A couple days ago, the esteemed editor/organizer/cat wrangler of this team preview series here at Banished to the Pen sent me a very kind email. It said “Were you going to have that Twins preview today?” It was the kind of very kind editor-speak that editors who work with volunteers write – “No pressure. Just wondering.” What he meant was “Where’s my Twins content, you doofus?” I responded very politely that I had learned from the Minnesota Twins this offseason that the last (to make moves) will be first, those who wait get rewarded, there’s value to be found in picking off the bargain bin late, and also – I had procrastinated. I didn’t learn that last one from the Twins – that’s my own lifelong learning. But the Twins’ 2017-2018 offseason has been a study in waiting patiently. Most major “graders” of these things have categorized the Twins as one of the offseason winners, with grades ranging from B to A-. And my lifelong learning in procrastination tells me that if you can get an A- while waiting until the last minute to get the work done, take it. Every time. Let’s see if this team preview can earn a similar grade.
This is an area the Twins needed to improve. The FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of the Twins’ starters in 2017 was 4.85, “good” for 22nd among all Major League teams. This was nearly 1.5 runs behind the AL Central rabbits from Cleveland and made them sad bed-fellows with the Rockies as the only two playoff teams outside the top 10. Pitching matters. And if the Twins are going to take a step forward from their surprise 85-77 wild card finish they need more of it. And better. The Twins have a stable full of very exciting pitching prospects including Stephen Gonsalves, Adalberto Mejia, Fernando Romero, and Aaron Slegers. While there is potential in each of these and Mejia pitched reasonably well in 2017, making him the favorite for the fifth starter job going into the offseason, Twins fans are much happier with these four in Rochester. They’ll continue to develop and be a phone call away if (read: WHEN) the Twins need additional rotation help.
The Twins still have some rotation questions mostly centering around the return of Ervin Santana. Santana underwent surgery on the middle finger of his throwing hand in February and is either still on track for a May 1 return or WILL NEVER GRIP A BASEBALL AGAIN depending on his internet source you believe. Truthfully, he’ll be back, though the timetable is questionable. Going into the offseason (and, truly, when spring training began) the Twins were looking at a potential rotation of Ervin Santana, Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Adalberto Mejia, and Phil Hughes. Meh. And that would have meant mystery man (perhaps Trevor May) filling in for Santana to start the season. But the Twins front office waited. And took advantage of the depressed market. And pounced. They got Jake Odorizzi in a February 18 trade with the Rays, sending truly expendable shortstop prospect Jermaine Palacios. On February 15, Odorizzi won his arbitration case against the Rays to be paid $6.4M this year. The Twins were more than willing to take on this salary which is quite reasonable for a #2/#3 starter. Everyone thought the Twins were done addressing the starting rotation. But then they waited some more. And they pounced again. The Twins signed free agent starter Lance Lynn for one year at $12M with the potential for $14M with innings pitched incentives. Lynn had been predicted by mlbtraderumors.com to receive 4 years/$56M so the Twins definitely got a bargain here. Lynn is projected by ZiPS for 170 innings of a 4.32 FIP. Odorizzi is projected for 150 innings and 4.66. Neither of these pitchers are aces but they are a heck of a lot better than the Twins were going to go with otherwise. And they didn’t break the bank. The Twins starting rotation now projects to be Santana, Berrios, Gibson, Odorizzi, and Lynn. Mejia has been optioned to minor league camp. The Twins figure to go with four starters on a light early season schedule until Santana is back or use Hughes in a swing-man role as a long reliever or starter. By the way, the Twins also took a flyer on Michael Pineda who may be able to appear in a bullpen role late in 2018 but could be a very nice investment for 2019 and beyond.
If the Twins needed to improve their starting rotation from 2017, they needed to improve their bullpen even more. In their extremely brief postseason run, the Twins saw what can happen with a quality bullpen. They knocked out Yankees starter Luis Severino early in that wild card game and saw the Yankees bullpen dominate the game the rest of the way. And the numbers bore it out as well. The Twins 2017 bullpen had a FIP of 4.50, again good for 22nd in the majors and sandwiching them right between the Orioles and the A’s. This is not company you want to keep from a pitching perspective. In bullpen FIP, the Twins were “only” 1.3 runs behind Cleveland but desperately needed to close that gap. And I believe they did so.
Starting from the back, Target Field will get to see whether the tilted cap has any magic left in it as newcomer Fernando Rodney will close games. Newcomers Addison Reed and Zach Duke will likely have responsibility for the 7th and 8th innings with Reed being ready to jump into the closer role if Rodney falters. They join Trevor Hildenberger, Taylor Rogers, Ryan Pressly and the aforementioned Hughes to form a bullpen that should be significantly improved over last year’s edition. In none of these cases did the Twins have to break the bank or give up (say goodbye to) pieces that really hurt. There were no sexy Shohei Otani or Yu Darvish signings. But there were progressive improvements at real trouble spots.
This brings us to the lineup. The Twins offense didn’t need a huge improvement over last year. Offense and outfield defense were the hallmarks of the Twins’ success in 2017 and figure to be so again in 2018. Their 2017 wOBA (weighted On Base Average) of .309 put them in 9th place in the majors. There were not major problems but the Twins still addressed one.
The outfield figures to remain the same: Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler. This outfield should suck up a lot of fly balls and, if they can each progress at the plate as you would expect give their places on the aging curve, looks to be a valuable trio. This will be especially true if we see Robbie Grossman less often in the outfield than we did in 2017. Behind the plate the Twins will lean on Jason Castro who may platoon some with right-hander Mitch Garver, an exciting if unproven offensive commodity. Both of these catchers excel at framing and calling the game, so will be valuable pieces. The right side of the infield is solid with Brian Dozier and Baby Jesus Joe Mauer. Mauer had one of his better years of recent memory in 2017 so may have some offensive regression there in 2018.
The left side of the infield and DH is where things get tricky. The Twins might have thought third base was solid with hulking Miguel Sano taking up space there. He can be a dominant offensive force and is better defensively than anyone would think to look at him. However, Sano had surgery on his left leg in November to handle a mid-August stress fracture. There was always speculation that Sano would have to start 2018 on the DL or at least in a full-time DH role. Despite that, he has looked reasonably healthy this spring. The bigger question for Sano is about a possible suspension. Sano was the subject of some very serious allegations from a freelance photographer on December 28. The allegations stem from several years ago and include allegations of sexual assault. The incident is currently under investigation by MLB and no word has come as to when the investigation will be completed. There are things a million times more important about these allegations, but for the context of this preview, let’s just say that Sano’s presence on the field for all of 2018 is not assured.
The Twins have some insurance there in Eduardo Escobar who is not the offensive behemoth Sano is but can play a good third base and provide some value with the bat. From the plate, the Twins made an improvement there with another procrastination pounce, signing free agent Logan Morrison to a 1 year, $6.5M deal with a vesting option. Morrison figures to be the regular DH (taking at bats from Grossman and sending perennial power prospect Kennys Vargas to AAA) and fill in at 1B when Mauer needs a break. This will take some offensive pressure from a potential loss of Sano.
Shortstop seemed fine with Jorge Polanco who really came on in the second half of 2017 to slash .256/.313/.410 while playing a very fine shortstop. Then a late spring decision finally went against the Twins. It was announced on Sunday that Polanco had failed a PED test and would be suspended for the first 80 games of the 2018 season. Wow! Shuffle the dominoes again. This puts Escobar at shortstop (if Sano can play third, either physically or legally) or perhaps light-hitting 1980s model shortstop Ehire Adrianza. Or perhaps another one of the offseason signings that seemed odd at the time might just pay off. On February 24 (before the Polanco problems were known) the Twins signed veteran shortstop Erick Aybar to a minor league deal. And he was still in camp when the Polanco news broke. Last year for the Padres, Aybar slashed .234/.300/.348. This is, let’s say, not good. But if he can still play well in the field it might be the best the Twins can do to occupy the spot until Polanco returns midseason.
The Twins improved their pitching, in all aspects. They did not get ace material. But they got better. The outfield trio should be better offensively as they mature and maintain their solid defensive performance. The catching crew will continue to help their pitchers as best they can while providing a bit of offensive support. Dozier is consistently good and there is no reason to believe he won’t continue to produce. If Mauer can reproduce something close to 2017’s .305/.384/.417 the Twins will happily take it. Morrison provides some more power in the lineup and solidifies the DH and backup 1B role. So much depends on Sano and Polanco. The loss of Polanco from an offensive standpoint may be more significant than Twins fans are allowing themselves to think. This is especially true if Sano also misses significant time. Overall it looks as though the Twins will be better from the pitching side and perhaps a bit worse (and potentially more than a bit depending on suspension decisions, etc) from the offensive side. Solid defense will help, because the Twins are still very good on that side and any replacement for Sano at third is likely an improvement with the glove.
Last year the Twins were 85-77 and got a bittersweet taste of the postseason for about 15 minutes in Yankee Stadium. As of this moment, after the Polanco news, FanGraphs projects the Twins for 82-80 in 2018. I still believe that there are many wins to be had in the AL Central at the hands of the Tigers, White Sox, and Royals so I’m going to be a bit more optimistic and say 84-78 which will just miss the second wild card spot.Next post: The 2018 Texas Rangers in a Box of Casino Chips
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