If you want to get a sense of how quickly baseball thinking has evolved since the turn of the century, look no further than the Minnesota Twins.
2010 marked the end of a nine-year stretch during which Minnesota won the American League Central six times. The feat was especially impressive given that the Twins didn’t have a large payroll to work with. Indeed, Minnesota was thought of as one of the best-run organizations in baseball.
A mere six years later, with the same leader in Terry Ryan championing the same organizational philosophies, the Twins were considered a franchise hopelessly behind the times. Their ability to develop pitchers had disappeared completely, and a big reason is that they overvalued control and undervalued strikeouts in a time of declining offense and contact rates. In the last six years, a Twins pitcher surpassed 3.5 fWAR just once. It was Phil Hughes who accomplished that feat in 2014, and he did it in the Twinsiest way possible: by walking almost nobody.
Four consecutive seasons of 70 or fewer wins from 2011-2014 should have theoretically given Minnesota a strong enough base of draft picks to look like a competitive team by now. Repeated player development failures have instead put them as far away from that goal as they’ve ever been. The Twins lost 103 games in 2016. The last time they did that, they were called the Washington Senators. Ryan was deservedly fired in mid-July.
Ryan’s replacements are new chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine, two men who have inherited a heck of a mess. The 59-win Twins squad also carries with it a below-average farm system, largely because most of the previous top prospects graduated and “contributed” to that league-worst 2017 campaign. The best Twins prospects that didn’t lose their eligibility last year are all at least a year away from playing a major role, so if the Twins are to escape from the cellar this year, they’ll need the young players who are already on their major league roster to take a significant step forward.
There’s worse things than that to bank on. The Twins’ chances of actually being competitive this year are very minimal, but in all likelihood they’ll take a big step forward in the win column despite mostly retaining the same players. A big reason for that is center fielder Byron Buxton, who had a September to remember last year. After failing in two major league stints, Buxton slugged .653 down the stretch last year and if you pair that kind of power with his elite defense in center, you’ve got a hell of a player. Francisco Lindor is awesome, but there’s a non-trivial (albeit small) chance that we’re calling Buxton the best player in the division a year from now.
Another man with potential to make big strides is lumbering slugger Miguel Sano. We’ve been hearing about the Sano hype train since he was 16 years old, but now that he’s 24 and 800-some plate appearances into his major league career, the excitement has cooled off a little bit. Sano strikes out more than Adam Dunn and hasn’t locked down a defensive position. The Twins will try him full-time at third this year and he could be of great value if he can stop either his glove or contact rate from registering as a significant liability.
German-born 24-year-old Max Kepler doesn’t hit the ball as hard as Sano, but he has plenty of power potential and could be a future star for the Twins in right field. Between these young potential stars, a legitimate All-Star in Brian Dozier at the keystone, and Joe Mauer’s still-useful bat, the Twins should have no problems generating offense. Rather, the issue with any sort of attempt at contention lies with their run prevention efforts. The Twins are a bad defensive team, but the real problem is that they don’t have budding stars like this on their near-term pitching staff.
The closest thing that the Twins have to a potential ace is 23-year-old Jose Berrios, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his major league numbers from last season. Berrios struggled tremendously with his command through 14 big league starts in 2016 and that hurt his ability to set up his best pitch, the changeup. Still, he terrorized Triple-A hitters when he was down in the minors and his pedigree suggests he’s still a reasonable bet to become an above-average starting pitcher, something the Twins sorely need.
Targeting more high-ceiling pitching prospects like Berrios is something Falvey and Levine need to do in order to turn this organization’s future around. Low-strikeout guys like Kyle Gibson, Nick Blackburn, and Scott Diamond have been the biggest recent success stories of the Twins’ starting pitching development efforts, and I’ll forgive you if you’re now too sad to read any further. The new regime doesn’t exactly have to do much to surpass the old one in this department.
Fortunately, Falvey and Levine are said to have a good understanding of analytics and showed it with their most significant free agency move. Minnesota didn’t do much over the offseason, but they did make one of the best signings of the winter by inking pitch-framing savant Jason Castro for the next few years. The Twins should see some immediate improvement over the worthless Kurt Suzuki, but more importantly, a good framer like Castro is an excellent asset to have around when you’re trying to break in a young pitcher like Berrios. Or Lucas Giolito. Or Reynaldo Lopez. Or Michael Kopech. Or I’m not bitter I’m not bitter I’m not bitter I’m not.....
Despite likely steps forward from their players and likely improvements to their process, the Twins seem to be at least a couple of years away from being serious players in the AL Central. Sadly, this was the same thing that was being said about them in 2013, when the franchise was enduring just its third straight year of “suck”. We’ve seen other teams around the league execute scorched-earth rebuilds and subsequently amass the young talent necessary to sustain a contender, but it’s important to remember that following that path does not actually guarantee that a team will break out of the doldrums. Successful teams demand our attention and we consequently look to how they were built for a strategic model to apply to our team. That’s a fine thing to do, but it’s just as essential to understand how a team with a once-hyped crop of prospects found itself losing 103 games in the sixth year of its recession.
Probable Starting Pitchers
Friday, April 7 - Phil Hughes vs. Derek Holland
Saturday, April 8 - Adalberto Mejia vs. Miguel Gonzalez
Sunday, April 9 - Ervin Santana vs. Jose Quintana
|1. Brian Dozier - 2B||SP1. Ervin Santana - RHP|
|2. Max Kepler - RF||SP2. Hector Santiago - LHP|
|3. Byron Buxton - CF||SP3. Kyle Gibson - RHP|
|4. Joe Mauer - 1B||SP4. Phil Hughes - RHP|
|5. Miguel Sano - 3B||SP5. Adalberto Mejia - LHP|
|6. Jason Castro - C||CL. Brandon Kintzler - RHP|
|7. Jorge Polanco - SS||RP1. Ryan Pressly - RHP|
|8. Eddie Rosario - LF||RP2. Taylor Rogers - LHP|
|9. Robbie Grossman - DH||RP3. Matt Belisle - RHP|