2018 Minnesota Twins preview

2018 MLB preview: Minnesota Twins

2017: 85-77

Last postseason appearance: 2017

Last World Series title: 1991

2017 Recap

In 2016, the Twins finished with the worst record in baseball, winning just 59 regular season games. Last year, they became the second team in MLB history to have the No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft and make the playoffs in the same year. Although they fell to the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game, Minnesota was the first franchise to lose 100 games and then go to the playoffs in the following year.

So how in the world does a team, with virtually the same roster, do a complete turnaround and win 26 more games? Well, to start, they learned how to field.

In 2016, Minnesota racked up 126 errors, the second most in the MLB. Miguel Sano, who played just 80 games in the field, had 18 errors, and Jorge Polanco had 15 in just 61 games. A year later, and the Twins made 48 less errors. Sano cut his errors in half, and Byron Buxton was the best defensive centerfielder in baseball. Here is a table to back that up.

Byron Buxton’s 2017 Defensive Ranks

STATISTIC RANK AMONG CF’S
DEFENSIVE WAR 1st (3rd OVERALL)
DEFENSIVE RUNS SAVED 1st (3rd OVERALL)
REVIZED ZONE RATING 1st (1st OVERALL)
OUT OF ZONE PLAYS 1st (5th OVERALL)
RANGE RUNS 1st (2nd OVERALL)
PLUS MINUS RUNS SAVED 1st (3rd OVERALL)
TOTAL ZONE RUNS 1st (1st OVERALL)

 

Minnesota’s 2016 team finished 11th in the AL in batting average and 11th in OBP. In 2017, they finished fourth in both categories. Eddie Rosario had a career year, hitting .290 (.332 at home) with 27 home runs. Sano raised his average by nearly 30 points, while also hitting 28 home runs with an OBP of .352.

2018 Minnesota Twins preview

Byron Buxton is one of the best defenders in the game. (Photo from Twinkie Town)

Their two big-name players, Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier, also played well. Dozier, after 42 home runs in 2016, finished 2017 with 34 home runs, 106 RBIs and a career best .359 OBP. He also ranked 10th in runs scored.

Joe Mauer, one of the best Twins of all time (fourth in WAR), hit .305 with an OBP of .384. The craziest stat was Mauer’s average after going 0-2 in the count. In 88 at-bats, Mauer hit a ridiculous .341.

Here is a table to illustrate the differences between the Twins offense in 2016 and 2017.

2016 vs. 2017 Minnesota Twins offensive ranks

STATISTIC 2016 AL RANK 2017 AL RANK
RUNS 9th 3rd
SLUGGING PERCENTGAE 9th 6th
BATTING AVERAGE 11th 4th
OBP 11th 4th
RUNS WITH MEN IN SCORING POSITION AND TWO OUTS 14th 3rd
BATTING AVERAGE WITH RUNNERS ON 13th 4th
BATTING AVERAGE WITH BASED LOADED 15th 2nd

 

2018: Around the Diamond

Minnesota will sport a practically identical team from last season. Jason Castro will remain behind the plate, while Joe Mauer, who will enter the last year of his eight-year deal, will hold down first base. Kennys Vargas will get some time when the old 34-year-old Mauer needs a rest.

Up the middle is Brian Dozier at second, and Jorge Polanco, who hit 13 home runs and stole 13 bases in 2017, will play shortstop. Miguel Sano will man the hot corner, and DH, with this current lineup, could vary between Vargas, Eduardo Escobar or Robbie Grossman.

Eddie Rosario will play left, and Max Kepler will most likely start out in right, although Grossman has a shot. Kepler hit 19 home runs in 2017. Their best defender, Byron Buxton, who won a Gold Glove, as well as the Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year, should improve as a hitter. He finished seventh in steals and joined Jose Altuve and Whit Merrifield as the only players to hit at least 16 home runs and steal 29 bases. Buxton will need to get on base more in 2018, but he is coming off a great second half in 2017, as he hit .300 with 11 home runs.

On the Bump

In December, the Twins signed Michael Pineda, who had elbow surgery last July and has just started throwing. He will hopefully have a positive impact on the team in 2019.

With that said, the rotation remains the same. Ervin Santana, who finished second in innings, ninth in WHIP and tied Corey Kluber with the most complete games and shutouts in the MLB, will be the ace. He was seventh in Cy Young voting, going 16-8 with a 3.28 ERA.

Santana was the only Twins pitcher to throw over 200 innings, which will hopefully change in 2018. Jose Berrios, the former first-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, had a solid season at age 23. He went 14-8 with a 1.23 WHIP. He is a bit wild as he was third in hit batters and needs to pitch better on the road. At home, Berrios was terrific, posting a 2.41 ERA, but on the road, his ERA sky-rocketed to 5.41.

Kyle Gibson, who has had a 5.07 ERA in back-to-back years, will follow Santana and Berrios. Adalberto Mejia looks to be in line for the fourth starter. The last spot could go to the 25-year-old Aaron Slegers, or the veteran Phil Hughes. In Triple-A during the 2017 season, Slegers went 15-4 with a 3.40 ERA.

The one thing Minnesota did was revamp the back-end of the bullpen. The Twins signed Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney, two veterans who Minnesota hopes will finish games in 2018.

The Future

The Twins best prospect has to be the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, shortstop Royce Lewis. Lewis, the top ranked high school position player in 2017, is obviously still just a kid, but has posted solid numbers as a pro. In Rookie Ball, over 36 games, Lewis had a .390 OBP, and in A ball, he had a .296 batting average. 2018 will be Lewis’ first full season as a pro, which is exciting for everyone involved.

2018 Minnesota Twins preview

The No. 1 pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, Royce Lewis (Photo from Star Tribune)

Their top pitching prospect, Fernando Romero, has spent a lot of time on the DL over the past few years, but could see big league action in 2018. Last year, in Double-A, Romero won 11 games and finished with a 3.53 ERA in 125 innings. His fastball can reach triple digits, so let’s hope Twins fans can see this guy on the big stage at some point this season.

Minnesota also has pitcher Stephen Gonsalves, who could also see time with the MLB team in 2018. Gonsalves was tremendous in 2017 at the Double-A level, posting a 2.68 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP in 87.1 innings. MLB.com claims he “has the ceiling of a solid mid-rotation starter.”

Don’t forget about Tom Gordon’s son, and Dee Gordon’s brother, second baseman/shortstop Nick Gordon. Gordon hasn’t progressed like other first-round players in his draft like Kyle Schwarber, Michael Conforto or Trea Turner, but the former fifth overall pick looks to be a solid everyday player at some point. Last season in Double-A, Gordon hit .270/.341/.408 with nine home runs and 13 steals.

2018 Prediction: 82-80

Minnesota is linked in rumors to Chris Archer, so if they trade for him, that could shake things up. However, in the AL, you have to think that Boston, New York, Cleveland and Houston have four of the five playoff spots locked up. That means only one spot is up for grabs, and although they made it in 2017, Minnesota will fall just short in 2018. The pitching isn’t deep, and the lineup will not perform as well as they did in 2017.

 

Featured image by MLB.com

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AL East Shenanigans: Just How Close is the Race?

By the time September rolls around, there is generally a couple of teams who have secured playoff spots and can look to rest key players sporadically during the remainder of the season. As of September 9th, Texas had a nine game lead over the 2nd place team in the AL West, the Houston Astros. Cleveland has been cruising lately, going 8-2 in their last 10 games to secure a six game lead in the AL Central. The AL East, on the otherhand, is where it get reals interesting.

What sets the AL East apart from the rest of the American League is that the division has four teams that are within four games of each other. Not only does the division hold a playoff spot for the division leader, but also has both of the wild card spots in the AL, and a fourth team just two games back for a wild card spot. The beauty of September baseball, as well, is that the majority of games that will be played by the teams will be against their division opponents. So not only is it a tight race for the division lead, but the race is nowhere near the finish line as the standings will be in constant flux.

The Boston Red Sox are the current division leaders in the AL East with a one game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays. Buoyed by the fanfare of David “Big Papi” Ortiz’s retirement tour and an MVP-worthy season from youngster Mookie Betts, the Red Sox are looking every bit like a playoff team. The pitching has come around since the beginning of the season, with David Price, Rick Porcello and deadline acquisition Drew Pomeranz (The Killer P’s?) resembling a strong rotation come playoff time.

Rick Porcello has impressed this season, throwing himself into the Cy Young conversation. Photo courtesy of Dan Hamilton of the USA Today

Rick Porcello has impressed this season, throwing himself into the Cy Young conversation. Can he keep up his dominance down the stretch and propel the Sox into the playoffs? Photo courtesy of Dan Hamilton of the USA Today

Porcello especially has impressed, reducing his BB/9 to a career low 1.35 while maintaining a K/9 near 7.5. Porcello’s off-speed pitches have come around this season, which has led to hitters not receiving as many easy pitches to hit and thus leading to more outs generated for Porcello and the Sox. Fangraphs says this season, opponents are only hitting .171 against his change and .212 against his slider, compared to .292 and .342 respectively last season. The weakness of the Red Sox is the bullpen, especially bridging the gap from starter to Kimbrel in the 9th. The Red Sox addressed the issue at the deadline, adding Ziegler from Arizona, but Ziegler has produced mixed results since the move. Look for the bullpen being the reason why the Red Sox will either keep producing efficiently, or start to move down the standings as the month rolls by.

The Toronto Blue Jays currently sit in second by a game and lead the wild card race. I profiled the team briefly in my article on the AL Division Race a week ago, so I will just give a quick rundown. Basically, Toronto has the best offense on paper, headlined by potential AL MVP Josh Donaldson and bat flipping champion Jose Bautista. A supporting cast of hitters including Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and Edwin Encarnacion rounds out the most potent lineup in the American League, if not all of baseball (I’d argue the lineup is more potent than the Cubs).

Jose Bautista has powered the Jays to the playoffs before...can he do it again? Photo courtesy of Getty Sports

Jose Bautista has powered the Jays to the playoffs before…can he do it again? Photo courtesy of Getty Sports

 

What could be the Blue Jays downfall, and my reason of hesitancy, is that pitching matters, and the Blue Jays do not have the stud pitching seen in other potential playoff team’s rotations. Just this past weekend, the Jays’ starters gave up a combined 11 earned runs in 13.2 innings (in 3 games) against the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that is twenty-one games below .500. That is not pitching a fan wants to see leading into the playoffs.

The Baltimore Orioles are the often forgotten studs in the AL East. The Orioles currently reside only two games back in the AL East standings and are perched in the second wild card spot with a one game lead over the Detroit Tigers. The Orioles also feature a potent lineup starring Manny Machado, Chris “Crush” Davis, and Adam Jones. Yet, those are not the only ones doing the heavy lifting, as the rest of the lineup has been hitting dingers all season as well. Mark Trumbo, most notably, has been a key fixture in the middle of the Orioles lineup, despite being traded for in the offseason for a backup catcher.

Mark Trumbo has been very productive for the Orioles, especially since he was traded a backup catcher. Photo courtesy of Butch Dill of the USA Today

Mark Trumbo has been very productive for the Orioles, especially since he was traded a backup catcher. Will his power be enough to get the Orioles playoff-bound? Photo courtesy of Butch Dill of the USA Today

This season, Trumbo has put up 41 homeruns while maintaining an adequate .255 batting average for the season. Another notable hitter is the underrated second basemen Jonathan Schoop, who despite only having 18 walks this year, has put up a .282 batting average and 21 homeruns for the club.

Despite all the power in the Orioles lineup, the problem comes down to the rotation once again, as the Orioles rotation is filled with veteran journeymen and super young pitchers. Keep an eye on Kevin Gausman though, who despite his record, has pitched well lately, not giving up a run in his last three starts. The rotation will be the question mark for the Orioles as the postseason looms ever closer.

The final team still battling for the AL East is the New York Yankees. The Yankees are interesting because the Yankees were sellers at the MLB Trade Deadline, moving Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Carlos Beltran for a plethora of high upside prospects. Yet, a month after the deadline, the Yankees are only sitting four games back in the division and two back from the Orioles for the final wild card spot. The Yankees have been by their promoted youngsters, especially the polarizing Gary Sanchez.

Gary Sanchez has been raking for the Yankees. Can he keep up the hot hitting down the stretch? Photo courtesy of Brad Penner of the USA Today

Gary Sanchez has been raking for the Yankees. Can he keep up the hot hitting down the stretch? Photo courtesy of Brad Penner of the USA Today

Sanchez was promoted right after the deadline and has played in thirty-one games since, sporting a .336 batting average and knocking out 11 homers. Tanaka has been pitching like the ace that was expected out of his contract and the team has also received decent pitching from Michael Pineda and C.C. Sabathia over the course of the season.

The thing to watch with the Yankees will be whether the hot hitting will continue. The team is currently riding a five game winning streak (as of 9/9), but if the team strings together a couple of losses, it will be interesting to see if the veterans will be able to steer the rookies back on track or the team will fade off.

The battle has been raging all season long for the division, and yet, despite five months of baseball, there is no clear indication who will lead the division at the end of the season. Question marks surround each team as the margins are constantly fluctuating throughout the month. The Red Sox appear to be the most complete team on paper, but a shaky bullpen can turn a few wins into losses and hurt a team’s place in the standings. The Jays and Orioles face question marks surrounding their rotations, despite the electric lineups each team fields. The Yankees have been buoyed by their youngster hitters, but it will be interesting to see what happens when the team starts stringing together a couple of losses back to back instead of riding the hot streak forever. The 2016 AL East is the reason why baseball is exciting in September and will be a fun story to follow for the rest of the month.

 

Stats courtesy of fangraphs and standings according to MLB.com

Shoutout to u/twistedlogicx for pointing this out on r/baseball