by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each MLB team in reverse order of the 2016 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2017 season. With that said, let’s jump into today’s team preview, featuring the Minnesota Twins.
Sidenote: Click here to be taken to the “hub”, where you can access any of the thirty team previews as they become available. The hub will be updated daily.
Division: AL Central
2016 Record: 59-103 (5th place, 35.5 GB)
The notable changes in Minnesota’s front office were the acquisitions of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, formerly of the Indians and Rangers, respectively. The Twins were one of the last teams to fully embrace the analytics movement, so the addition of Falvey and Levine, who have backgrounds in analytics, should help the organization catch up to the rest of the league in that regard.
With the promotion of Deron Johnson to senior advisor of the scouting department, Sean Johnson became the club’s new scouting director. The latter Johnson, who was previously the West Coast supervisor, has been with the Twins organization since 2002.
The Twins parted ways with Tom Brunansky and Butch Davis at the conclusion of the 2016 season, opening up positions for a new hitting and first base coach. Brunansky, who spent six-plus years of his playing career with Minnesota, had been the team’s hitting coach since 2013. Davis had been with the Twins since 2015 following 20 years coaching in the Orioles system.
Rowson spent seven of the previous nine seasons as the minor league hitting coordinator for the Yankees before being hired by the Twins in early December. Smith, the manager for Minnesota’s single-A affiliate in Fort Myers since 2015, has been with the Twins organization for 12 seasons.
2016 Team Statistics
Looking strictly at league rankings, the Twins had an average offense in 2016. Their pitching and fielding, however, were anything but average and the main reasons why they finished with the worst record in team history (the Senators posted three records that were worse before relocating to Minnesota).
2016 Player Statistics and Commentary (images via baseball-reference)
Offensively, the Twins were led by second baseman Brian Dozier. It seems to be a tale of two halves for Dozier–in 2015, he had a solid first half followed by a not-so-solid second half, and in 2016 he didn’t really get going until late July/early August. Regardless, he hit 42 homers last season (tied for third-most in the bigs) which accounted for a fifth of the Twins total dingers. Dozier also finished second on the team in stolen bases with 18. It would seem that he can do anything.
Young slugger Miguel Sano finished with 25 round-trippers, but a failed experiment in right field, defensive miscues, and injury issues somewhat overshadowed what he did at the plate. True, his triple-slash dropped off from his 2015 rookie campaign, but he OPS’d close to .800. It’s hard to be upset at that.
Joe Mauer will clearly never be the player he once was due to the concussion he suffered close to four years ago, but his OPS last year was the highest it’s been since his last All-Star season in 2013. Joe looked like a man on a mission in April and early May, but he couldn’t keep up his torrid pace and his performance tailed off as the season progressed. Still, he came close to a 1:1 SO/BB ratio, and even though the power wasn’t there, Mauer was at least still getting on-base an a solid clip. It’s upsetting that Mauer’s decline happened a bit quicker than most expected, but at least he’s not totally inept.
What can you say about Robbie Grossman? Cut by the Indians in spring training and following a season in which he compiled a .143/.222/.245 triple-slash line in 24 games, the former Astro came out of nowhere to post the best season of his career. He finished with a BABIP of .364, indicating that he probably got a little lucky, but it’s better to be lucky than unlucky, as they say. Luck, however, was not a factor when it came to Grossman’s play in the field; to put it kindly, he didn’t look very good.
Kurt Suzuki is what he is. He’ll give you some offensive value while offering very little upside behind the plate. Still, in this day and age, if your catcher is hitting between .240 and .260 with a low OBP and little to no power, you’d like him to be at least a little better defensively than Suzuki is.
Eduardo Escobar had his worst season since 2013, posting an ugly .236 average, albeit while OPS’ing close to .800. Towards the end of the season, he went on an awful slump and was never really able to get back on track. Escobar did showcase his defensive versatility by playing four different positions (2B, 3B, SS, and LF), though, and while he might not get the chance to start again, he has proven that he can be a solid bench piece if nothing else.
Injuries limited Trevor Plouffe to just 84 games in 2016, and while he still managed to turn in an okay season given the circumstances, it was clear that his time as a Twin was coming to an end, due in part to the plethora of young players the team has to find playing time for. That he never really improved over the past several seasons was probably a factor as well.
Speaking of those young players, let’s start talking about them. Byron Buxton‘s statline doesn’t tell the entire story. He struggled mightily throughout the year, but over the final month of 2016, Buxton slashed .287/.357/.653 and tallied nine HR’s, showcasing the talent that made him one of the most highly-touted prospects in all of baseball for a time. It seemed like his approach at the plate improved (although, honestly, it would have been hard to be any worse), and he posted a 6.5 in the FRAA category, meaning he was great in the field. Only time will tell if Buxton’s final month was a fluke or a sign of things to come.
After his proverbial cup of coffee in 2015, Max Kepler wasn’t supposed to be a member of the big league club as early as he was. Called up as a replacement for Danny Santana in early April, Kepler struggled, hitting below the Mendoza line in 14 PA. He was sent back down to AAA at the end of April, but was called back up in early June and stuck with the team for the rest of the season. The German product gave Twins fans hope that he could become an integral part of their team for years to come with his performance over the season’s final four months, including a three homer, six RBI game against the Indians in August.
Another one of Minnesota’s young outfielders, Eddie Rosario looked terrible over the first month and a half of the ’16 season, and the Twins rewarded him with a demotion to AAA-Rochester in late May. He OPS’d close to .900 during his time with the Red Wings, though, and when he was called back up in early July, he never looked back. His SO/BB ratio was still dreadful, and you’d obviously like to see it improve, but his power/speed combo is intriguing nonetheless.
Jorge Polanco‘s natural position isn’t at short, but that’s where he spent the majority of his time in 2016. He’s a natural second baseman, but with Dozier slotted there for at least another couple of years the organization decided to move Polanco to SS. The 23-year-old showed that he can make consistent contact and get on-base in his first real taste of the majors, and if he earns the starting job out of camp, there’s no reason to think that he won’t take another step forward in his development.
The Twins decided to give KBO standout Byung-ho Park a four-year, $12MM deal with a club option back in December of 2015. They essentially committed $25MM to Park due to their $12.85MM posting bid, but their investment in the Korean slugger didn’t pay immediate dividends. Park hit six four-baggers in the season’s first month, but struggled the rest of the way due in part to a wrist injury that wasn’t addressed until August. Of course, major league pitchers probably figured Park out as well, but the injury didn’t help. Byung-ho was DFA’d last month, but he showed enough in 2016 to still be considered for 1B/DH duties in 2017.
Remember Danny Santana’s super unsustainable rookie campaign, when he slashed .319/.353/.472 with seven homers and 20 stolen bases? The 26-year-old has really fallen off since 2014, and while he can play almost anywhere in the field (as he did last season), it’s clear that his upside at this point is nothing more than a bench player.
Kennys Vargas has power, and that’s about it. He can’t play the field, he’s dreadful against righties, and he strikes out more than you’d like him to. This leads to potentially using him as a DH against only lefties, but is it really worth wasting a roster spot for that?
Embarrassing, dreadful, and mind-blowing. It’s hard to put into words how bad the Minnesota pitching staff was in 2016. Looking strictly at base stats, take into consideration some of the following facts:
- only one starter posted a FIP below 4.70
- only one starter pitched more than 150 innings
- opposing teams hit .274 against Minnesota’s relief pitchers, the highest mark in the league
- the Twins bullpen posted a cumulative 4.63 ERA, the fifth-highest total in the league, behind only Colorado, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Arizona
One of the reasons for the horrific statistics? The Twins lacked strikeout pitchers in 2016, as they were towards the bottom of the league in SO/9. Only five pitchers that tossed more than 20 innings had a SO/9 rate higher than 8.0, and none of them were starters.
Taking a look at the rotation, Ervin Santana was far and away the best of the bunch. He was the most consistent SP for the Twins, and he bounced back from a 2015 season that saw him start just 17 games due to a PED suspension. As previously mentioned, the SO/9 wasn’t there for Santana, but his SO/BB and BB/9 were solid. The longball will always be an issue for him–evidenced by a stretch early last season when he let up eight in six games–but Santana is a reliable SP more often than not, and the $54MM contract he received before the start of the 2015 season definitely doesn’t look like an albatross.
The rest of the rotation was god-awful, and for the most part there’s no reason to think last year was just a fluke. Kyle Gibson had roughly one good start every month, and after four years in the bigs it’s hard to imagine him becoming anything more than a below-average to average starter who sometimes shows flashes of brilliance. The Ricky Nolasco experiment never worked out, which led to Minnesota trading him to the Angels where, naturally, the former Marlin pitched to a 3.21 ERA and 3.87 FIP over 11 starts. At 29, Tommy Milone proved he is nothing more than a back-end arm in a rotation by having one of the worst seasons of his career. Hector Santiago over-performed his peripherals for years, and it finally caught up to him last season after being acquired in that aforementioned Nolasco trade. Phil Hughes had an excellent 2014, and proceeded to bomb in 2015 before injuries derailed him last season.
There is some room for hope, however. Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey are talented enough to secure long-term spots in Minnesota’s rotation if they can improve upon last year’s struggles. Hailed as one of the best prospects not only in the Twins system but in all of baseball, Berrios struggled mightily in his rookie campaign. He lost his command as evidenced by his 5.4 BB/9 stat, and he allowed 12 long balls in just 58 innings of work. The 2012 first round draft pick is only 23, though, so there’s no reason to think he can’t turn things around. Duffey had a rough go of it in 2016 after a successful first season a year prior, but there were instances where he looked like a potential three or four in a rotation. Home runs are an issue–he let up 11 in a seven game stretch–but if he can find a way to keep the ball in the yard, there’s definitely a place for him in Minnesota’s rotation.
The bullpen wasn’t much better than the rotation (especially with the absence of Glen Perkins), but there were a few positives. Banished to the minors after not making the club after spring training, Brandon Kintzler battled back and performed well after getting the call in early May. A former starter, Taylor Rogers proved he could cut it as a middle relief option, albeit perhaps only against lefties, as right-handers slashed .291/.349/.462 against him.
Speaking of former starters, Trevor May has found success in the bullpen as a member of the Twins, and if the organization decides to keep him there instead of moving him back to the rotation, he’ll be a key cog in the ‘pen for years to come due in part to his ability to strike guys out–his SO/9 rate was 12.9, by far the highest on the team. Fernando Abad was solid 34 innings of work in Minnesota and the organization decided to sell high, trading him to the Red Sox for pitching prospect Pat Light.
Ryan Pressly continued his run of success pitching for the Twins after being selected in the 2012 Rule 5 Draft from Boston, and at 28 years old it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him show some improvement. Michael Tonkin showed the ability to get batters out via the K, but allowing 13 HR’s did him no favors.
Aside from a game in August against Houston when he let up six earned runs, Buddy Boshers had a solid 2016 campaign, although he did struggle with men on base. Right-handers didn’t kill him, though, which was a positive. J.T. Chargois has electric stuff, but the 17/12 SO/BB ratio was a bit disconcerting.
Notable Acquisitions: C Jason Castro (three years/$24.5MM), RHP Ryan Vogelsong (minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training), RHP Nick Tepesch (minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training), RHP Matt Belisle (one year/$2.050MM), LHP Craig Breslow (minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training), CF Drew Stubbs (minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training), CF J.B. Shuck (minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training), 1B Ben Paulsen (minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training)
Notable Departures: C Kurt Suzuki (signed a one-year, $1.5MM contract with Atlanta), 3B Trevor Plouffe (signed a one-year, $5.25MM contract with Oakland), LHP Tommy Milone (signed a one-year, $1.25MM contract with Milwaukee)
The Twins had a very quiet off-season, opting to throw money at just two names: Castro and Belisle. The rest of their acquisitions were of the Spring Training invitation type, and it’s hard to see any of them being major contributors to the Twins in 2017. The team didn’t really lose any big names, either; in fact, it’s probably for the better that Suzuki, Plouffe, and Milone are no longer members of the Twins.
Castro is the intriguing name here; he broke-out in 2013 at the dish, slashing .276/.350/.485 while slugging 18 homers for Houston, but he was never quite able to replicate that success. Castro isn’t known for his offensive prowess, though; rather, he’s become one of the better defensive catchers around the league. He represents a clear improvement over Suzuki. Belisle may prove to be a solid signing as well. He’s seemingly gotten better with age–aside from a rough 2014 season with Colorado, the Austin, Texas product has been one of the more reliable relievers in baseball dating back to 2010.
Let’s get it out of the way now: the Twins definitely won’t be winning the World Series in 2017. You’re looking at a team that needs absolutely everything to go right just to finish .500. With that said, there is reason for optimism in the Twin Cities. A realistic goal could be shooting for 70 wins, a mark the team has reached just twice since 2010. Here’s how the 70-win benchmark can be reached:
- Dozier needs to put together two solid halves, which is something he has yet to do at the major league level. While it would be nice, he doesn’t have to hit 40 homers again. He does, however, need to show at least some level of consistency from April through September.
- The young offensive core–Buxton, Kepler, Rosario, and Sano–need to take the next step in their development. The success of the 2017 Minnesota Twins won’t hinge on Castro or Dozier or the pitching staff, but rather the young players that the organization is hoping will bring a title to Minnesota at some point or another. There are at least some doubts with all four guys, but there’s no reason to think that they can’t all be successful this season.
- The 1B/DH trio will need to provide adequate value. Mauer is, for all intents and purposes, on the decline. While a renaissance season would be nice, it’s probably not a good idea to bank on one. Park is still a question mark, and Vargas could arguably be described as the very poor man’s Chris Carter. These three players need to make sure that the 1B/DH positions aren’t looked at as albatrosses in the Twins lineup.
- The rotation needs to be better. It would be difficult to be any worse. You can count on Santana to anchor the rotation this season, but the other starters don’t come without concerns. If Berrios and Duffey improve upon their miscues from last season, that would be a big step in the right direction.
- Finally, the bullpen…needs to be better. A full season of May and Perkins as well as the addition of Belisle should greatly help the cause.
With fresh new minds in the Minnesota front office along with a solid amount of young, intriguing players, the future is definitely bright in the Twin Cities. Once the pitching staff improves, the Twins could potentially become a perennial playoff team. Maybe it’s just the optimist in me, but when I look at the Twins, it’s not a matter of “if”, but rather “when.”