Seth Moland-Kovash and Jim Turvey collaborated on this preview.

The Minnesota Twins are projected, by PECOTA, for the largest increase in wins of any team in Major League Baseball. The 2016 Minnesota Twins put their fans through a 59-103 campaign which culminated in the breaking of long-standing Twins tradition to reach outside the organization in the hiring of Derek Falvey (from the Indians front office) as Chief Baseball Officer and Thad Levine (from the Rangers) as VP and General Manager.

Some expected (or hoped) that Falvey and Levine would begin this winter with a thorough house-cleaning. It would be fair to say that that did not happen. Many pieces remain in the front office from the previous regime. Most of the on-field coaching staff is the same. Paul Molitor will still fill out the daily lineup card. The most prominent coaching staff change came as Tom Brunansky was replaced by James Rowson. Perhaps most surprisingly, Neil Allen remains as pitching coach after the Twins staff gave up 889 runs in 2016, one shy of the Diamondbacks for the MLB “lead.”
Player and PECOTA “Changes”

In terms of player personnel, very few major changes came in the offseason. Of course, the Twins engaged in a well-publicized and well-documented on again/off again tryst with the Dodgers about the services of second baseman Brian Dozier. And, as we all know, that relationship fell apart. The Dodgers looked elsewhere, snagging Logan Forsythe from the Rays and Brian Dozier remains with the Twins, for now. Seemingly, the Twins’ asking price was just too high so the Dodgers looked elsewhere. It will be an interesting game all season to compare the output of Forsythe and Dozier to see whether the Dodgers made the right call in moving to option #2.

Given the lack of significant changes, one wonders what would possibly justify PECOTA in projecting 80 wins for 2017, a whopping 21-win increase. How will mostly the same coaches and the same players accomplish this kind of increase? Will it be by the force of will emanating from Falvey and Levine in the luxury boxes at Target Field?

We can take this PECOTA projection as baseball hypothesis. The 2017 Twins season can be seen as an experiment to test this hypothesis. That hypothesis involves asking two questions

  1. Just how much difference can catcher framing make?
  2. How much difference can be made by improved defense, especially in the outfield?

 

Catcher Framing

Jason Castro v. Kurt Suzuki

The acquisition of Jason Castro via free agency in November (and the related non-extension to Kurt Suzuki) has prompted Minnesotans to talk about pitch framing like it’s ice fishing reports this winter. Jason Castro was worth 17 runs on pitch framing alone in 2016 according to Baseball Prospectus, good for third best in all of Major League Baseball, behind Buster Posey and Yasmani Grandal. In contrast, Kurt Suzuki rated out at -7.1 pitch framing runs in 2016, which made him 91st out of 104. Yuck!

And so the questions are – how accurate are those numbers? How repeatable are those numbers? Also – how catcher-dependent are they? The Twins made very few changes to the pitching staff, to the chagrin of many fans. So, can two different catchers working with the same staff get results THAT different? Will the change from Suzuki to Castro really convert to 24 runs saved for the Twins? Since 9.8 runs were worth a win in 2016, those catcher framing runs alone would help the Twins by 3 wins. If it’s all true. And that’s (part of) the experiment that is the 2017 Twins.
(Outfield) Defense

How many runs is it worth to have one of the best outfield defenses in all of baseball? This is the other key question that the 2017 Twins season will test. The Twins allowed third baseman Trevor Plouffe to move on, opening up third base to belong to Dominican slugger Miguel Sano. Last season, in order to get his bat in the lineup, the Twins tried to convince fans (and him) that Sano could play right field. It was… interesting. Third base will be interesting enough for the lumbering Sano (please God, tell me he’s working on pop-up drills all spring), but it is a much better place to put him than right field. First base belongs to Joe Mauer (with some time for Sano and fellow slugger, mostly DH Kennys Vargas), second base remains the home of Dozier for now, and the Twins plan to use some combination of Jorge Polanco, Eduardo Escobar, and perhaps Ehire Adrianza and/or Danny Santana at short. The infield defense does not inspire.

But that changes on balls hit to the outfield. Moving Sano to the infield clears up outfield space. Byron Buxton’s inspiring September allows you to think of him as an everyday major league player. So the Twins’ projected outfield for 2017 is Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler. That’s a fine defensive outfield. To be fair, Byron Buxton (projected for a Fielding Runs Above Average of 16, which is elite) and two other names is already a positive defensive outfield. For some great video of Buxton’s outfield range, speed, and arm, this Statcast post is fun. But Rosario also covers a lot of ground and has a very good arm (his FRAA projection of 3 is based largely on arm). Kepler projects for 4 FRAA in 2017. So the Twins’ outfielders are all projected to be above average as fielders, centered by Buxton’s elite status. And, remember this – regular playing time for Kepler and Rosario is replacing (Twins fans hope) regular outfield playing time for Sano, Danny Santana, and Robbie Grossman.
Offensive Improvements

Byron Buxton showed his superstar potential last September, but PECOTA’s projection for Buxton also takes into account his swings-and-missed (literal and figurative) earlier in 2016 and in 2015. The projection for his WARP goes up from 1.6 in 2016 to 2.9 in 2017 – a step forward to be sure, but a massive leap is not being projected. The same could be said of most of the Twins’ young players. PECOTA is projecting small increases commensurate with their place on the aging curve. Impatient Twins fans might want to remind themselves that Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are still only 23 and Max Kepler just turned 24 – improvement is not out of the question. Dozier is projected to regress a bit but still be a solid major leaguer and any look at his career would tell you that’s likely true. Joe Mauer projects to be replacement level which is not what you want out of your first baseman, but he’s Joe Mauer. He does milk commercials and smiles so it’s OK.
Pitching Staff

There were fewer changes to the pitching staff in terms of personnel than many Twins fans hoped and most Twins fans expected. You’re still looking at a rotation featuring some combination of Twins-y pitchers like Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, Hector Santiago, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, and Jose Berrios (another highly touted prospect who has not looked good, but has not yet celebrated his 23rd birthday). The bullpen looks largely the same with Brandon Kintzler projected as the closer at the moment, as the team continues to assess the health and effectiveness of Glen Perkins. There were a few late offseason moves for bullpen arms who may or may not make the team – fan favorites like Matt Belisle, Craig Breslow, Nick Tepesch, Ryan Vogelsong and others. Who knows how this will all pan out leaving Florida or during the season, but these names do not inspire plans for a championship parade.
Patience

And there we come back to the word patience. The Twins have brought in new heads to the front office. Falvey and Levine, one hopes, have a long term plan here. They are presumably not looking at 2017 as their year. And that’s appropriate. The two of them have not lived through the past six years of futility. Five of the past six years featured the Twins winning not more than 70 games. Fans have been patient a long time and will need to be patient for at least one more year.

While being patient, there are some things to watch. Was Buxton’s September a sign that he’s started to figure it out, or more false hope? Will the end of Sano’s right field experiment allow him to focus on hitting balls a long way more regularly? What is catcher framing and how much does it matter? How good can an outfield defense be? Can a change at catcher and an improved defense make largely the same pitching staff look better?

These are the questions which will occupy the minds of Twins fans. Most fans will not spend much time wondering about postseason timing and whether they can get tickets to games in October, or whether baseball will interfere with the hunting season. This is a team that should be better than last year. How could it be worse? But 80 wins? I don’t believe it. 75 wins and a third place finish in the AL Central seems like a solid prediction for this group.

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