Outside of the Upper Midwest, admitting one’s Twins fandom is akin to declaring vanilla your favorite ice cream or missionary your favorite sexual position.
The Twins are both unremittingly dull and steadfast in their belief that this dullness denotes some moral superiority—much like the denizens of what’s cloyingly called “Twins Territory.”
Just take a look at the team’s logo: instead of a conqueror or bloodthirsty animal, the Twins’ logo features two paunchy white guys jovially shaking hands across a tranquil river. We’re just here to play a bit of baseball, if it’s not too much trouble.
The Twins have come by their reputation for stodginess honestly, through a folksy, antiquated front office that values continuity and familiarity, espousing comfortingly old-school tenets like “pitch to contact” and “hit the ball the other way” while remaining oblivious to the changes of the sport’s tides.
Our claims to any type of superiority, moral or otherwise, have taken a significant hit these past few seasons.
In the four seasons succeeding the Yankees’ sweep of the Twins in the 2010 divisional series, Ron Gardenhire’s team averaged 66 wins and finished last in the (incredibly weak) AL Central three times—all without acknowledging that whatever identity the “Piranha” Twins teams of the Dome-era had forged, we were far removed from anything resembling speed, defense or any coherent identity at all.
Without any success accompanying it, “scrappy” just means you’re a mess.
Then came 2015.
Last season, a hefty dose of fortune and one hot month propelled the Twins to an 83-79 record and the peripheries of the playoff race at least one year ahead of schedule.
As last summer’s trade deadline approached and the Twins weighed their options, it seemed possible that the Twins would eschew their patient approach to mortgage the team’s seemingly bright future under the misbegotten hope that an overpriced, name-brand acquisition would catapult Minnesota into a one-game playoff.
Thankfully, the Twins took the long view and were relatively quiet at the deadline: their only move was to acquire reliever Kevin Jepsen from the Rays for lesser prospects Chih-Wei-Hu and Alexis Tapia.
For the first time in several years, the Twins’ reluctance to tinker or change felt like a boon. The Twins were simply being pragmatic, ignoring the mirage of 2015 for a real shot at a playoff spot in 2016 and beyond.
Well, 2016 is here. Can the Twins build on their surprising success?
|Min||Record||wRC+||SP ERA-||RP ERA-||DRS||UZR||BsR||Pay – $M|
|2013||.407 (26)||91 (22)||130 (30)||87 (10)||-10 (20)||-43 (26)||1 (13)||83 (22)|
|2014||.432 (26)||101 (9)||131 (30)||97 (16)||-73 (29)||-35 (25)||21 (1)||83 (26)|
|2015||.512 (13)||91 (23)||102 (14)||97 (19)||-9 (22)||0 (18)||-4 (24)||106 (22)|
The above table provides a pretty quick and dirty explanation for the Twins’ 2015 success: After 2013 and 2014 seasons that saw its starters rank last in ERA- and 26th in record both years, the Twins jumped up to 14th in starter ERA- last year and 13th in record. As the pitching has improved, so too has the record.
There’s another trend here that highlights one of the team’s major shortcomings over the past few years—and supplies another reason for last year’s improvements: according to DRS and UZR, the team defense has gone from “appalling” to “mediocre.”
The simultaneous improvement of both the pitching and the defense should not come as a surprise; pitching and defense are inextricable, creating a “chicken or the egg” scenario between the two.
But for years now, the Twins have either willfully denied the pitching and defense symbiosis or been ignorant of it—neither of which augurs well for the team’s leadership.
By the end of last season, for the first time since perhaps 2000 (?!), when the trio of Jacque Jones, Torii Hunter and Matt Lawton patrolled the outfield, the Twins played three average-to-above-average outfielders.
As I wrote in last year’s mid-season check-in at BttP, “the problem, as always with these Twins, is that the front office has stockpiled pitchers who can’t miss bats and then forced them to pitch in front of defenders who can’t turn batted balls into outs.”
Or, as Matt Trueblood wrote in BP a few days ago, “there’s no surer way to get consistently bludgeoned than to trot out a team of poor fielders behind a pitching staff that gives up a lot of contact, and that’s been the Twins’ predicament.”
The last 15 years of Twins roster construction has indicated that this front office believes that, if the centerfielder is good enough, you can stick any schmuck with a half-decent arm—Lew Ford, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, Jason Kubel—in the corner and get away with it.
As Eddie Rosario grew accustomed to left and Byron Buxton took over in center—moving the sure-handed Aaron Hicks to right field—the Twins seemed like they understood, for the first time in years, that it may be advantageous to field a decent trio to cover Target Field’s spacious green space and field the many balls put in play.
Then came the off-season, when the Twins looked at their glut of young outfielders and decided to trade Hicks for John Ryan Murphy—a transaction that made some sense, especially considering that Kurt Suzuki is an abomination. But it also ensured that, once again, the Twins would give an outfield spot to a massive liability—in this case, quite literally massive, as the nearly 300-pound Miguel Sano will try his hand in right.
Shifting Sano to right certainly means that the Twins’ defense will take a hit. There exists no method of forecast—be it advanced projection system, eye test or general logic—that portends success for Sano in right.
The only way this move makes sense is if Sano’s superlative bat compensates for his obvious defensive deficiencies, providing the Twins more value than simply executing what to many Twins fans seemed the more logical move: trading Trevor Plouffe and installing Sano at third base, his natural position.
Plouffe has fashioned himself into a slick-fielding third baseman and his hitting numbers, though they may offend the eyes initially—he slashed .244/.307/.435 last season—place him slightly above average at a relatively thin position.
But Sano’s bat looks to be far above average, and third base is one of the few positions where the Twins could make a bold move to upgrade a team with few other potential bold moves in its arsenal. Plouffe represents the type of likable-enough, mediocre player who isn’t really offending anyone that the Twins love trotting out every day. A Plouffe trade and front-office endorsement of Sano as a third baseman—like the one Buxton received as the presumptive centerfielder after the Hicks trade—would have shown uncharacteristic and badly needed zeal.
Twins GM Terry Ryan stated publicly that the Twins “did not entertain offers or make (Plouffe) available” this off-season, which is either some cagey gamesmanship or criminal negligence. Trading Plouffe is the most obvious place to upgrade this roster, and if Ryan hasn’t even entertained it, than perhaps things are even bleaker than they feel.
Blerg. It’s probably best for me to take a breath, relax, and remember that Twins fans must deal with the realities of this staid franchise and not the potential excitement it could generate if run by more pioneering sorts.
The Twins will remain the cottage cheese of the MLB pantry, and now we must deal with that reality.
Pitching and Defense
Let’s throw these two categories together and make quick work of the defense because I’ve already torn out enough of my hair writing about the Twins’ frustrating lack of a coherent run-prevention strategy.
The outfield defense will benefit from full seasons from Buxton—provided he hits enough to warrant it—and Rosario. Sano, as mentioned, will have a rough go of it out in right. A weak outfield isn’t ideal for this Twins pitching staff, which posted the eighth-highest fly ball rate in the major leagues last season on its way to an umpteenth-straight year of tallying the fewest strikeouts in the majors.
The infield is better, but not by much. Plouffe acquits himself well at third and likely starting shortstop Eduardo Escobar is bad but not egregiously so. Let’s call the left side a wash.
On the right side of the infield, Brian Dozier posted a -8.5 FRAA last season after two-straight years of positive play, so here’s hoping that 2015 was an aberration and Dozier will resume playing a steady second base. Dozier will be 29 for the majority of the season, however, so it is possible that we’re seeing a decline in his fielding prowess. Joe Mauer is fine as a first baseman. All told, I don’t hate our infield defense.
I do hate our catching defense. Kurt Suzuki was the fifth-worst defensive catcher in the majors last year, which is too bad because he can’t hit a lick. He does seem awfully eager and personable, so he’s got that going for him, which is good. But man does he do some damage with a glove on his hand. Over the past five years, Suzuki has averaged a -14.06 FRAA rating per season, according to BP, and this about matches the eye test: last year felt like a never-ending procession of Suzuki haplessly flopping in the general direction of pitches in the dirt and nearly having his glove knocked off by an 89-mph fastball. Kurt Suzuki catches like Ryan Doumit and hits like Kurt Suzuki.
J.R. Murphy may provide some help: the former Yankee posted positive defensive numbers across the minor leagues before last season, when he was slightly below average with the Yanks. Slightly below average we can live with.
The pitching staff is… not as bad as usual? I don’t know. The Twins’ staff depresses me.
Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana and Kyle Gibson are sure things in the starting rotation, which could be fine if they were slotted into the 3-5 spots. They are not.
Hughes could not replicate his 2014 success in 2015, primarily because of a notable increase in home run rate and a sharp drop-off in strikeouts—a particularly lethal combination. PECOTA projects him for a 4.06 ERA over 165 1/3 innings, which would be welcomed happily by this Twins fan. Santana can hopefully be counted on for something similar: 160-200 innings with an ERA around four, barring the unforeseen accidental ingestion of any performance-enhancing drugs. Gibson rode a higher strikeout rate and his usual groundball-heavy batted-ball profile to his best season thus far, logging nearly 200 innings and tallying a Deserved Run Average of 3.88.
The back of the rotation is where the Twins once again have an opportunity to be bold. They have two options. Option A, a.k.a. the cowardly choice: give those starts to Tommy Milone and Ricky Nolasco because of inertia and wanting to justify Nolasco’s horrific contract. Option B, a.k.a., the better choice: give the lion’s share of those starts to Trevor May, Tyler Duffery and Jose Berrios—delaying Berrios’ arrival for service-time considerations if they must—by at least June.
May was shaping into a solid starter before being moved to the bullpen, where he thrived. I can’t see Paul Molitor moving him back into the rotation—I’m sensing some quote about “being comfortable in his role” or “helping the team any way he can”—and that’s fine. It wouldn’t hurt to have a bullpen ace to pair with Glen Perkins.
Duffey was the Twins’ best pitcher across his 10 starts last season, striking out 53 batters in 58 innings with a 3.10 ERA, a 3.21 FIP and a 3.99 DRA. The 25-year-old was the only Twins starter to consistently miss bats. He deserves a shot, even if it means sucking it up and running Nolasco out as the game’s highest-priced mop-up man.
Berrios, the Twins’ No. 2 prospect and best minor league pitcher, carries an awful lot of weight on his shoulders; in an organization that’s struggled to develop frontline starters (though who hasn’t…) and inundated with back-end guys, Berrios represents the Twins’ chance to get that rarest of assets: a cost-controlled, homegrown ace. In 12 starts in AAA last season, Berrios, at age 21, posted a 2.62 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and 9.9 K/9; once he refines a few things here and there and proves he can consistently put up those kind of numbers for a handful of starts, he should be up and, if things go well, the team’s best pitcher. (Knocks on wood. Prays to TJ Gods.)
Glen Perkins will again headline the bullpen, which will be boosted by a full season of May, the other Twins reliever who can strike batters out. Casey Fien has proven dependable and Jepsen pitched well down the stretch last season. The addition of Fernando Abad as a lefty specialist doesn’t really move the needle, but there was a need for another lefty. Though he’s a 26-year-old with two major league innings under his belt, Alex Meyer could also put his tremendous potential together and become a bullpen ace, which would be a huge boon for the Twins’ staff.
The Twins were remarkably lucky in their sequencing last year; they were 13th in runs scored but 23rd in wRC+. This discrepancy certainly makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience—man, those Twins sure do get big hits when they need them!—but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their ability to repeat their offensive success.
The Twins’ major offseason acquisition was 29-year-old Korean slugger Byung-ho Park, who projects to hit like a right-handed Oswaldo Arcia—which is great, except that we already have a left-handed Oswaldo Arcia and we don’t seem particularly keen on playing him. Park joins Arcia and Kennys Vargas in the Twins’ collection of position-less potential power bats. I don’t know why we’ve decided to corner the market on guys who could possibly hit 20-25 home runs and not play defense, but here we are. (Yes, I refer to the Twins as “we.” I know this is lame. I’ve been fighting it for 2,200 words and am weary.)
I know I’m bitching again, and I apologize. But, again, I just can’t countenance the Twins’ utter lack of an identity or coherent plan; for decades they’ve simply entrusted the same cadre of like-minded baseball minds with building a logical team, mistaking blind devotion to continuity for a successful system. Please get some new ideas.
At least we have Miguel Sano. Watching Sano blast moonshots has brought me unalloyed joy. More promisingly, his patience and ability to draw walks—Sano posted a .385 OBP across his 80-game stint—bodes well for sustainable success down the road. God bless you, Miguel.
Sadly, as Sano has risen, Joe Mauer has collapsed—as if witnessing age and infirmity degrade one man’s livelihood is the price to watch youth flourish elsewhere.
Mauer batted .265/.338/.380 with a 94 wRC+ last season and struck out more than 100 times for the first season of his career. When I try to recollect Mauer’s 2015 season, all I can picture is a perpetual Vine of a groundout to second.
Kurt Suzuki hasn’t been able to hit since 2008, though J.R. Murphy may prove an offensive upgrade if Molitor acknowledges Suzuki’s ineptitude. My money is on Molitor sticking with Suzuki, presumably because he looks good in catcher’s gear.
Buxton, the consensus No. 1 overall prospect entering last season, will have every chance to live up to his pedigree this season—and Christ would that sure make everything feel just a little bit brighter. Sano proved this last year: a young superstar-in-the-making can sure paper over some dysfunction and deficiency.
Though Rosario looked increasingly comfortable in left and posted a 12.6 FRAA, he was still very much a work-in-progress at the plate: the 24-year-old walked 15 times and struck out 118 times last season. That’s not good. I wish I could say that “if he improves his plate discipline he’ll be a star,” but improving plate discipline is damn hard to do and it would take a herculean improvement.
Embracing the humdrum
In the right light, the Twins are enchanting and promising—a collection of youngish established players, an emerging superstar and one of the finest farm systems in baseball. They also continue to give at-bats and innings to middling veterans who have no place in the next successful Twins team. (Please, someone put Danny Santana out of his misery. By the end of last season, he looked like he would have given back his salary if the Twins stopped televising his plate appearances.) Their resources are bizarrely allocated, as if Terry Ryan started enacting a viable plan and then got a phone call halfway through and forgot to finish it.
As a fan, they are endlessly frustrating. Under this owner and front office, we are told we are a storied franchise—we won two World Series!—when in fact we lose more than we win and can lay claim to two of the weakest World Series-winning teams of the past 30 years. I am told, however, that it is better to be lucky than good.
Perhaps this entire diatribe is simply the result of one man reckoning with an uncomfortable, inalienable truth: my team is dull and cannot help but be dull. Ergo, I am dull and cannot help but be dull.
Perhaps the key is to embrace my humdrum existence.
A round of vanilla ice creams, on me.
2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.Next post: The 2016 Detroit Tigers in a Not-Quite-Six-Feet-Under Box
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