Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.
You look at the Twins and you see all kinds of young talent emerging and you think “in a year or two they’re gonna be scary.” Then you realize that the past couple of teams which fit that profile — here I’m thinking Astros and Cubs — were scary at least a year and maybe two years earlier than most people thought and you think . . . hmmmm . . .
OK, I’m not gonna go that far. I was burned on how early some other teams got good, and I really do like the talent the Twins are assembling, but I’m still going to say that they’re a year or two off.
In the meantime, though, there’s a lot to love here. Miguel Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 home runs in only 335 plate appearances last season and they’ll have him all year. Likewise here to stay is Byron Buxton, one of the top prospects in the game. He didn’t do particularly well in his 2015 cup of coffee, but cups of coffee are not the measure of top prospects. He could really be something special. The Twins likewise picked up 29-year-old South Korean slugger Byung-ho Park. That will move Sano from DH to the outfield, which, OK, that might be scary, but the Twins offense was a horror show outside of Sano last year and putting a guy who hit .343/.436/.714 with 53 homers in the KBO last season in the lineup can’t hurt at all, even if he doesn’t adjust to the majors like, say, Jung-ho Kang did.
Beyond the excitement of those young faces, there could be marginal improvement elsewhere. J.R. Murphy is no one’s idea of a great catcher, but Kurt Suzuki stunk on ice last year, so that situation is probably a tad better. Joe Mauer hit a mere .265/.338/.380 in 158 games. His MVP days are a distant memory, but he has more left in the tank than that line suggests and a better year is a reasonable expectation.
On the pitching side of things there is some reason for hope. Having Ervin Santana back for more than the half a season he had last year due to a drug suspension is good news. Phil Hughes is not as good as his 2014 suggested but he only made 25 starts last year and might be a bit more reliable this year. Putting Ricky Nolasco in the rotation was not anything Twins fans wanted to see, especially since it pushed Tyler Duffey down to the minors. Duffey was 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA (134 ERA+) and 1.31 WHIP last year while Nolasco was an expensive train wreck, but the Twins front office is apparently unfamiliar with the concept of sunk costs. Worth watching is top prospect Jose Berrios, who was 14-5 with a 2.87 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 175 strikeouts in 166 1/3 innings in 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A last year. If the season is promising early, he could come up to help solidify the rotation. If not, expect the Twins to keep him down due to service time considerations.
Overall, there’s a lot to like here. The Twins won 83 games and were in the wild card hunt for most of the year after an excellent May catapulted them into the conversation. They’re not as good as that May was but they may be better constructed for the six month slog. Part of me thinks that the Twins will be one of those teams we look back on in September and say “man, no one saw them coming.” For now though I’m going to be a bit bearish and say that they’re a year away from being super exciting.
Prediction: Third place, A.L. Central.