Pablo López was candid about his start on Thursday. He knows he has to be better. The Minnesota Twins traded Luis Arraez, who’s hitting .382/.437/.466, to the Miami Marlins for López. In late April, they extended him for four years, $73.5 million after four starts. So naturally, there was frustration from the Target Field stands when he relinquished a late 3-1 lead. López gave up five runs in the sixth inning and handed the ball to Rocco Baldelli with an out still on the board.
“A lot of things went not the best way, but then the offense kept doing their thing,” said López, reflecting on his start. He rued walking Mason Shaw, who was in the 9-hole, to lead off the inning. López said he moved onto the next hitter mentally and was trying to induce ground-ball outs. Alas, the Cleveland Guardians’ grounders found holes in the infield. “It’s one of those wins that makes you really understand that we’re a good team. These are the kind of wins that good teams get.”
According to ESPN analytics, the Guardians had a 90% chance to win the game when Baldelli went to take the ball from López. But Minnesota rallied down 6-3 to win 7-6. Royce Lewis homered to tie the game in the eighth; Willi Castro had a bases-loaded sac fly to walk Cleveland off in the ninth. Beyond overcoming the improbability of the comeback, which itself was an accomplishment, it’s important to look at who contributed to it.
Tanner Bibee accidentally hit Byron Buxton in the ribs with a 96 mph fastball in the fourth, removing him from the game. In the sixth, Carlos Correa and Max Kepler left with plantar fasciitis and migraines, respectively. Castro, Donovan Solano, and Kyle Farmer entered the game as replacements. Castro had the walk-off hit; Solano drove him in in the eighth to make it 6-4. Baldelli emptied the bench when he called for Ryan Jeffers to replace Christian Vázquez as a pinch runner in the ninth.
“We can turn to anyone on our roster and ask them to do anything, and they go out there, and they’ve been finding a way,” said Baldelli. “A lot of these guys are doing it after going to bed…at 4 or 5 in the morning. And coming over here and, again, we always talk about finding a way in this game. This is probably a good textbook example of that.”
The Twins had played a night game in Houston on Wednesday before flying back on Thursday. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Minnesota’s depth players came through against Cleveland. They have all year. So have young players like Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, and Matt Wallner. The issue is that stars like Correa and Buxton haven’t played to their standard. Furthermore, Kepler is hitting below the Mendoza line, effectively blocking Wallner and Trevor Larnach, who the Twins have stuck in the minors.
Youth movements propelled the Twins during their run of six AL Championships from 2002 to 2010. Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, A.J. Pierzynski, and Doug Mientkiewicz got things started. Later, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau took over. To transition from one era to another, the Twins traded Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser – a heist – and Mientkiewicz to the Boston Red Sox.
Minnesota doesn’t need to move Buxton and Correa to have success. They’re integral players when they’re at their best and capable of playing better this year. Despite his escalating strikeout totals, Buxton still has a 111 OPS+ and should eventually return to the outfield. Correa got off to a slow start this year but has played well defensively. However, plantar fasciitis could affect him all season. Typically, the cure is an extended period where a player is off his feet, which is impossible to do in-season.
With Nick Gordon out and Kepler reluctant to play center, there is legitimate concern about centerfield depth. Michael A. Taylor is a capable defender but stretched playing every day. The Twins won’t put Lewis out there again after he tore his ACL crashing into the center field wall last season. However, there are replacements at short. Farmer was the Cincinnati Reds’ primary shortstop before they traded him to Minnesota in the offseason, and Lewis can play there.
Depth is a blessing and curse in some ways. For example, it felt ridiculous to have Bailey Ober start the year in St. Paul, but they had Kenta Maeda and Tyler Mahle to fill out the back end of the rotation. Similarly, Wallner hit .636/.714/1.000 in his most recent stint with the Twins. However, he had options, and they weren’t going to release Kepler.
It’s always good to have quality depth players and prospects forcing their way to the majors. The Twins were also wise to extend Correa and Buxton; the best teams spend money to keep a quality core intact. But Minnesota needs to figure out what its best roster is soon because they’re dangerously close to getting lost in an inferior division. Had it not been for Castro, Solano, and Lewis – two depth players and a rookie – they’d have gone one step closer to sinking into the AL Central morass.