It’s hard to be too hopeful about the Twins’ 2021 season, because it’s hard to see where they have improved over the last two years. In fairness, though, it should be noted that the Twins have won more games in those two years than anyone else in the American League, so the bar is relatively high. That said, there are two big changes in the opening day lineup. Gone is leftfielder Eddie Rosario, their RBI and outfield-assist leader. Replacing him for now is Jake Cave, who could never crack the starting lineup on his own or even stay on the major league roster, despite receiving numerous chances. Infield defense has improved with the addition of shortstop Andrelton Simmons, moving Jorge Polanco to second base. On the flip side, this removes the Twins’ best hitter for average, Luis Arraez, from the everyday lineup.
Once again, the Twins’ hopes are resting largely on the two potential superstars, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. But how long have we been waiting on their potential – five years, maybe? Is there a reason to think that this will be the year that Buxton doesn’t get hurt and learns to hit to all fields and maybe even bunt and that Sano won’t again lead the league in strikeouts? There’s no evidence of this from spring training. Unless there’s a dramatic development, Buxton and Sano will continue to demonstrate bursts of brilliance but long stretches of being black holes in the lineup.
There are other causes of worry. Max Kepler is another case of potential unfulfilled. Every year he has a hot streak or two but has yet to achieve the kind of consistency the Twins expected when giving him a multiyear contract. That he got only three measly hits in all spring training does not augur well. Mitch Garver hit with surprising power in 2019 but was a bust in 2020. Which is the real him? And the Twins MVP, Nelson Cruz,will be 41 years old. At what point does age catch up to him? One always hopes there are young players on the rise who will provide an unexpected boost, but the Twins tried out their top prospects this spring–Alex Kiriloff and Brent Rooker, in particular–and none made the team.
The one area where the Twins are improved is their bench. Arraez and Willians Astudillo excel at putting the ball in play, Ryan Jeffers will give Garver competition at catcher and Kyle Garlick led the team in spring training homers. If he doesn’t deliver, they have Kiriloff, Rooker and Keon Broxton waiting in the wings.
One hopes that spring training statistics for the offense are meaningless; I mean, how could a team average fewer than 4 hits a game for a regular season? On the other hand, one would like to think that the pitchers in spring training gave a credible preview of what to expect beginning tomorrow. Kenta Maeda, coming off an almost-Cy Young season, was dominant, allowing one run all spring. Jose Berrios, as usual, was occasionally dominant. Randy Dobnak was just as good as he was the first half of last year and is ready to be slotted into the rotation should either newcomer, J.A. Happ or Matt Shoemaker, falter. The relievers have yet to sort out. Taylor Rogers was a lock-down closer a year ago but hasn’t had the same success recently. Alex Colome was a successful closer with the White Sox and will try for the same, but at age 32 a reliever is an uncertainty. I loved Tyler Duffey last year, but he had a tough spring. In addition to the uncertainties on the roster, there are several relievers who pitched well in spring training who are starting out in St. Paul and will undoubtedly be given shots as the season goes on.
If I had to make a prediction, I’d give the Twins a .500 record, or slightly above, if only because they will play most of their games against Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland, who are no great shakes. The White Sox, under Tony LaRussa, should win the division. The question already in my mind is, what will the Twins management do at the end of the year, if not before, if any or all of Kepler, Buxton, Sano, and Polanco underperform their contracts. Do they cut their losses and start a rebuild or wait yet another year for potential?