Are Underperforming Veterans Stifling Minnesota's Youth Movement?

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins came into the 2023 season with plenty of optimism. They had established names that could carry a lineup, a starting rotation that is one of the best in baseball, and a bullpen that’s good enough to get the job done. However, the biggest reason for excitement resided in what they had in the minor leagues.

If the Twins got their job done at the major league level, players such as Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff and Edouard Julien could be the complementary pieces that could help them compete with anyone in the American League. But two months into the season, those veterans haven’t reached their level of expectations. That leaves the Twins wondering how to maximize their talented young players while also giving the veterans a chance to find their best form.

Heading into the season, Minnesota’s nucleus consisted of four players: Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco. Buxton, Kepler, and Polanco had been mainstays in the Twins lineup dating back to the Bomba Squad in 2019 Bomba Squad. Meanwhile, Correa was a prized free agent whose dynamic ability and championship pedigree was expected to push that group over the top.

In Buxon, Kepler, and Polanco’s case, injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic have altered that course. Nobody knows what could have happened had the Twins played a full season in 2020 with most of the key pieces of the 2019 team. However, the Twins haven’t made the playoffs since winning back-to-back American League Central titles.

That was supposed to change this year. The Twins entered the season with a plan to keep Buxton at DH, increasing his availability and in an effort to keep him healthy for the final stretch of the season.

Buxton is already halfway to his 92 games played in 2022, but he hasn’t been the player that earned his first All-Star appearance a year ago. His .448 slugging percentage is 78 points lower than the .526 mark he put up last season. Since the 2022 All-Star break, Buxton is hitting just .229/.337/.464 with 15 home runs and 31 RBI.

The most frustrating aspect of Buxton’s game is his strikeout rate. He’s currently at 29 percent after logging a 30.4 percent rate last season. As a result, Twins fans reigning down boos at a player who declared he was the best player in baseball after signing a seven-year contract.

However, he is far from the only culprit here.

The Twins believed that Kepler deserved a better fate after the league eliminated the shift this past offseason. But after their attempts to trade him fell through, it might have been a case of talking themselves into being okay with him on the roster.

Coming off a season where he posted a career-low .666 OPS, Kepler is hitting .194/.276/.407 in 30 games this season. His 21.1 strikeout rate and 22.5 percent whiff rate are both career-highs. With two trips to the injured list, the Twins have been left scrambling into the bottom of the depth chart in the corner outfield.

Polanco is the one player out of the key group who has contributed offensively, but he hasn’t been on the field long enough to be a contributor. In 23 games this season, Polanco is hitting .284/.327/.484 with four homers and 14 RBI. His .811 OPS is just below his .841 OPS in 2019 when he made the All-Star team.

Unfortunately, the Twins have to consider Polanco’s availability. He battled through left knee inflammation at the end of last year and is currently on the injured list with a hamstring injury. Polanco is unlikely to cash in on his $10.5 million vesting option for 550 plate appearances, which means he could be in his last season with Minnesota.

The Twins have three core pieces who are having underachieving years. However, it hurts even more when the player who was supposed to tie everything together is also having a career-worst season.

Correa’s free-agent saga aside, the Twins haven’t gotten what they’ve paid for with Correa this season. He’s only hitting .211/.303/.378 with six homers and 24 RBI this season. He also has been an average defender with no outs above average entering Thursday’s game against the Houston Astros.

The eye test would tell you that Correa has displayed high-IQ and a tremendous arm at shortstop. But the Twins are paying him to be the all-around phenom he was with the Houston Astros, which isn’t what he is right now.

The frustrated Twins fan on their couch might want changes. And those concerns could also get louder when they see the younger players exceeding their expectations.

Wrist issues have relegated Kirilloff to first base due to wrist issues. But he’s put together a solid season coming off of major wrist surgery. In 22 games, Kirilloff is hitting .303/.439/.485 with three homers and seven RBI. However, Rocco Baldelli has lifted him against lefties in late-game situations in favor of Donovan Solano.

Meanwhile, Matt Wallner is hitting the cover off the ball with a .285/.396/.535 line and five homers at Triple-A St. Paul. The Twins sent him down after going 6-for-7 with two walks, a home run, and three RBI during last weekend’s series against the Toronto Blue Jays. He responded by almost hitting for the cycle on Tuesday night.

Julien is only hitting .228 with the Twins this season. However, his four homers and 11 percent walk rate is something that the Twins could use more often in their lineup.

Then there’s Lewis, who sent fans into a euphoric state by smashing a three-run homer and delivering the game-tying hit in his season debut on Monday afternoon.

For most Twins fans this is a no-brainer. Swap out the underachieving veterans and replace them with a youth movement. But this isn’t a situation like what’s happening in Oakland or Kansas City. Those teams are actively looking toward the future as opposed to building for this season. Minnesota should make the playoffs, and they’ll need their veterans to end their 18-game postseason losing streak.

Consider that Buxton is posting a career-high 12.4 percent walk rate and career-low 27.6 percent whiff rate entering Thursday. Long known to be a streaky hitter, Buxton could start smashing homers at any minute. If his health improves, he could wind up back in center field by the end of the season.

Correa struggled in a similar way a year ago, only to turn it on and hit .355/.412/.589 with seven homers and 19 RBI in the final month of the season. As a player who ranks seventh all-time with 18 postseason home runs, he is a player any team would want down the stretch.

Polanco and Kepler could also be valuable pieces. They have have been in the majors for most of the past decade.

I’m not give the veterans a pass for their slow start. But it’s easier to rely on them than a group of four prospects who have a combined 187 games of major league experience, including Kirilloff’s 126 games. That’s especially true in Correa and Buxton’s case. They are former All-Stars; Correa is a former world champion.

While these players could be in featured roles one year from now, it’s too early to throw them into the fire. That leaves the Twins with no choice but to ride it out and hope the veterans come to form soon.

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