Stunning offseason, now can the Twins contend? [I have *at least* 20 questions]
A Twins season preview for 2022
Let’s cut to the chase. After their 73-89 last-place finish, have the Twins improved enough to make a postseason run this year? We’re all getting too old, after all, for this Next-Year stuff…
The answer to that question is, of course, unknowable. The answer to that question begins with another unknowable thing, the daily availability of the blossoming superstar named Byron Buxton.
Let’s lift the lid on this thing, shall well?
When a top-flight soccer team tries a few different maneuvers to progress toward their opponents’ goal and make life difficult, a commentator will often chime in that they’re “asking questions” of the defense. I think that’s a perfectly apt comparison here for where we find ourselves, at the beginning of a six-month baseball season with the task of previewing the whole dang thing in one go. Sometimes we pretend that we can figure out these things ahead of time. A more useful exercise today would be simply to ask the questions.
I couldn’t possibly tell you how many games the Twins will win. (PECOTA projects them for 86 wins.) I can’t predict how much fun you’ll have between now and Thanksgiving. (Your mileage may vary.) At a time of year when hope is said to spring eternal, all I can tell you with any reasonable degree of certainty is that I have some questions.
1. The Number 1 question on everyone’s mind today is whether the Twins will make the playoffs.
Our first question in the form of a statement. We’re off to a rough start.
The unofficial projection system favored by This Newsletter, PECOTA, forecasts that a vastly improved Twins team will win between 86-87 games, with a range of outcomes from the mid-60’s all the way up to 100+ wins. Please don’t take issue with the projection; it’s just their nature. But the most probable outcome, it concludes, is a second-place finish behind the also-improved White Sox in a division that last season proved to be, uh, very forgiving to opponents.
The expanded postseason format could come into play here. All division winners will make it to October, of course. Then there will be three Wild Card teams per league, given their seed based on their regular-season record. That’s how they’re getting to 12 teams. So the Twins aren’t merely contending with the White Sox. They’re also competing for three total playoff spots with clubs like the Blue Jays, Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Astros, Mariners, Angels, Rangers, Guardians and Tigers. Throw in Chicago and I’d guess that three division winners are coming from that group. That leaves 10 clubs to duke it out for the final 3 postseason spots and hoo boy, you can see how this gets tricky in a hurry.
2. Is this a better team on paper than one year ago? What’s the net effect of all the trades and signings?
When you begin the offseason by extending a new face-of-the-franchise superstar in Byron Buxton – and bookend that same winter by superimposing THE premier free agent available into all of your marketing materials – you could say it was a good winter. There’s a lot to like about this year’s Twins team. From Buxton, to Carlos Correa, and Jorge Polanco, and the expected kinesis of all that stored energy of a group of prospects about whom the Twins feel rather well-pleased.
Did I also mention that the Twins signed the consensus best free agent on the market at a premium position of dire need?
All those good vibes also came at a cost. And I’m not talking about the free cash required to pay these noteworthy employees. This list HAS been updated to include the reported 11th-hour trade of ace reliever Taylor Rogers to San Diego.
IN: Carlos Correa, Sonny Gray, Joe Ryan, Chris Paddack, Chris Archer, Dylan Bundy, Gary Sanchez, Gio Urshela, Joe Smith, Emilio Pagán, Jharel Cotton, Austin Martin, Simeon Woods Richardson, Drew Strotman.
OUT: José Berríos, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Mitch Garver, Taylor Rogers, Michael Pineda, Andrelton Simmons, Alex Colomé, Hansel Robles, Matt Shoemaker, J.A. Happ, Brent Rooker, Ben Rortvedt, Willians Astudillo, Chase Petty.
HURT: Kenta Maeda, Randy Dobnak, Cody Stashak.
We could write 1,000 words about each of these. But your helpful feedback loops have directed me to write shorter this year. My current opinion is that the ins and outs are a net positive, but it’s a close call. Onward with the questions.
3. How many games will we see Byron Buxton play?
Before we go heavy-handed with the superlatives, Buxton and his new long-term contract seem very much at risk of going the route Joe Mauer walked with some local fans. A legitimate star when he plays, he decided to stay in Minnesota, has an extended injury history, and somehow divides opinion. I was, and still am, bewildered. I think this belief set is not unique to social media but it’s certainly amplified to the point of being unbearable*. So we revisit the joke that I first used to describe Mauer’s relationship with certain corners of the fanbase.
The year, 2022. It’s fall in downtown St. Paul, and crimson leaves blanket the lawn at the state capitol, where a raucous parade is just reaching its endpoint this chilly fall day in Minnesota. A man in a Twins hat walks out of an office building along the parade route. “What’s all this commotion?” he asks. A young boy with his face painted lets the man in on the crowd’s secret; “The Twins won the World Series!”
“Hmm. OK, but how many games did Byron Buxton play?”
Since the start of the 2019 season, Buxton has been a superstar, only his “arrival” on the national stage is blunted by the fact that he’s not playing half the time. Otherwise, I’m telling you, his name would be mentioned as often in these modern MLB stars conversations as readily as a dozen other names that jump to mind when you think about the sport’s current megastars. Dating back to that 2019 season, only one person has more Wins Above Replacement on a per-plate-appearance rate basis. That person’s name is Mike Trout. Yep, the engine in Minnesota’s outfield has taken just 684 plate appearances in those 3 partial seasons; he’s been worth 8.1 WAR, according to FanGraphs. Remember that the league leader typically ends up with about 700 plate appearances or so, you’re basically looking at a full season of one of the best players in the league. Trout has missed some time with injuries over this 3-year stretch, too. Using his rate scaled to 600 plate appearances, Buxton is the only one that is even close to the future Hall of Famer.
Actually, if you just isolate his 2021 season, Buxton would have needed just 605 plate appearances to reach that Troutian 10-Win mark. He didn’t get there of course, but let me put this another way. Buxton could stand to get worse as a player, stay on the field for most of a full season, and still find himself smack dab in the center of the A.L. MVP conversation.
To tell you the truth I’m bored of trying to predict whether he will or not. All I’m saying is that if you have any sway, get that man 650 plate appearances.
*Heeding the advice of a great baseball mentor, my social media input will be dialed back to almost nothing this year. This newsletter will be the primary way to keep up with me in 2022.
4. Is Carlos Correa primed for his best year yet?
Correa was my top free agent on the big board — but then, join the club. Practically every outlet I read last fall had Correa sitting atop the bumper crop of free-agent shortstops, the best collection of available shortstops the game has ever known. Several teams with deep pockets had a need at the position. The Rangers signed another great shortstop, Corey Seager, for $325 million in December.
Correa is better than Seager, according to most, and yet here he is, getting fitted for his new No. 4 Twins uniform, diving for spring-training grounders and smacking back-to-back homers with Buxton, the guy drafted exactly one pick after Correa was taken first overall in 2012.
The shortstop is 27 years old, just entering his athletic prime, already a superstar with postseason pedigree, three World Series appearances and, technically, one ring.
Last season, he was a great hitter, especially for a shortstop, batting .279/.366/.485 with a career-high 26 homers in 148 games for Houston. And that’s right in line with his career marks of .277/.356/.481. His career .356 Weighted On-Base Average would have made him the fourth best hitter on the Twins last season, right behind Mitch Garver and narrowly ahead of Josh Donaldson. And all that from a shortstop who just won the Platinum Glove, joining Buxton as the only current Twins to turn that trick.
I guess what I’m saying is that he’s a really good player. Don’t worry about the contract today. There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a Twins fan.
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5. How much better will this year’s pitching staff be than the one they ran out last year?
The bullpen will look a lot different after the reported trade of ace reliever Taylor Rogers to San Diego. But two things to note: 1) In doing that deal, the Twins may be hoping to convert 70 excellent innings into three times as many good innings this year, plus a few additional years of team control beyond the one year left on Rogers’ contract; and 2) After Rogers hurt his middle finger last year, the Twins bullpen ranked first in the A.L. in Win Probability Added the rest of the year — without the group’s best arm.
The trade, as it’s being reported, is Taylor Rogers and Brent Rooker for Chris Paddack and Emilio Pagán. The potential cap to a stunning offseason?
Analysis: Rogers to Pagán is a clear step down in relief, but the reason to make the deal is Paddack, the starter. He had broken onto the scene with a good 2019 season — 26 starts, 3.33 ERA and a 26.9% strikeout rate / 5.5% walk rate. In the two seasons since, he’s pitched to a 4.95 ERA in 167 1/3 innings and his strikeout rate dipped all the way to 21.6% last year. His pitch mix has some analysts intrigued in him as a bounceback candidate. And if he does in fact bounce back it will help shore up a starting rotation that could use it.
Let’s now glance back at the starting rotation that the Twins planned to use last year. Remember, Kenta Maeda got the ball on Opening Day after his phenomenal 2020 campaign. Then it went, José Berríos, Michael Pineda, Matt Shoemaker, and J.A. Happ. It’s hard to cast back memories to this time last year and what we thought of those hurlers at the time, so I guess your current picture of them is what we’ve got.
This year it could look like Joe Ryan - Sonny Gray - Bailey Ober - Dylan Bundy - Chris Archer - Chris Paddack?
Based on what we saw from Ober and Ryan last year in a combined 25 starts, they each seem like a fair bet to be Major League-quality starters. Ryan flashed the chance to be more than that but his fastball-first, fastball-to-finish approach does leave a wider range of outcomes in my mind. Twins starters finished 25th in ERA last year, 25th in FanGraphs WAR and 25th in strikeout rate. In a season in which 102 different MLB starters made at least 22 starts, no Twins pitcher reached that mark. Maeda and Pineda – both with multiple injury shutdowns – started 21 games apiece. Ober and Berríos each took the ball 20 times, though the latter would have had more starts in a Twins uniform had they not traded him to Toronto, and the former was on a strict workload limit that often meant somewhere around 65-80 pitches a start.
I like Gray quite a bit. Paddack’s career track record indicates a league-average starter, with the potential for more over the next 3 seasons in a Twins uniform.
If there’s a 2022 repeat of Happ and “Shoe,” you might think it would come from Bundy and Archer. I didn’t include Bundy in my offseason top-25 free agent starters, and Archer checked in at No. 25. The Twins gave Bundy more guaranteed money – and signed him before the owner’s lockout began – so perhaps they’d disagree with that October writeup. They did, however, give Archer contract incentives that reportedly will allow him to push his earnings beyond $9 million this year, which would make his the eighth-richest one-year contract handed to a starter this winter. In any case, Bundy obviously is one of those pitchers that has everyone talking about the proverbial Change of Scenery, and we’ll see how that goes. For Archer, I’d have felt even more confident in early rankings if you’d have told me back then that he was healthy, that he’d be throwing 95 mph again with his fastball, and that the good slider was back.
Worth noting here that the 2021 “starting rotation” mentioned above accounted for 101 starts, which means that 61 starts went to guys not mentioned yet. And so we’d be doing a disservice if we didn’t at least mention the possibility that almost 40 percent of the schedule might get trusted to five names I haven’t yet mentioned in a ‘22 context. If you’re the Twins, you’d prefer it wasn’t that way – the 2021 White Sox, for example, needed just 17 starts from their sixth-plus options (10.5%), and they cruised to the A.L. Central crown.
For what this is worth, Minnesota projected to have the eighth-best pitching staff in the American League as measured by FanGraphs WAR. That was before the Rogers-Paddack trade. And while there won’t be a banner raised for that on Opening Day it’s still worth pointing out that a mid-pack pitching staff would be a marked improvement from a year ago. And doing so with a lineup that boasts Correa, Buxton, Jorge Polanco and some other potential impact bats could make the Twins a team built to slug a lot, field a bit, and pitch enough.
6. How will expanded playoffs impact the American League postseason picture?
As mentioned, the Twins would do themselves a favor to just win the division and not have to worry about all of this Wild Card business. Here are the teams that I consider to be relevant to that conversation, and their respective PECOTA projections. Projected division winners in bold.
Yankees - 99 wins
Astros - 90 wins
Blue Jays - 90 wins
White Sox - 90 wins
Angels - 87 wins
Red Sox - 85 wins
Rays - 85 wins
Mariners - 84 wins
Guardians - 77 wins
Rangers - 70 wins
Tigers - 70 wins
So now you know which teams to root against and/or hate-watch.
7. What's with all the Mitch Garver disrespect?
To me, the Twins “won” the Josh Donaldson trade with the Yankees, “won” the Sonny Gray trade with the Reds, “won” the day by signing a superstar shortstop in his prime to the richest per-year infielder contract in baseball history. And even if the trade sending Garver to the Rangers had to happen to set up those dominoes to fall the way they did, I must stand here today and say that the Twins will miss Mitch Garver. I’ll be brief.
Remember that list from above, the one in which we confirmed that Mike Trout is indeed baseball’s best player and that, at least on a rate basis, Buxton is chasing him down? Mitch Garver checks in at No. 20 on that list from 2019-21. Two spots ahead of Bryce Harper, five spots ahead of Carlos Correa, and 67 spots ahead of the next-closest Twins player. Mitch Garver will be missed.
I have many more questions. As this newsletter is getting quite long and I’m mindful that even a printer’s only got so much ink, I’ll get to the asking and save the answering for another day.
Thank you for following along. And a special thanks to all those who’ve stuck with me here through several challenging evolutions and a half-dozen job changes in the past two years. I owe you a debt of gratitude that I will try my best to repay with words about your favorite baseball team.
8. Factoring in the bats they’ve added since we all last convened at Target Field, will the Twins miss the right-handed slugging bats of Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson and Mitch Garver – three of their four best hitters from last year?
9. How good is staff ace Sonny Gray?
10. Will Kenta Maeda pitch this year?
11. What am I missing about Dylan Bundy?
12. With Chris Archer’s fastball velocity back into the mid-90’s and a reunion with presumed pitching whiz Josh Kalk, is there a late-career renaissance in store?
13. What should we make of Gio Urshela at the plate?
14. How about in the field?
15. Will the tinder in New York’s massive media market combust with the heat of Josh Donaldson? Is schadenfreude a noble path? And if not, is it still pleasurable?
16. How many innings will Gary Sánchez catch?
17. Or, is he a good enough hitter to stick at DH and keep the majority of us from getting misty-eyed reminiscing about Nelson Cruz?
18. Do the Twins see something that the crowd doesn’t in still-young Ryan Jeffers?
19. How many young arms will arrive in 2022?
20. How many of those arrived young arms will actually thrive?
We all can make our guesses. I prefer to pose them here and just let things play out. Baseball, it turns out, is way more fun that way.
Always love your thoughts, Derek! Looking forward to reading another year of your columns!