After a full month for fans to speculate on the Minnesota Twins’ 26-man roster, the Opening Day roster is finally set. Two names stick out as the outliers of making the roster to start the season, players who have never seen time on Minnesota’s Opening Day roster.
Willi Castro is on the roster to provide additional infield depth with Jorge Polanco and Alex Kirilloff on the injured list to start the season. And Cole Sands earns the final spot in Minnesota’s bullpen as their eighth man and long reliever.
Castro lands on the Opening Day roster of the necessity of depth more than anything else. The soon-to-be 26-year-old utility man has seen a lot of playing time with the Twins in Spring Training, appearing in 16 games.
Castro spent all four of his MLB seasons with the Detroit Tigers, and his best season in the majors was during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. That year, he had a .349/.381/.550 with a .932 OPS in 140 plate appearances across 36 games. Castro’s numbers in the last two seasons don’t jump off the back of his baseball card. But he remained relatively healthy for the Tigers playing in 237 games between 2021 and 2022.
He is a lower-tier depth option for the Twins roster, but Castro will be an important player in the Twins’ first month of the season with Polanco and Kirilloff out for the foreseeable future. Castro’s defensive promise will be good for the off-days Nick Gordon, Kyle Farmer, Donovan Solano, and the entire Twins outfield will need throughout April.
Castro has a strong career fielding percentage at second base, .980 in 820.2 innings, and in all outfield positions, .989 in 724 innings. The Twins will need defensive reliability with the up-the-middle defense depleted of Polanco and Buxton for the foreseeable future. While a bat like Edouard Julien would be fantastic to have in the Opening Day lineup, a proven veteran on defense is more important for the Twins lineup to start the season.
Castro is not the same caliber hitter that Julien has proven to be in the minors and World Baseball Classic. However, he has been a better hitter in some offensive categories than Gary Sánchez, Minnesota’s everyday catcher last year. Castro had a .241 BA to Sanchez’s .205, a .284 OBP to his .282, and a 20.9 strikeout percentage to Sanchez’s 28.9%. Both their OPS+’s ended at 89 for the 2022 season, making them both 11% worse than the league-average hitter.
Castro is unlikely to match his total plate appearances in 2022 at 365 with the Twins this season. But his alleviated playing time for the team and defensive versatility should make him a strong depth addition to the Twins’ Opening Day roster.
While many Twins fans would have preferred to have seen the likes of Jeff Hoffman or Danny Coulombe being offered a roster spot out of Spring Training. The final bullpen arm comes from a familiar, homegrown name in Sands.
Sands’s numbers in Spring Training didn’t pop off the stat sheet. He had a 5.25 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, and .327 opponents average in 12 innings pitched across eight games. The benefit with Sands over options such as Hoffman and Coulombe is that he still has minor league options intact.
If Sands is struggling to the same degree he had been at the major league level in 2022, the Twins can easily call up one of their prospects who may be dominating Triple-A pitching in St. Paul. Starting the season with Hoffman or Coulombe as their eighth reliever would have made things more complicated for the Twins. They would have been designated for assignment if they had to make a roster move.
Another reason Sands is on the Opening Day roster is because of the variety he has with the types of pitches he throws. He has a five-pitch arsenal according to FanGraphs with a slider, changeup, curveball, and splitter in addition to his fastball.
The curveball was Sands’s primary secondary pitch in 2022. It was also the pitch that opposing hitters saw the best off of him in the majors. Baseball Savant documented Sands throwing the curve 138 times with the Twins in 2022 against 42 hitters. Those 42 plate appearances amounted to a .289 BA, .500 SLG, and .379 wOBA.
While the numbers are alarming when hitters connect against Sands’s curveball, they are positive when hitters don’t connect. Sands’s curveball has the highest whiff rate and strikeout percentage out of any of his pitches with his Whiff% at 28.8% and K% at 23.8%.
If Sands has worked on tweaking his curveball to his advantage during Spring Training, it could prove to be a great asset to a Twins bullpen filled with slider-first relievers.
All the pressure of performance will not fall onto Castro and Sands to begin the Twins season. They have earned their roster spots for Opening Day, despite current skepticism, and will prove to play vital parts in the start of Minnesota’s 2023 season.