Twins Preview

At ten games into the season, it’s a fool’s game to make a prediction for how the year will unfold. One of the fun things about a baseball season is seeing a closer emerge from bullpen obscurity or a rookie – a la Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge – lead the league in home runs. All you go on is unwarranted projections from last year’s team; and of course how many games a team wins also depends on the quality of the opposition, a factor I have no good way of judging. Nevertheless, there are reasons for optimism as I look at the Twins’ chances in 2018.
Pitching: This is the biggest upgrade and biggest cause of hope. Getting Jake Odorizzi was the steal of the winter, and adding Lance Lynn gives the Twins a legitimate five-man rotation once Ervin Santana comes back from his finger injury. Of course, I am also assuming/hoping that the problematic Kyle Gibson finally turns the corner and that phenom Jose Berrios matures into a lights-out pitcher for more than five innings. The relief corps is always a work-in-progress, as the manager does situational testing. Last year at this time who had even heard of Trevor Hildenberger, yet he became one of the Twins’ most dependable arms. So far this year, however, he hasn’t had the same success. Most observers’ principal concern is having 41-year-old Fernando Rodney as the closer, but Addison Reed is a more than competent backup if Rodney falters. There are also a half-dozen pitchers-in-waiting in the minor league system should any of the current crop of starters and relievers falter or get injured. In sum, there is no ace, but outside of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, how many real aces are out there?, and the Twins have pitching that is good enough to keep them in most games.
Hitting: This will make or break the Twins’ year. Specifically, Miguel Sano could carry the team with his power, or he could be a strikeout machine. Byron Buxton could bedevil the opposition with his speed, or he could continue to flail helplessly at curve balls. Jorge Polanco was a .200 hitter for half the season, a .300 hitter the other half: which will it be? Logan Morrison hit 38 homers last year but can’t make contact this spring: is it a slump or was last year an aberration? Max Kepler suddently became overmatched against lefthanded pitching. Still young and learning, can he turn that around? Perhaps the most overlooked question mark is Eddie Rosario, a streak hitter who Molitor has been batting third and fourth this year without much result. When he’s hot he can hit anybody, but if he fails it will be almost as big a hole in the lineup as Sano. Joe Mauer, one assumes, will continue hitting as he always does, with not much power, although being in the last year of his huge contract might give him a little extra motivation. There’s no Jose Altuve in the lineup, someone you can always count on to get a hit; but there is plenty of potential firepower if even two-thirds of the question marks are answered positively.
Defense: It’s fun to talk about the Twins in the field, and this may be the component that ensures an over-.500 record. Buxton is recognized as the game’s best defender, which also helps the four fielders around him. Brian Dozier won a Gold Glove at 2nd, Mauer is steady, if not flashy, at first, and Sano’s arm at 3d is a marvel and his dexterity surprising. Jason Castro was signed for his defensive skills, framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt; and Rosario has led the league in outfield assists. The shortstops and other outfielders are only average, but there are no clunkers in the lot.
Manager: For his first two years I thought Paul Molitor didn’t bring enough fire to the table, and I regret his reluctance to use bunts, hit-and-runs, squeeze plays – any of the tricks of the manager’s trade – but his results, especially last year’s, speak for themselves. The players seem to respect him, which is something. In all, I’d rate him a neutral force on the season’s outcome.
Conclusion: I don’t know if the Twins have improved enough to overtake the Indians or the Astros, and I always worry about the chokehold the Yankees have on every Twins team; but the playoffs should be well within their grasp. It should be a fun summer.

Minnesota Sports

My years in Minnesota we reveled in being a mid-market, or even small-market, team, playing over our heads with unheralded athletes. The big free-agent signings were for NY, LA and less thrifty owners. If we did overpay, it was for a local hero, a Kevin Garnett we signed out of high school, a Joe Mauer whom we drafted out of St. Paul. So when the Timberwolves traded with Chicago for Jimmy Butler, an all-star in his prime, it sent shock waves through the Twin Cities psyche. “You mean, we’re actually trying to win something this year?,” as opposed to building something for the future, was the common reaction. If, in fact, Butler hadn’t gotten hurt, there was a chance the move could have worked. As it is, the Wolves are scraping to make the playoffs, where it is doubtful they will win one game; but the season has been more interesting and fun than usual. (The flip side is that the players traded for Butler are doing quite well for the Bulls, and it is anyone’s guess which team will be the ultimate profiter.)
The Vikings, of course, did the Wolves one better. By giving Kirk Cousins the richest(?) guaranteed contract ever, they have set the Super Bowl, if not the NFL title, as their only acceptable goal. Given that the NFC title game this year was fought between two backup quarterbacks, it will be intriguing to see where all the teams with new leaders end up next season.
No one, of course, expected the Twins to do much in the offseason. First, they have a reputation, long-earned, for cautious spending. Second, they did quite well, unexpectedly so, with their young squad last year, and it was reasonable to hope that a year’s growth would bring those prospects even further along. But the pitching was an issue. Months went by and not much happened. A few relievers were signed: Zach Duke and Addison Reed. Then a closer, Fernando Rodney, although in his 40s and having played for eight other teams it’s hard to believe he was much in demand. Then, out of the blue, the Twins signed Jake Odorizzi, a more than competent starter from Tampa Bay. Next, Logan Morrison, as the Rays continued their fire sale. The deal was only for one year, but there weren’t many 38-home run hitters available. And last, they found another quality starter, Lance Lynn. In the space of a few weeks, the Twins went from a “can-they-do-it-again” team to a favorite to make the playoffs.
The expectations of Minnesota sports fans have ratcheted up several notches. Now we will see if the big bucks deliver.