2015 Preview: Minnesota Twins

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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 2015 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Are we there yet?

Minnesota collapsed in 2011 and hasn’t recovered yet, losing 99, 96, 96, and 92 games during the past four seasons. Among all MLB teams over that span only the Astros had fewer wins, 25 teams won at least 35 more games than the Twins, and their AL Central rival Tigers won 101 more games.

The lone benefit of all that losing is being able to stockpile prospects through the draft and trades, and the Twins have done that very well. Led by Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, their farm system is considered one of the 3-4 best in baseball and several of the highest-upside prospects are on the verge of the majors. Partly because of that and partly because fan morale and season ticket sales have plummeted the Twins spent the offseason trying to convince everyone that they’re ready to take a big step forward in 2015.

Terry Ryan, the Twins’ general manager for 17 total seasons in two stints, fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager, replacing him with Minnesota-born Hall of Famer Paul Molitor despite his complete lack of managing experience. They handed out the biggest free agent contract in team history in the form of a four-year, $54 million deal to Ervin Santana, losing a second-round draft pick in the process. And they brought back Torii Hunter for a reunion, spending $10 million on the 39-year-old former Twins star.

All spring Molitor, Ryan and the rest of the front office, and even Twins owner Jim Pohlad haven’t been shy about saying they think this is much improved team that has the potential to emerge as a playoff contender, but no one outside of Minnesota seems to agree. Nearly every national season preview, every statistical projection system, and every Las Vegas odds-maker pegs the Twins for last place and fewer than 75 wins, with several prominent sources predicting they’ll lose 90-plus games for a fifth year in a row.

For all the talk of the Twins’ great farm system the Opening Day roster looks likely to have just four players who’re 25 years old or younger: Designated hitter Kennys Vargas, shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. There were plenty of opportunities for the Twins to fill the roster with more youth and upside, but instead they frustratingly decided to give almost every roster spot that was up for competition to a mediocre veteran.

The starting rotation is made up of pitchers aged 33, 32, 29, 28, and 27. The bullpen is built around a 32-year-old closer (Glen Perkins, who’s very good) and his primary setup men are 33, 32, and 31. Santana, Arcia, and Vargas give the lineup some much-needed youth, but the other six regulars are 39, 32, 31, 29, 28, and 28. This is not a young team by any reasonable definition of the word and, based on both the numbers and the opinions of baseball experts, it’s also not a good team.

When the current rebuilding plan was put in motion in mid-2012 or so the idea was that the Twins would be competitive by now, but thanks to injuries several of the team’s best prospects had their promotion timetables pushed back and thanks to some questionable front office decision-making the roster that’s waiting for their delayed arrivals doesn’t look a whole lot better than what Twins fans have been watching (and increasingly not watching) for the past four years. So no, we’re not there yet. Keep driving.

What else is going on?

  • Phil Hughes deserves recognition for his exceptional, historic 2014 season, especially since it came after his value bottomed out with the Yankees and he had to settle for a three-year, $24 million deal with the Twins last winter. Hughes logged 210 innings with a 3.52 ERA, racking up 186 strikeouts versus 16 walks for the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. Seriously. Minnesota was 20-12 when Hughes started and 50-80 with anyone else on the mound and this offseason the Twins tacked on another three seasons and $42 million to his deal.
  • For a franchise starved for long-term shortstop help Danny Santana hitting .319 as a 23-year-old rookie was one of the few bright spots last season. However, his rookie success was built on an unsustainably great .405 batting average on balls in play and in the minors Santana had an OPS below .725 at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. He has plenty of raw talent and was pushed aggressively, so the mediocre minor-league numbers don’t mean he lacks upside, but there’s a very real chance Santana turns back into a pumpkin–or at least back into a solid but unspectacular player.
  • Awful, strikeout-phobic pitching was the biggest reason for the Twins’ collapse, but the deterioration of a once-strong defense played an overlooked role as well. In particular the outfield defense has been a disaster in recent years. Arcia is a mistake-prone plodder in left field and Hunter, while once a great center fielder, is now a bad right fielder who ranked as one of the worst outfielders in baseball last year according to advanced defensive metrics. In other words, expect to continue seeing Twins pitchers give up lots of extra-base hits into the gaps as people wonder why the run prevention hasn’t improved as much as hoped.
  • Twins fans seem destined for another long year at Target Field, but here’s the silver lining: By midseason it’s possible that as many as a half-dozen of the team’s top 10 prospects could be in Minnesota, including Buxton in center field, Sano joining Arcia and Vargas in the middle of the lineup, Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios, and Trevor May in the rotation, and Nick Burdi hitting triple-digits out of the bullpen. There’s a lot of losing to sit through and a lot of veteran mediocrity to clear off the roster before then, but there’s also light at the end of the tunnel.

Prediction: Last place, but fewer than 90 losses for the first time since 2010 and some actual excitement in the second half.

Blue Jays clinch 1st playoff spot since 2016, beat Yanks 4-1

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Barred from playing in their own ballpark this year because of COVID-19, the vagabond Toronto Blue Jays have found a home in the playoffs.

The slumping New York Yankees, meanwhile, look likely to play on the road in the postseason, where they’ve struggled all year.

Hyun Jin Ryu pitched seven shutout innings and the Blue Jays clinched their first postseason spot since 2016, beating the Yankees 4-1 Thursday night and further damaging New York’s chances of hosting a first-round series.

New York lost for the fourth time in five games following a 10-game winning stretch and remained two games behind the slumping White Sox for the fourth seed. Chicago lost 5-4 at Cleveland, its fifth straight defeat.

“We’ve got to get it rolling again, obviously, if we’re going to get to where we want to go,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I’m confident we can do it.

New York went 21-7 at home this season but was 11-18 on the road. Boone said he’s not concerned about that split even as a potential road playoff series looms next week.

“We’ve got to get ourselves in order and start playing really good baseball if we’re going to give ourselves a chance,” Boone said.

Toronto secured at least an AL wild-card spot and ensured its eighth trip overall to the postseason. The Blue Jays had endured three losing campaigns since their previous playoff trip, going 67-95 last season.

“I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” second-year manager Charlie Montoyo said.

Canada’s federal government refused to allow games at Toronto’s Rogers Centre this season, citing the closed Canada-U.S. border and the travel risk associated with the pandemic. Stuck on the road to start the season, the Blue Jays eventually ended up at their Triple-A ballpark, Sahlen Field in Buffalo, but didn’t gripe about their fate.

“They never complained,” Montoyo said. “They had their mind set on getting to this moment right now.”

Blue Jays players embraced after Rafael Dolis struck out Aaron Hicks to end it, donning blue T-shirts that said “Respect Toronto.”

“This is something we want to make an every year thing,” infielder Cavan Biggio said. “For us, we’re happy, we’re excited we’re able to put ourselves in this position, but this is only the start of hopefully something special for a long time.”

The Blue Jays trail the Yankees by two games for second place in the AL East. Both teams have three games remaining. Toronto hosts Baltimore in Buffalo this weekend while the Yankees host the Marlins.

New York failed to hit a homer for the fourth straight game, matching its longest streak since June 2016. It’s the first time the Yankees have failed to homer in a four-game series since doing so at Texas in July 2013.

“I’m concerned with the way we’ve played recently,” outfielder Brett Gardner said. “Any time you’re not playing your best baseball and the postseason is right around the corner, something needs to be corrected rather quickly.”

New York loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth, but pinch-hitter Gary Sanchez flied out to deep center, where Randal Grichuk made a leaping catch at the wall.

“It’s good to see him get a really good swing off in a big spot,” Boone said of Sanchez. “Just unfortunately, that short.”

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. homered for Toronto, his eighth.

Ryu (5-2) scattered five hits, walked two and struck out four. Luke Voit and Hicks hit back-to-back singles to begin the sixth but Ryu struck out Giancarlo Stanton, got Gleyber Torres to fly out, and retired Gio Urshela on a groundball.

“He’s an ace and he did what an ace does,” Montoyo said.

The left-hander lowered his ERA from 3.00 to 2.69.

Dolis got four outs for his fifth save in six chances.

Guerrero opened the scoring with a solo homer off left-hander Jordan Montgomery (2-3) in the second.

The Blue Jays extended their lead when Biggio and Bo Bichette hit back-to-back, two-out doubles in the third.

Toronto made it 4-0 in the sixth. Grichuk chased Montgomery with a single and Guerrero singled off Adam Ottavino before rookie Alejandro Kirk hit a two-out, two-run double.

Montgomery lost for the first time in four starts. He allowed three runs and six hits in 5 1/3 innings.

The Blue Jays finished 5-5 in their 10-game regular season series against the Yankees.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (elbow) was activated off the injured list and RHP Wilmer Font was designated for assignment. . RHP Jordan Romano (strained right middle finger) will throw a second bullpen session Friday.

Yankees: Aaron Judge came on as a pinch-hitter but is expected to start all three remaining regular season games, Boone said.

SHARED DUTY

Boone said he expects to use both Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka at catcher in the postseason. Higashioka has hit well while working with ace Gerrit Cole, while Sanchez has struggled with both offense and his defense down the stretch.

SEVEN UP

Ryu became the first Blue Jays starting pitcher since Aug. 22, 2019, to pitch into the seventh. It had been an MLB-record 88 games since RHP Jacob Waguespack pitched into the seventh at Dodger Stadium last year.

UP NEXT

Yankees: LHP J.A. Happ (2-2, 3.25) starts Friday as New York returns home to begin a three-game series against Miami. RHP Sandy Alcantara (3-2, 3.12) starts for the Marlins.

Blue Jays: RHP Taijuan Walker (4-3, 2.86) starts Friday in the opener of a three-game series against Baltimore. The Orioles have not named a starter.