Did the Twins Build A Sports Car Without An Ignition Switch?

Photo Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Luis Arraez is hitting .420/.476/.518 coming off an All-Star season last year when he led Major League Baseball in batting average. The Miami Marlins are in the NL East mix early in the season, despite having a fraction of the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, and Philadelphia Phillies’ payroll. Minnesota Twins fans would be ruing his absence, except that Pablo López has been as advertised, if not better. The sixth-year veteran has been an ace-caliber pitcher, owning a 3.77 ERA (116 ERA+), and recently signed a four-year, $73.5 million extension.

The Twins swapped out their leadoff hitter for a reliable top-of-the-rotation starter, a fair trade. And they’ve needed him. Kenta Maeda is battling injuries, and Minnesota has already tapped into its depth, recalling Bailey Ober and Louie Varland from Triple-A. López and Sonny Gray have created a formidable one-two punch atop the pitching staff, which has carried the Twins through the first two months of the season. Minnesota needed starting pitching; they had to give something to get it.

However, the Twins appear to have swapped out their ignition switch for a new set of wheels, then failed to replace the ignition switch. They’ve built an expensive sports car that can take off – if it gets going. Minnesota signed Carlos Correa to a $200 million deal in the offseason and has Byron Buxton on a $100 million contract. Sonny Gray is on a $50 million deal. Add in López, and that’s $425 million in money owed to their four most expensive players.

Occasionally, it looks like money well spent. The Twins took the season series against the New York Yankees for the first time since 2001 and won two of three games against the Houston Astros. We’ve seen what happens once this team gets into high gear. They beat Miami 11-1, the Yankees 11-2, and the Boston Red Sox 10-4. In their most recent homestand, they hung 18 runs on New York and 25 on the Kansas City Royals. It’s not that Minnesota can’t score. It’s that they don’t do it often enough.

Through 35 games, the Twins have scored 4.34 runs per game, around league average. However, as Michael Rand pointed out in the Star Tribune, the most common number of runs they’ve scored this season is two. They won their first two games of the season 2-0 in Kansas City, and they won a game 2-0 and lost a game 2-0 in their most series against the Cleveland Guardians. On their six-game road trip, the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland held them hitless in two-thirds of their innings. Minnesota enters its series against the San Diego Padres with the worst batting average in the majors and leading the American League in strikeouts.

Rocco Baldelli has most commonly used Max Kepler to lead off against right-handed pitchers and Buxton against lefties. Kepler started to hit better in late April, but he owns a .224/.313/.447 slash line – about career average. Kepler can hit for power and avoids strikeouts, but he often induces weak contact and hits into the shift. Outfield defense is his biggest asset. Conversely, Buxton has started the season as the designated hitter and can stretch singles into doubles. But he’s been a boom or bust .239/.338/.521 hitter with eight homers and 42 strikeouts. Neither are contact hitters like Arraez, who had a sharp eye at the plate and forced pitchers to run through their arsenal to get him out.

Perhaps the offense won’t be an issue all season. Correa got off to a slow start, but he has hit better recently. So has Nick Gordon. However, the Twins can’t win sustainably this way. We’ve already seen them lose a series to the Washington Nationals, who might lose 100 games this year, then immediately take one from the Yankees. They let the Royals hang around in the opening series and failed to take three of four in the Bronx because the offense sputtered out. One way to think of it is that the offense is the engine, and the pitching is the wheels. The engine and wheels need to work in tandem for the car to work.

The 2019 Bomba Squad had a lot of horsepower but no brakes and minimal steering. As soon as they reached the playoffs, they faced the Yankees, who had a bigger engine and an imposing home-field advantage. Ironically, this version of the team is the opposite. The Twins grip the road and can stop on a dime, but occasionally they can’t get the engine to turnover. In many ways, the López for Arraez trade encapsulated the start of the season. Minnesota has needed quality pitching forever. Unfortunately, they lack the offensive motor now that they have it.

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Photo Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

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