What "Ifs" Do the Twins Need To Overcome To Compete?

Photo Credit: Dave Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day is upon us. Teams and fans have moved beyond the joy and optimism of Spring Training turns to the regular season. Those good vibes are with the Minnesota Twins. Following last year’s second-half collapse, they were active this winter to improve on the weaknesses that did them in last season.

Re-signing Carlos Correa was the highlight of the offseason. Pablo López fortified the starting rotation in a trade where the Twins gave up the 2022 AL Batting Champ Luis Arraez. And they brought in Joey Gallo to add a buy-low bat who can provide a middle-of-the-order thump.

Throw those additions with the current in-house talent: Buxton, Jorge Polanco, and Max Kepler are all incoming veterans. Prospects Trevor Larnach and Alex Kirilloff highlight the upcoming bats through the farm system. Their starting staff has become the deepest part of the team on paper heading into April.

However, when fans and analysts talk about this team, the word “if” might be showing up just a little too much. For example, If the Twins can be healthier this season, they will win the division. Some areas of the team may be relying too much on the assumption that things will improve because they just will.

If Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach live up to the prospect hype…

The most exciting storyline of the 2023 season might be when Minnesota’s high-minors prospects make their highly-anticipated big league debuts or establish themselves as big-league mainstays. Like most other issues for the Twins, Kirilloff and Larnach have been unable to stay healthy during their first two big league seasons.

Kirilloff was a former top prospect who has only slashed .251/.295/.398 with 11 home runs in 104 games through the last two seasons. Wrist injuries have limited his numbers, but the hope now is that he is healthy and will grow into that pure hitter he was projected to be as the everyday first baseman. After all, Kirilloff had a 1.106 OPS and 10 home runs in 35 games in Triple-A last season. The Twins are slow-cooking Kirilloff’s return, and he will likely start the year on the injured list. It’s nowhere near time to panic even if it’s a disappointing start to a crucial season for how Minnesota will view him going forward.

Larnach is another lefty bat who rose through the minors after being selected as a 2018 first-round draft pick out of Oregon State. Like Kirilloff, Larnach has shown flashes of the monster bat he was hyped up to be. A career slash line of .226/.316/.371 with 12 home runs in 130 games. Core and groin injuries sidelined Larnach in 2022 and likely slowed his production considering he had recorded a .813 OPS and 133 wRC+ in his first 22 games with the Twins last year.

It’s not to say that Larnach or Kirilloff both won’t take the next step, just that it’s more likely one of them ends up becoming a primary producer for the Twins lineup. It’s already not a great sign that Kirilloff will start the season on the injured list. That has opened the door for Larnach in left field with Gallo likely sliding to first base. Larnach will be given plenty of opportunities early in the season to show the Twins the production he can bring to the middle of the lineup. For now, the Twins are relying on two unknowns to become key contributors in this lineup that needs them to become middle-of-the-order hitters.

If Max Kepler and Joey Gallo have a bounce-back season in 2023…

Offseason discussion is full of players who underwhelmed the season prior, and if they can turn things around the next year. Gallo has to be one of the easiest bounce-back candidates that come to mind. Before the Texas Rangers traded him to the New York Yankees in 2021, Gallo was one of the most dynamic power hitters in baseball. Now he is on a one-year $12 million prove-it deal with the Twins. He slashed .160/.288/.374 with 32 home runs in the 184 games he has played with the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers since leaving Texas on July 29, 2021.

The Bronx isn’t exactly the easiest environment to play in. Getting Gallo over to mid-market Minnesota with members inside the organization who were with him in Texas should help his confidence. Hitting coach David Popkins should also help his production at the plate.

Kepler is also in the same boat. He’s now four years removed from his 30-homer 2019 season without much consistent production in between. MLB limiting the defensive shift could be an advantage for Kepler, although his issues might be a little deeper than defensive positioning. He needs to generate more consistent hard contact. Great defense and positional consistency have kept Kepler in right field, but there are increasingly more options to replace him.

That being said, what if Gallo and Kepler’s downfall was more than just a weird phase? Or if the shift doesn’t help either outfielder? Sure there are young guys behind Gallo on the depth chart, but those players are mostly unproven and might not be ready. Barring injury, it’s unlikely that one of Minnesota’s corner outfield prospects takes Gallo and/or Kepler’s spot early in the season, even if the younger hitters can produce in the majors. The team will likely squander crucial at-bats giving the veteran bats the benefit of the doubt.

If the starting pitching depth holds, the Twins will have one of the deepest rotations in baseball

Spending a whole season watching Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer start games for the Twins drove everyone a bit crazy. The team got consistently bad outings that couldn’t even last halfway through the game most nights. It over-stretched the bullpen, and the fanbase hated the idea of the minimalist approach with the starters averaging only 4.8 innings/start.

The Twins were hoping that younger arms would emerge and eventually take the big-league starting rotation spots as the 2022 campaign went along. Injuries and poor performance from some of Minnesota’s best pitching prospects prevented that from happening. This season, the Twins sought after starters that can consistently produce and traded for López while keeping Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle, Joe Ryan, and Kenta Maeda in their starting roles. The rotation now is so deep that Bailey Ober and Louie Varland will start the season in Triple-A.

This one of the deepest Twins rotations on paper in nearly two decades, let alone in the Falvey/Levine era. Questions do follow each pitcher. Lopez is unlikely to throw 180 innings like he did last season. Gray is 33 years old and only threw 119 innings due to hamstring and pectoral issues. Mahle only made two starts for the Twins before shoulder soreness sidelined him for the final two months of the season. Maeda hasn’t pitched since August of 2021.

Ober and Varland are waiting in the wings. Neither of those two has pitched a full big-league season. Even if those two stick, prospects with less big-league experience sit behind them. As the Twins learned last season, good teams need quality starting pitching if they want to seriously compete for the postseason. Minnesota’s plan this year is miles better than throwing Homer Bailey, Rich Hill, or Matt Shoemaker in the back of the rotation, but it isn’t airtight.

There are more examples of “ifs” too. If Buxton stays healthy. If Duran and Jax building can continue their strong first season in the bullpen. And if Correa can improve his numbers with runners in scoring position. The list goes on. Every team comes into the season with big ifs, but some teams have more than others.

As much excitement as there is for Minnesota, you know what they say about ifs and buts and candy and nuts. Instead of a merry Christmas, the Twins hope it means a good, competitive team in 2023. The Twins did get better on paper during the offseason. Now that the regular season is here, it’s time to see if that paper translates into production.

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