by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 21st team preview of the series, featuring the Minnesota Twins
Manager: Paul Molitor (4th season)
2017 Record: 85-77, 2nd in AL Central
Playoffs: Lost in AL Wild Card to Yankees
Run Differential: 27
Top Position Player: Byron Buxton (5.2 WAR)
Top Pitcher: Ervin Santana (4.6 WAR)
Winning somewhere in the realm of 70-75 games would have been an acceptable goal for the Minnesota Twins in 2017. They were coming off of a campaign that saw them finish 59-103, which was the worst record in the league. Instead, the Twins surprised everyone and not only finished above .500 but also clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2010. The club was 9th in the league in OPS (.768), but just 19th in the league in ERA (4.59). Admittedly, they got a very tough draw in their Wild Card matchup, but it’s fair to wonder if the team could have potentially advanced to the ALDS with a better pitching staff.
The Twins faced off against the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game for the right to face the Cleveland Indians in the next round. The Twins, as a road team, started off about as well as you could possibly hope for. With one out, Brian Dozier homered to give the Twins an early 1-0 lead. Two batters later, Eddie Rosario sent a ball into the seats, giving Minnesota a 3-0 advantage. Luis Severino was yanked after just a third of an inning, allowing three runs on four hits with a walk. In the bottom half of the frame, Ervin Santana walked Brett Gardner before allowing a single to Aaron Judge. With one out, Didi Gregorius hit a three run shot to tie the game.
In the bottom of the second, Santana allowed a solo home run to Brett Gardner, which gave the Yanks a 4-3 lead. Byron Buxton had an RBI groundout in the top of the third to knot the game up, but it would end up being the last run the Twins scored all game. Jose Berrios would replace Santana, allowing a run in the third and two in the fourth. New York would tack on another run in the seventh inning, eventually winning the contest 8-4. Give credit to the trio of David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Aroldis Chapman—they allowed just four hits and zero runs in 6.2 innings of relief, striking out nine.
Jason Castro is one of the better catchers in baseball when it comes to his work behind the plate. The former Astro finished with an adjusted FRAA of 4.1, which put him in a tie for 25th. His framing runs mark of 3.9 was good for 24th. He’s not phenomenal at the dish, but he’s not awful either. He slashed .242/.333/.388 with 10 home runs and a walk rate of 11.1%. The wRC+ of 93 obviously doesn’t jump off the page, but at a position where many individuals aren’t great the plate, 93 isn’t a bad number to finish with.
After several seasons of somewhat uncharacteristic production, Joe Mauer had a renaissance season of sorts at the age of 34. The wRC+ of 116 was his highest since 2013, and the first baseman hit to a line of .305/.384/.417 while contributing seven home runs. His strikeout and walk rates (13.9% and 11.1%) were almost identical, and the .349 wOBA was definitely a welcome sight to see. The hometown kid was also solid in the field, posting a 7.1 UZR in the 1,040.2 innings he logged at first base.
Second baseman Brian Dozier followed up a breakout 2016 campaign with another solid season in 2017. The six-year veteran put up a 125 wRC+ while hitting .271/.359/.498 with 34 dingers, 16 stolen bases, and a wOBA of .362. His strikeout rate of 20.0% was right in line with his career average, while the 11.1% walk rate was his highest since 2014. Dozier lowed his soft contact rate by roughly three percent while increasing his LD% by four percent. He wasn’t outstanding in the field, though, posting a UZR of -1.3. Dozier had a better second half than first half, but that’s kind of expected from the Twins keystone player—throughout his career, he’s been nothing if not inconsistent from half to half.
Jorge Polanco had a very rough start to his 2017 season. As the first half of the season concluded, the shortstop was slashing just .224/.273/.323 with three home runs, 40 strikeouts, and 19 walks. Over the second half of the season, he hit a much more respectable .293/.359/.511, bringing his overall season line to .256/.313/.410. Polanco finished with 13 home runs, 13 stolen bases, and solid strikeout and walk rates (14.3%, 7.5%). The -4.3 UZR in the field is a little unsightly, but Polanco proved he could handle a role in the Show.
The calling card of Miguel Sano is power, and he exhibited it once again in 2017, belting a career-high 28 home runs in 483 plate appearances. On the year, Sano hit .264/.352/.507, posting a high strikeout rate of 35.8% along with a solid 11.2% walk rate. He played over 700 frames in the field, posting a -1.0 UZR at the hot corner and a -0.9 UZR at first base. The most concerning thing about Sano’s 2017 season was the leg injury he suffered that kept him away from the field for several weeks. He had surgery performed in early November to attempt to solve the issue.
Eduardo Escobar accumulated 499 plate appearances in 2017, slashing .254/.309/.449 and cranking a career-best 21 home runs. He showcased his versatility on the defensive side, earning playing time at five different positions. As Sano’s primary replacement, he posted a -1.2 UZR in the 680 innings he logged at third base while also receiving time at shortstop, second base, left field, and even catcher (he caught one inning). In fact, considering he tossed an inning in 2016, the only position Escobar hasn’t logged at least a third of an inning at in his career is first base.
Center-fielder Byron Buxton had a very rough month of April. He hit to an ugly line of .147/.256/.176 with a strikeout rate of 37.2% and a walk rate of 11.5%. He hit no home runs and stole just three bases. After the calendar turned over to May, the former top prospect delivered. He slashed .272/.325/.454 from May 1st to October 1st, hitting 16 home runs and stealing 26 bases. Overall, he finished with a strikeout rate (29.4%) that was six percent lower than 2016 (35.6%), and posted a UZR of 9.9—seventh-highest among all qualified players.
Eddie Rosario had been okay in his first two seasons of major league action, posting wRC+’s of 97 and 86. He broke out in 2017, though, hitting .290/.328/.507 on his way to a wRC+ of 116. The outfielder hit 27 home runs and stole nine bases while cutting his strikeout rate (18.0%) by seven percent while increasing his walk rate (5.9%) by two percent. He posted a -3.0 UZR in center field but was much better in the corners, posting a cumulative 3.0 UZR in left and right field. Max Kepler was the least impressive of Minnesota’s three main outfielders, hitting .243/.312/.435 in his second full big league season. He did manage to hit 19 home runs, but as Brandon Warne of FanGraphs points out, his main flaw has been his inability to hit left-handed pitching: “All jokes aside, he’s hit a solid .261/.334.475 against righties in his career and jut .176/.242/.279 against southpaws.”
Primary DH Robbie Grossman expectedly regressed in 2017 after a career-best 2016 campaign. The former Astro hit .246/.361/.380 last year, finishing with a wRC+ of 102. His main value comes from his approach at the plate—the 14.7% walk rate he had was seventh among batters who amassed at least 450 plate appearances. It’d be preferable for him to receive most of his time at DH, as he posted a -3.3 UZR in the outfield in 2017.
Minnesota’s rotation was ranked 19th in the league with a combined 4.73 ERA. Six pitchers made double digit starts for the club. Phil Hughes made nine, but his 5.87 ERA and 5.43 FIP means that we won’t go into his performance too much. Of the previously mentioned six pitchers, there were two that were solid. The other four hurt the Twins more than they helped them.
Let’s start with the pitching WAR leader for Minnesota, Ervin Santana. His final ERA of 3.28 was buoyed by an 11 start stretch in April and May when Santana tossed 77 innings of 1.75 ERA ball. He allowed eight home runs and struck out 56 while walking 29. The veteran was bound to fall off a bit and, not surprisingly, he did. Over his final 22 starts, the righty pitched to an ERA of 4.15, letting up four or more runs eight times. The FIP and xFIP of 4.46 and 4.77 suggest that he was lucky the final ERA wasn’t any worse. He’s not a strikeout pitcher, and while the pitch value for his slider (wSL of 21.6) was good, the pitch values for his other two pitches (-0.4 wFB, -2.9 wCH) were not good.
Jose Berrios, the actual ace of the Minnesota staff, had a much better season. He pitched to an ERA of 3.89 and a FIP of 3.84, bouncing back from a very rough rookie season. One of the top prospects for the Twins, Berrios increased his strikeout rate (22.6%) by five percent while cutting his walk rate (7.8%) by five percent as well. He allowed just 15 home runs in 145.2 innings and induced more soft contact than he did in 2016. As a second-year arm, he still exhibited ups and downs, but Berrios definitely showcased why he was so highly touted.
Stop me if you’ve heard this line before: the rest of the starters who made double-digit starts weren’t very good. Adalberto Mejia was probably the best of the bunch and even he wasn’t very good. The southpaw made 21 starts and finished with an ERA of 4.50 and a FIP of 4.65. The 24-year-old’s strikeout-to-walk ratio of 85:44 was a little worrisome, as was his 1.2 HR/9 mark. Kyle Gibson made 29 starts and, for the most part, struggled for the second consecutive season, posting an ERA of 5.07 and a FIP of 4.85. However, according to Nick Pollack of FanGraphs, Gibson surprised a lot of people late in the season: “But something weird happened in Gibson’s final eight starts of the year. He was…good. 2.92 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 23.7% strikeout rate, low 5.2% walk rate.” Eight starts doesn’t simply make up for the other 21, but Gibson provided a reason for hope heading into his sixth big league season.
Hector Santiago made 14 starts and wasn’t good, pitching to a 5.63 ERA and 6.02 FIP in just 70.1 innings of work. He struck out 51 while walking 31, which is an ugly ratio. The left-hander also allowed 15 home runs in those 70.1 frames, the same amount that Berrios did in twice as many innings. Finally, we’ve reached Bartolo Colon. The 44-year-old who was still trying to prove he had what it took to be somewhat successful in the majors. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. He was awful with the Braves before finding his way to Twins. The 5.18 ERA and 5.31 FIP were pretty unsightly, and while he regained his control (4.3% walk rate) the 1.91 HR/9 mark (among other things) was a pretty big red flag.
Minnesota’s bullpen finished tied for 20th with a 4.40 ERA. Surprisingly, their bullpen actually wasn’t the worst of the teams that made the postseason. The relievers struck out just 482 batters while walking 187. Some notable names:
Brandon Kintzler: 45 appearances, 45.1 innings, 2.78 ERA/3.69 FIP, 27 strikeouts, 11 walks
Tyler Duffey: 56 appearances, 71 innings, 4.94 ERA/3.72 FIP, 67 strikeouts, 18 walks
Trevor Hildenberger: 37 appearances, 42 innings, 3.21 ERA/3.02 FIP, 44 strikeouts, 6 walks
Alan Busenitz: 28 appearances, 31.2 innings, 1.99 ERA/4.20 FIP, 23 strikeouts, 9 walks
Taylor Rogers (left-hander): 69 appearances, 55.2 innings, 3.07 ERA/4.09 FIP, 49 strikeouts, 21 walks
Matt Belisle: 62 appearances, 60.1 innings, 4.03 ERA/4.07 FIP, 54 strikeouts, 22 walks
Realizing that they have the talent to compete for a playoff berth, the Twins were proactive in the offseason in addressing their main area of need: the pitching staff. They picked up two arms who will immediately slot into the starting rotation while acquiring two more pitchers who will slot into the bullpen. The biggest acquisition was Jake Odorizzi, who was added via a trade with the Rays. Odorizzi will become a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm for the Twins and will definitely be much better than some of the starters who took the mound last season.
The Twins didn’t really lose much in the offseason. The most notable departure was that Byung-ho Park, the Korean slugger who agreed to a four-year, $12 million contract back in the 2015 offseason. Park never really adjusted to the major leagues, struggling in 2016 before being DFA’d in 2017. He remained with Rochester (Minnesota’s AAA affiliate) for the 2017 season, never receiving a call-up.
Best Case: The offense is once again a top-unit in the league, and the pitching staff improves enough to make the Twins an intriguing dark horse in 2018. Buxton exhibits consistency that he hasn’t shown before and finishes top-10 in MVP voting, while Rosario builds upon his solid 2017 campaign. Kepler proves that he can hit lefties, and the Twins have one of the best outfields in baseball. Mauer staves off father time at the age of 35, and Dozier provides a steady presence in the middle of the lineup. Polanco comes back strong after his suspension, and Sano finally hits over 30 home runs. Berrios, Santana, and Odorizzi combine to form a solid top-three, while Lynn outpitches his peripherals again and Gibson continues his resurgence. The bullpen is a top-15 unit led by Hildenberger, Reed, and Rodney. Minnesota finishes over .500 for the second consecutive season (the first time that’s happened since 2008-2010), and they clinch a Wild Card spot. The difference? They’ll be at home this time around.
Worst Case: The offense struggles immensely. The group can’t overcome suspensions to both Polanco and Sano. Mauer and the word “decline” become synonymous again, Dozier can’t find any consistency, and the outfield (which has so much potential heading into 2018) busts completely. The additions of Odorizzi and Lynn do nothing to help the rotation while father time catches up with Rodney. The Twins finish under .500 after a promising 2017 campaign, heading into the 2018 offseason with more questions than answers.
PECOTA Projected Record: 83-79, 796 RS, 780 RA