Twins at 50

Fifty games is less than a third of a baseball season, yet it seems a milestone that the record-keepers are noting; so it presents a good opportunity to assess, nay gloat, in the Twins’ remarkable start to 2019. They have the best record in the majors, albeit only a half-game ahead of the Yankees, and lead their division by an astounding 9 games, which speaks equally to the ineptitude of the AL Central. Their 101 home runs sets a record pace, by a lot, but the most amazing number, mathematically at least, is their 300 runs scored. That computes, exactly, to an even 6 runs a game!
The instinctive tendency is to say, they can’t keep this up. Yes, every team and every player goes through slumps over the course of a season, and the Twins have been unusually injury-free. But countering both these inevitabilities is the way the Twins’ success has been achieved, with contributions coming almost equally across-the-board. There has been no Aaron Judge or Miguel Cabrera powering the attack. Everyone in the lineup has hit his share of home runs, even Jason Castro. It is a safe bet that eight players will end up with more than 20 homers and none will reach 40.
Similarly, there is no one position player whose loss would be devastating. This is largely because the three bench players – Marwin Gonzalez, Willians Astudillo and Ehire Adrianza – can play multiple positions and have already done so with great effectiveness, including catcher.
What’s fun is seeing who powers the offense in each game. Sometimes it will be the franchise cornerstones, Polanco and Rosario. Next game it will be the free-agent newbies, Cron and Schoop. Then Max Kepler will get hot or Adrianza will surprise. Finally, there are the former saviors-to-be, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who finally appear on track to contributing more hits than strikeouts. There is no let-up in this lineup, especially once Mitch Garver returns to replace Castro behind the plate.
The excitement about the home runs has partially obscured another, perhaps more important, strength of the team: its pitching, especially its starters. Odorizzi, Berrios, Perez and Gibson give the Twins a chance to win every game they start, and Pineda may yet reach the same level. The bullpen is considered the one Twins weak spot, but with one blowout game after another and the starters going 6 or 7 innings every time, they haven’t been fully tested. So far, Blake Parker has been a serviceable closer and Taylor Rogers an unhittable setup man. Magill, Morin and May have all shown power arms, while Ryne Harper has been devilishly effective. How much more do you need? If Tyler Duffey can finally capitalize on his array of quality pitches, manager Baldelli should recognize that he doesn’t need to carry 13 pitchers, as he’s done much of the year, giving him room to keep his valuable bench once DH Nelson Cruz comes off the IL.
I see only two clouds on the horizon. When a surprise team is labeled a “team of destiny,” it is usually because they come from behind and keep finding ways to win close games. So far, when the Twins fall behind after the 5th inning, they usually lose. I don’t think they’ve had a walk-off win all year. It would be nice to see some of those, to give them confidence even when they don’t open up a six-run lead. Second, they still can’t seem to beat the Yankees, and if they get to the postseason, you know that’s who they will have to play. The Astros are tough, but Odorizzi’s 1-0 win over Verlander gives me hope in that matchup. Against the Yankees, that hasn’t happened. Yet.

Twins Update

Two losses in a row, and I’m already resigned to the mediocrity of recent years. Berrios gave up 12 hits and didn’t look like the ace I don’t consider him to be. (I’m more impressed with Odorizzi.) The Twins got two two-run homers, but that was it. You wonder if they’ve become over-reliant on home runs and incapable of building rallies. They were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. Worse, they failed to move any runner over from second. What has happened to the bunt. Aside from Rosario’s shift-beating bunt against the Tigers, I can’t think of a Twin bunting all year. So much can happen.
Another annoying trend: the Angel hitters beat the Twins shift four times, and it didn’t stop a single hit. In fact, Mike Trout got two hits driving ground balls through the shift. If I were a pitcher and saw Albert Pujols drive in a run by hitting a weak ground ball to the second baseman’s vacated position I would not be happy.
We’ll see if the Twins make adjustments and execute a little better the rest of this important series. On the other hand, Cleveland lost to the White Sox; so the Twins’ losses aren’t hurting them in the standings.

Twins Today

An update after the Twins disappointingly split a four-game series with the lowly Detroit Tigers:
Both losses, by identical 5-3 scores, were the result of Trevor Hildenberger‘s giving up two runs in the inning he pitched. Instead of the lock-down reliever he was in the season’s first month – the dependable bridge to Taylor Rogers and Blake Parker – he has become the bullpen’s biggest liability, with an ERA over 6.00. It hurts me personally to see a player I’m so invested in fail so consistently, but I don’t know how manager Baldelli will be able to trust him again. Conversely, relievers Magill, Morin and Duffey were solid. Poor Tyler Duffey, who has been up and down to the minors like a yo-yo, struck out all three batters he faced in the 9th and was promptly returned to Rochester. He’s had success before but never been able to sustain it. The announcers, however, were surprised to see his fastball timed at 96, so maybe there is still a future for him. Especially if Hildenberger can’t recover.
Byron Buxton continues to surprise me by continuing to hit occasionally. He is still easy to strike out with low, outside sliders, but he is getting enough pitches over the plate and when he does he hits them hard, leading the league in doubles. If he goes 1 for 4, he will be a major upgrade over his past performance.
No one, however, hits the ball as consistently hard as C.J. Cron. He can’t hit a high fastball and will never hit for average, but is a genuine threat every at bat. Jonathan Schoop also has power for a number eight hitter, giving the Twins power up and down the lineup. He and Cron will both have plenty of 0-for-4 days in between breakout games when they power a win.
Marwin Gonzalez has emerged from the black hole I placed him in for the first month. I still consider him the Twin I least want to see at bat with the bases loaded and two outs, but he has risen above the Mendoza line and shown his value as a potential utility player.
Whether he will be relegated to that role depends upon the return of Miguel Sano to third base. So far, the results of his rehabilitation games in the minor leagues are discouraging: he has struck out three times for every hit, and nothing kills an attack like having a cleanup hitter striking out half the time. I trust that the Twins management sees this and is wise enough to leave him off the roster until he proves that his presence would be an upgrade over Gonzalez at third.
The Twins are clicking, but far from on all cylinders. Rosario and Kepler have experienced sustained slumps, while Adrianza and Cave have yet to show that they merit permanent roster spots.
This is the beauty of baseball, though. Every player can be analyzed every day; the season is long and everyone slumps. Nelson Cruz seemed to be the most consistent hitter on the Twins, until all of a sudden he became the weak link. You figure that the best team in the league will lose 62 games or more; so you can’t expect perfection every day.

Twins Win

The Twins’ first win at Yankee Stadium in three years is worth remarking, as is their overall record one-fifth through the season, the best in the Major Leagues. Every Minnesota fan has a deep reservoir of pessimism, but there are plenty of hopeful signs for the remainder of the 2019 season.
First is the fact that no one is playing over potential. Yes, Eddie Rosario’s league lead in home runs will not last, but neither should his .222 batting average. Marwin Gonzalez, whom I had all but given up on, is starting to look like a solid contributor and will raise his average above .200. The other free agents – Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop – have all been solid additions, but nothing terribly unexpected. Mitch Garver is rounding into the franchise catcher of the future, and Jorge Polanco has been the hitting machine I always thought he was. The offense has been awesome, but there is still room for improvement. Byron Buxton still refuses to learn how to bunt, a weapon that would make him less of a potential black hole at the bottom of the lineup. And Max Kepler could cut down on the long stretches between his hot streaks.
The pitching has been the bigger surprise, although I’ve been higher on Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson than many other observers. Conversely, I wasn’t convinced that Jose Berrios was the ace others deemed him. Martin Perez was new to me, and if his most recent efforts are at all indicative he will give the Twins four quality starters. I’ll wait until today’s game with New York, if it’s played, to judge Michael Pineda; but again, he has potential to round out a top-flight rotation.
Everyone says the Twins’ bullpen is the weak link, but Taylor Rogers has been lights-out for a year now, and Blake Parker, Trevor Hildenberger, Trevor May and Ryan Harper have all had bright moments, giving the Twins about as good a bullpen as anyone else. Yes, they could use two more good arms, but that may not be necessary if the offense keeps building four-run leads. Matt Morin looked good in his debut, but we’ll need more time to know for sure. I’m not hopeful about prospects in the minor leagues, and Fernando Romero has not impressed, but the expectation is that a free agent or two will be added mid-summer if the team remains in contention.
The one worry is injuries. Every team suffers them, and so far the Twins have suffered less than their competitors. Only Willians Astudillo has been a significant loss to the IL. If one of the starters, or Rogers or Cruz, gets hurt it will test the suspect depth. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy.

Hope Springs Eternal

One game does not a season make, any more than spring training should be used to judge a team’s prospects. That said, the Twins’Opening Day 2-0 win over Cleveland gave me a lot to be hopeful about for the 2019 season. Six things in particular.

1. Jose Berrios pitched like the ace the Twins claim he is. The second half of last year’s season, plus some of his spring training efforts worried me that he would only be good, not great, but going head-to-head with Corey Kluber and tossing almost eight innings of two-hit ball was exciting. If he can become a true ace, it will only raise the level of the other starters around him.

2. Byron Buxton’s ringing double. Buxton led the team in hitting in spring training, but we’ve seen that before, only to have him flame out when the real games began. Not only did he break up Kluber’s no-hitter with the Twins’ hardest hit of the day, he seemed able to lay off the outside breaking balls he has routinely flailed at in the past. The Strib said if Buxton hits .240 he will be a real asset; I’m hoping more for .260.

3. The free agents all contributed. Outside of Buxton’s double, the only Twins hits were by their big-ticket free agent acquisitions, Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Marwin Gonzalez, but they all came in the 7th inning, producing the day’s only runs. (Jonathan Schoop, the fourth free-agent starter, was HBP in the same inning, although nothing came of it.) Two of the hits were of the broken-bat variety, but still… Last year’s disappointing season was at least partially attributable to the failings of that year’s free agents: Logan Morrison, Lance Lynn, Addison Reed and others.

4. Taylor Rogers. The Twins’ bullpen is an unknown, unproven quantity, but Rogers was impeccable the last half of 2018, and he was stellar closing out the Indians: 4-up, 4-down, 3 Ks. Whether he becomes the Twins’ closer – or whether they even anoint a closer – if he can stay solid it will give everyone more confidence.

5. Rocco Baldelli. All he did, I suppose, was pull Berrios for Rogers at exactly the right time, but it gives everyone on the Twins a fresh start to have a new, young manager in place.

6. The core four. Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario and Jason Castro are the four holdovers from last year who form the base to which the free agents have been added. They did next-to-nothing against Kluber, but there is every expectation they will break out in games to come. Rosario and Kepler, especially, just received long-term contracts and are batting lead-off and clean-up in Baldelli’s order. They are at the age where they can no longer be rated on their potential; this is the year they need to produce.

7. Cleveland just did not look particularly intimidating. The Twins won’t compete with the Yankees or Red Sox or Astros, but all they need do is beat out the Indians and they’re in the playoffs, where anything can happen.

Of course, Opening Day gave us no hint of the Twins’ bench strength or the remainder of their pitching staff; so from here on it’s speculation. Tyler Austin and Jake Cave are legitimate long-ball threats; while Ehire Adrianza and Mitch Garber are both reliable. Willans Astudillo is simply exciting. Unfortunately, one or two will be optioned or released if and when Miguel Sano earns back a starting job and Baldelli needs a 12th pitcher. Simply put: if Sano can come back and play to his potential, the Twins should win their division.

I am mildly confident about the starting rotation of Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda. I’ve never seen Martin Perez, but reports from spring training were encouraging, and if he falters there are prospects in the minors who could blossom. One fun part of every baseball season is the success of some rookie you never heard of or counted on. If the Twins are lucky, they won’t need one this year.

Twins Post-Mortem

No true Twins fan could be surprised that they lost to the Yankees in the one-game Wild Card Playoff last night. Their only legitimate hope was that Ervin Santana would regain his early-season form and throw a near-shutout, which was a possibility. When he missed with his first two pitches, however, and proceeded to walk the leadoff batter, after having been given a three-run lead to work with, you sort of knew that wasn’t going to happen. When he then gave up a three-run homer to the Yankees’ fourth batter, the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt.
Still, it was encouraging, and exciting, to see the Twins start the game with a home run by Brian Dozier, a home run by Eddie Rosario and base hits by Eduardo Escobar and Max Kepler off Yankee ace Luis Severino. These guys, you felt, are for real and have a bright future. The fun stopped when we reached the bottom third of the order, which went hitless all night – surprisingly, in the case of Robbie Grossman, discouragingly for Jason Castro, and worryingly for Byron Buxton, who did get an rbi by beating out his double-play grounder. Buxton is still, we hope, a work in progress. He started to strike out less in the season’s second half, but he has to develop into a better contact hitter, or at least continue to improve his bunting.
The Twins also developed a surprisingly efficient bullpen out of very little, and except for a four-pitch walk with the bases loaded by Alan Busenitz they held their own last night. The problem, going forward, is starting pitching, and when you look at the starting rotation of the few good teams in the Majors – the Indians, Red Sox, Astros, Dodgers, Nationals – you can see how far the Twins are from seriously contending for a title. Yes, the Twins made the Playoffs, but they did so by beating up on the Tigers: none of the 10 teams they beat out had even a .500 record!
Santana, you feel, will never again have as good a year, and he trailed off considerably as the season wore on. Berrios has a live arm with the stuff to excel, and maybe he will. This year the Twins patched together a rotation with Kyle Gibson (terrible then good), Bartolo Colon (soon to be 45 years old), Adelberto Mejia (seemingly destined to be a journeyman, at best) and a parade of disappointments from their farm teams. Trevor May could return from his injury, but beyond that it is hard to see where the arms will come from. While it is almost routine now to find relievers who outshine their pedigree, there is little precedent for unknowns becoming dependable starters. Maybe take a big gulp and trade Miguel Sano? He has always been deemed the team’s future, but the Twins hit better once he was injured; his strikeouts are troubling; and he hasn’t kept healthy for long.
We’ll watch with interest as the new front office makes moves over the winter. The Twins, at least, are suddenly worth watching.

Twins Stretch Run

Readers of earlier posts can imagine how little I ever expected to be writing about the Twins’ “stretch run” at the start of September 2017. Yet here they are, one game behind the faltering Yankees for the top wild-card spot in the American League, two games in the loss column ahead of the closest of six credible pursuers. While it would be fun to see them make the playoffs, that doesn’t really matter. One, because they would have little chance against either the Indians or the Red Sox, should they even get that far. But two, because their success so far augurs so well for 2018 and seasons to come, which was the rosiest timetable anyone realistically had when the year started.
The greatest cause for optimism is the almost-simultaneous turnaround in hitting by Jorge Polanco and Byron Buxton. Both were batting in the .200 neighborhood in May. Buxton was an automatic strikeout at the lineup bottom and Polanco would have been shipped to the minors if he had not been out of options. Now they are batting 3rd and 4th in the lineup, both with unexpected power. And Buxton even seems to have learned how to bunt! Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Brian Dozier have all been streak hitters, carrying the Twins at various points of the summer, all capable of multi-homer games. Joe Mauer, whom we had all but given up on, is now flirting with hitting .300 and has delivered clutch hits, although his home run swing still produces warning-track fly-outs to left more often than not. The part-timers – Eduardo Escobar, Robbie Grossman, Ehire Adrianza, Chris Gimenez – have all performed serviceably; the jury remains out on newer arrivals Kennys Vargas, Mitch Garver, and Zack Granite.
So far unmentioned is Miguel Sano. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the Twins have had so many offensive explosions recently with him on the disabled list. Yes, he still leads the team in home runs and rbi, but he was about to obliterate the Twins strikeout records, including most games with three or more Ks. More often than not, since the All-Star break Sano was a black hole at the middle of the lineup. He was dangerous, but he was also a rally-killer. It is possible, as one blogger suggested, that Sano’s absence has caused the Polancos and Rosarios to step up; no one is looking to Sano to hit the big fly, so everyone else is stepping up. But just as Buxton’s progress has shown that it is possible to develop as a hitter and cut down on strikeouts, we can hope that Sano in future years could in fact become the dominant force he has shown signs of in the past. It is this prospect of a more mature Sano with improvements from Buxton, Rosario, Kepler and Polanco that has Twins fans salivating.
Pitching, of course, is a problem, and the reason we would be nervous about the Twins’ playoff chances this year. Ervin Santana is pitching like an ace and Jose Berrios is showing signs of becoming an ace in the future. Relievers have been doing their job, and this year has shown that you never know where your stoppers will come from. At the moment, the top two in the Twins bullpen are Busenitz and Hildenberger, whom no one had heard of in April – or June. Before that it was Taylor Rogers and Matt Belisle. But a team needs five starters, and the Twins just have, for sure, those two. Kyle Gibson has been tempting for several years, but his only consistency has been his ability to disappoint. Bartolo Colon is now the number three guy, but he is 44 and not getting younger. So, one or two or preferably three new names will have to show up at spring training next year if the Twins are to become the complete team that can take its place among the elite and make another run at a World Series. I’m hoping.

Twins Midseason

Few, if any, predicted that the Twins would end the first half of the 2017 season above .500, albeit by one game and falling fast; so despite my negative thoughts to come I have to rate their performance so far as a wonderful surprise. More days than not this spring I have found myself on a Twins high.
What has caused this success, however partial? Every player has had a hand, whether it’s Buxton’s great defense, Rosario going 5-for-5, Kepler’s three-home-run game, Mauer’s steady climb toward .300, on and on. Ditto for the pitching: Duffey and Rogers have frequently excelled as setup men, Kintzler is near the league lead in saves, Berrios has been a revelation as a starter. The two biggest contributors, however, and here is where the worry starts, have been Ervin Santana on the mound and Miguel Sano at the plate. They have singlehandedly willed the Twins to more victories than anyone else.
Worry, I say, because Santana, after a great April and May, has been pedestrian, at best, the entire month of June. Is his confidence gone, has his arm tired? – whatever the problem, it is hard to see him regaining his dominant form. Sano, too, has begun striking out with such regularity that you wonder if the scouts have figured him out or if he, too, has begun doubting himself. When Sano is not hitting, there is a big hole in the middle of the Twins lineup.
The other Twins hitters – and here I’m talking about Kepler, Polanco, Escobar, Dozier, Castro, Vargas – all seem to blow hot and cold. For every breakout performance, there seem to be two or three games where no one hits and the Twins manage but a run or two. I do like them all, though, and whenever I doubt their future stardoms I say to myself two words: Aaron Hicks. The Twins gave him every chance to succeed as their centerfielder, but he never really caught on. Same with the Yankees last year. This year, however, he is one of the Yankees’ best players, which makes me believe that a player with talent can figure things out and blossom late in his 20s. Rosario, Kepler and Polanco all have the tools to be stars, and with experience they might be. (Polanco’s future, however, is at second base, where I fully expect him to supplant Dozier in a year or two once one of their shortstop prospects – Royce Lewis? – is ready.) Even Buxton, still very much a work in progress, could develop.
Pitching, however, is a different story, and this will doom the Twins to being a .500 team in the near future, despite the maturation of their hitters – all of whom, I should add, are solid defenders. Berrios is already penciled in at the top of the rotation for years to come, as expected. But after him the cupboard looks bare. Santana, as noted, may already be on the down curve. Hector Santiago has been smoke and mirrors for a couple years and appears to have run out of gas. Kyle Gibson just never gets better: four good innings then implosion. The Twins haven’t even had a fifth starter much of this year, dropping down into their farm system whenever a fifth starter is needed, generally without success. This makes one wonder who there is down there being developed for the future. The most promising so far, Felix Jorge, came up directly from AA and has only thrown 5+ innings. Tyler Duffey is solid three out of four outings, and you wonder why the Twins aren’t working him back into the starting rotation instead of using him in the sixth inning. Taylor Rogers has been the lefthanded surprise of the staff, and he has now been anointed as the 8th-inning setup man. Kintzler makes me nervous – I’d prefer a strikeout artist for my closer – but he will do. The rest of the bunch – Belisle and Breslow, for sure, Pressly probably – are just space savers. When the starters can’t go six innings, the bullpen flaws are magnified, and I believe the Twins have the league’s worst relief ERA.
The Twins, thanks to their surprising start and the mediocrity of the Central Divison, won’t lose 100 games again this year; and if they can go 32-49 they won’t lose 90. Whether they can keep their spirits up once they fall far behind the Indians and maybe the Royals may be a test of how far this bunch can go in the next few years. Without pitching, however – and where is that to come from? – the ceiling remains limited.

Two Twins Wins

Watching Ervin Santana breeze through a four-hit shutout of the Giants Friday was a relaxing marvel; he was so dominant and he had such a lead, thanks to his own three-run double, that I was never even nervous. His delivery is effortless, his demeanor unchanging, and he spots his pitches perfectly, mixing sliders and fastballs, changing speeds so that the hitters rarely square up on the ball, even if they make contact. It was easy; it was masterful.
The night before the Twins won by defense. No one expected Kyle Gibson to pitch into the seventh and give up only one run, followed by three scoreless innings from the Twins’ top relievers, and it only happened because of three key plays. Joe Mauer made a diving stop at first, obviating a first-and-third, no-out crisis. Byron Buxton made a sensational leaping over-the-head catch that saved two runs. Pitcher Tyler Rogers stabbed a rocket liner up the middle and doubled the lead runner off second. To emphasize the importance of defense, the Twins’ winning run scored on Robinson Cabo’s two errors on the same play.
June 10, 2017

The Waste Pitch

Twins pitchers are apparently taught, or instructed, to waste a pitch whenever they get an 0-2 count. The theory, I’m guessing, is to see if the hitter, suddenly wary of striking out looking, will expand the strike zone and wave at an unhittable pitch. The 0-2 pitches that Twins hurlers deliver, however, tend to be so low, wide or high that no one ever swings. At best, the pitcher loses some of his advantage. The worst happened the other night to Tyler Duffey, who came on to relieve with the score tied, the bases loaded and no outs. His first two pitches made the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus look silly. Instead of trying to finish him off, his “waste pitch” bounced in the dirt and the lead run scored. Compounding the problem, the other runners advanced to second and third, so the infield “had to” play in. The next batter, with one out now, hit what would have been a double-play grounder, but it squirted just past the third baseman, playing in. Result of the “waste pitch”: three runs for the Rangers.
Speaking of strategy, I would also question the decision to have the corner infielders play in in that situation. Sano, especially, has quick reflexes and a gun for an arm; from his normal position he could throw out a runner going home a large percentage of the time. What is the counter-percentage, the number of times he doesn’t get to a ball because he is repositioned closer to home?
There is one more baseball orthodoxy I would question: when the Twins are leading in the 9th by two or more runs and an opposing batter gets to first base, they don’t hold him on and cede a free trip to second base. “The run means nothing,” we are told. But the chance to get an out at second base does have meaning. These days there are statistics for everything; so maybe my assumption can be rebutted. I feel, however, that I have seen many more times where an infielder could get an out at second but not at first than occasions where the first baseman made a play only because he was playing off the bag.
5/6/17 PS: Conversely, today a Twins pitcher with two outs and no one on threw an 0-2 slider that caught too much of the plate and ended up in the leftfield stands. Before a third out could be recorded, the Red Sox had eight runs and the game was effectively over. The Twins pitcher, Nick Tepesch, was making his first appearance with the Twins, so perhaps he hadn’t gotten the memo.