2016 Preview: Minnesota Twins

Associated Press
9 Comments

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.

In the pen is Glen Perkins will close and Kevin Jepsen who will setup. That’s a nice combo.

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.

Braves sweep Mets, take 2-game lead in East with 3 remaining

atlanta braves
Adam Hagy/Getty Images
1 Comment

ATLANTA — Matt Olson knew the Atlanta Braves were too talented to stay in a season-long slump.

That’s why no one panicked when the New York Mets’ division lead swelled to double digits in May. Now the Braves are on the cusp of another NL East title.

“It’s a clubhouse full of guys who want to win,” Olson said. “That’s all it’s been since the moment I walked in. That’s No. 1 on the program.”

Dansby Swanson and Olson homered for the third straight game, Travis d'Arnaud hit a go-ahead two-run single in the third inning, and Braves beat New York 5-3 on Sunday night, completing a three-game sweep of their NL East rival and taking a two-game lead in the division with three games to play.

The defending World Series champion Braves have been chasing the Mets the entire season. In the final series of the season, any combination of one Atlanta win or one Mets loss would give the Braves their fifth straight division title.

New York plays its final three games of the season against worst-in-the-majors Washington. Atlanta closes out the regular season with a three-game set in Miami. Should the season end Wednesday in a tie, Atlanta would win the division after claiming the season series 10-9 with Sunday’s victory.

“We’ve felt this confidence since the beginning of the year,” d’Arnaud said. “It just didn’t go our way early in the year, but pulling on the same rope, having each others’ backs, not trying to do too much. We’re just trying to play the game of baseball and have fun with it.”

The Braves won five of the last six games in the series, outscoring the Mets 42-19 over that stretch. New York had a 10 1/2-game lead on June 1 but now is the lower in the standings than at any point this season.

It was a lost weekend for New York, which came to Atlanta hoping to clinch its first division title since 2015. Instead, aces Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer lost Friday and Saturday before Chris Bassitt lasted just 2 2/3 innings on Sunday.

“We still have three games left in the regular season, we’re still going to the postseason, that doesn’t change, but there’s a lot of learning points that we can take from this series moving forward,” Mets slugger Pete Alonso said. “I thought we played well, but the Braves played better. They played excellent baseball this entire weekend.”

Swanson took Bassitt deep to right-center in the first with his 25th homer, and Atlanta took charge with a three-run third. Bassitt (15-9) issued a bases-loaded walk to Olson before d’Arnaud delivered a single up the middle to score Ronald Acuna Jr. and Austin Riley for a 4-3 lead. That chased Bassitt, who was charged with four runs, three hits and three walks.

Olson connected for his 33rd homer to make it 5-3 leading off the sixth, his 410-foot shot landing in the seats in right-center. Olson, in his first year with Atlanta, surpassed 100 RBIs for the second straight season.

“Everyone knew we were underperforming when we were flirting around that .500 range,” Olson said. “It was one of those things where it was trusting the talent we have and the guys in the clubhouse. Everybody was solid, head down, do your work, it’ll turn around and you wind up winning.”

Charlie Morton stranded runners on first and second in the first, but he gave up Daniel Vogelbach‘s 18th homer that tied it at 1 in the second. The righty struck out Francisco Lindor with runners on first and second to end the threat.

Jeff McNeil went deep off Morton in the third and Vogelbach followed with an RBI single to put the Mets up 3-1. Morton entered the game having allowed 28 homers, sixth-most in the NL.

Morton scuffled throughout his start, giving up three runs and nine hits in 4 1/3 innings as the 38-year-old made his first start since signing a $20 million, one-year contract to remain with Atlanta next season.

Dylan Lee (5-1) relieved Morton and pitched 1 1/3 innings, leaving after a walk to Brandon Nimmo with two outs in the sixth. Collin McHugh entered and struck out Francisco Lindor.

Raisel Iglesias faced four batters in the seventh, A.J. Minter faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen converted his third save of the series with a clean ninth.

Jansen leads the NL with 40 saves in 47 chances.

The Braves’ bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA last month, pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings the last two nights.

BIG NUMBERS

Atlanta leads the NL with 241 homers. And the Braves have their first 100-victory season since 2003.

TWO, DARN HOT

McNeil went 3 for 5 and has multiple hits in five straight games. His average is .326, one point behind the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman for the NL batting title. In 23 career games at Truist Park, McNeil is hitting .395 with 12 runs, nine doubles, two homers, seven RBIs and four walks. … Jansen tied Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley for eighth place on the career list with 389. He’s also is the 10th closer to have four different seasons with at least 40 saves.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. … Braves 2B Ozzie Albies (broken right pinky finger) is still wearing a cast. … Braves RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique.

ATTENDANCE

The Braves drew 42,713 in their regular season finale, the club’s 42nd sellout of the season. Overall. that’s 3,129,931 for the season – and the most tickets sold since 2000. In 2019, the team’s last full season before the COVID-19 pandemic, Atlanta drew 2,655,100.

UP NEXT

Mets: RHP Carlos Carrasco (15-7, 3.95 ERA) will face Nationals RHP Cory Abbott (0-4, 5.11).

Braves: RHP Bryce Elder (2-3, 2.76 ERA) will face Marlins LHP Jesus Luzardo (3-7, 3.53).