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 2018 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.
In 2014, the Twins scraped the bottom of the division with a 70-92 record. In 2015, they bounced back with 83 wins to claim second place. In 2016, they flirted with a franchise-worst record and eventually settled for 103 losses and fifth place. In 2017, they… rebounded with another 85-win tear, reclaimed second place and grabbed the second AL wild card.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that immediately jumping from a 100+ loss season to playoff contention was a first in club history. So what does that leave them with in 2018? A team that’s built to win, by which we mean a team that’s built to win right now. The Twins made a number of key additions over the offseason, plumping up their bullpen with Addison Reed, Zach Duke and Fernando Rodney, bolstering the rotation with Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda, and adding some heft to the lineup with 38-home-run-hitter Logan Morrison. The rub: Aside from a few young, core players, most of the Twins’ current roster is primed to walk at the end of the 2018 and 2019 seasons. If they don’t contend again this year (though most, if not all signs point to another playoff push), it’s back to the drawing board come fall.
Perhaps the most pressing question facing the Twins is that of their two most promising stars-in-waiting: center fielder Byron Buxton and right-hander Jose Berrios. Buxton, 24, finally started living up to some of the lofty expectations that had been placed on his shoulders as Minnesota’s former no. 1-ranked prospect. He broke out during the second half of the 2017 season, slashing .253/.314/.413 with 16 home runs, 29 stolen bases and 3.5 fWAR in 511 plate appearances. Most of his value was derived from his glove; according to FanGraphs, he placed first among all qualified center fielders in the league and earned a Fielding Bible Award and a Gold Glove for his exceptional speed and agility in the outfield. Barring injury and start-of-season jitters, there’s little to suggest that he won’t be one of the Twins’ top performers again in 2018.
Berrios, 23, also proved his mettle with the club during his first full-season tryout last year. The righty went 14-8 in 25 starts and delivered a respectable 3.89 ERA, 3.0 BB/9 and 8.6 SO/9 over 145 2/3 innings. Unlike Buxton, he front-loaded his 2017 run with the good stuff — a 3.63 ERA and .221/.289/.365 batting line during the first half of the season — then faded down the stretch. It’s not yet clear whether he’s capable of improving those totals in 2018; for now, he’ll slot into a four-man rotation that currently features Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn (with a still-injured Ervin Santana waiting in the wings until May).
Assuming all goes right for the Twins’ homegrown heroes, there are still several weak spots that could hamper the team’s progress this season. Third baseman Miguel Sano underwent shin surgery during the offseason and entered camp several pounds heavier, casting some doubt on his ability to improve on the career-best totals he delivered in 2017. (He was also the subject of a three-month investigation following allegations of sexual assault against photographer Betsy Bissen; as of Friday, Major League Baseball formally declined to hand down a punishment.) Shortstop Jorge Polanco, meanwhile, was hit with a lengthy suspension after testing positive for PEDs and will not be eligible to rejoin the team until the second half of the season. For now, it looks like Alcides Escobar will take over for Polanco, leaving Ehire Adrianza as the sole backup middle infielder.
The rest of the Opening Day lineup looks fairly stable: veterans Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier will lock down first and second base, respectively, with Jason Castro behind the dish and Logan Morrison at DH. Both Mauer and Dozier are coming off of solid performances in 2017 and both are scheduled to enter free agency following the conclusion of the 2018 season, though Mauer has expressed his desire to stay on with the Twins through the end of his big league career.
Flanking Buxton in center field are Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler. Rosario finally tapped into his power with a .290 average, 27 home runs and 2.5 fWAR in his first full season in the majors. Kepler, on the other hand, has chosen a slower path to success, though he also set modest career-high totals with a .243 average, 19 homers and 1.2 fWAR last year.
Much of the Twins’ overall success this season will hinge on the reformation of their pitching staff. There’s no question that this is where the club chose to focus most of their efforts over the winter, even making a push to sign Yu Darvish in early February. They missed out on a top-shelf ace (and the hefty contract that came with him), but found enough wiggle room to acquire a trifecta of promising mid-range starters: Jake Odorizzi (swapped for Rays prospect Jermaine Palacios), Lance Lynn (one-year, $12 million deal) and Michael Pineda (two-year, $10 million deal). Odorizzi is slated to become the de facto no. 1 starter while Santana is on the mend, while Lynn and his 3.43 ERA will slide into the middle of the rotation. Pineda is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected to make an appearance until later this year, but his two-year deal should give him the opportunity to make an impact for the team down the road.
Factor Zach Duke (one-year, $2 million deal), Addison Reed (two years, $16.75 million) and Fernando Rodney (one year, $4.5 million) into a bullpen that placed 22nd among all teams in 2017, and it looks like the Twins might be prime candidates for the no. 2 spot in the AL Central again. If everything goes according to plan — Buxton, Rosario, Kepler and Sano build on career years, Morrison notches another 30+ homers, Santana makes a full recovery and Berrios begins to stabilize — this will feel much more like a team that’s capable of advancing well past the wild card round in October.
In a nutshell: The Twins stunned their division rivals in 2017 and made clear, definite strides toward improvement during the offseason. They may not have the airtight rotation and star-studded lineup needed to overpower the Indians for the division title, but no other team in the AL Central looks better on paper at the moment.
Prediction: 2nd place, AL Central