ryan Jeffers, even Alex Kirilloff, or Trevor Larnach), but that’s the price you have to pay to ride the playoff roller coaster. It’s time for the pitching gurus in the front office to show the fans how they got their reputation.
There’s plenty of lessons that the Twins could learn from their division rivals this year. And yet, they have a few lessons of their own that they can teach, as well. Like, don’t count on low-ceiling veteran starters to hold up your pitching staff after their seasons go off the rails. Or don’t trade an on-base machine from your outfield depth for a project reliever. And last but not least, there’s no point in crying over a lost season. This year, the team can come out with just some scrapes and bruises, as long as they learned their lesson.