In 2017 the Twins made the playoffs as a wild card team. Full of young talent, they looked ready to break out in 2018, led by the bats of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Instead, they floundered. 2017’s AL Manager of the year Paul Molitor “resigned” (read: was fired, but allowed to stay in the organization) , shocking many as the Twins young front office dynamic duo of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine look to make their mark on the team. They inherited Molitor, he was never “their manager.”
To be sure, I was mad when I heard Molitor was let go. He is from the Twin Cities, he had a stellar career and seemed to be doing a good job – most of the 2018 woes were not of his making. But Falvey and Levine may have done the right thing in bringing in Rocco Baldelli. The inability of Sano and Buxton to play to their potential – the team was counting on them – was a major flaw. They believe that Molitor was not the right man to bring out the talent of young players. Baldelli, only 37, has already made a difference, visiting Buxton down in Georgia and connecting with the team.
The last few years the Twins marquee players were Brian Dozier at second base, who had 42 homeruns in 2016, and super star Joe Mauer. Last year Dozier was traded, and Mauer, who never regained top form after suffering multiple concussions and moving from Catcher to First Base, retired. It isn’t a stretch to say that the Twins are starting a new era in 2019.
What must happen for the Twins to win?
- Sano and Buxton have to break out. Sano was a phenom hitting homeruns at a torrid clip in 2017, only to find himself striking out consistently and even sent down to the minors at one point in 2018. Pitchers learned his weakness (breaking balls down and away), and he put on weight. Now he’s trimmed down and says he’s focused on making sure he doesn’t repeat the mistakes of 2018. Byron Buxton was injured and hit poorly while up. Yet in September 2017 he had ten homeruns, and in 2017 he won the platinum glove for his unbelievable speed and fielding in Center Field. The fielding is there (and his speed is perhaps the fastest in the league). He has the talent to hit. If Buxton and Sano do what they should do, the Twins will be in the hunt.
- First base. With Mauer gone, first base will go from a position yielding a high on base percentage and little power to one where power will be highlighted. The Twins picked up C.J. Cron who had 30 homeruns last year, but Tyler Austin, acquired from the Yankees in the Lance Lynn deal, hit 17 in almost no time. He may be the real deal. If the Twins get power at first, that will be huge.
- Nelson Cruz and Jonathan Schoop. The two most important free agent signings could be Cruz and Schoop. Cruz is a consistent 35 homerun a year veteran who is said to be excellent in helping young players find themselves. If he can help with Buxton and Sano, he’ll provide value. He’s certain to be a power DH. Schoop hit 30 homeruns two years ago at second base, but his output last year for the Orioles and Brewers was disappointing. If he regains his stroke, well, this team may relying on the long ball from many positions!
- Rosario and Kepler. On any other team these would be the stand out young players. Rosario flirted with .300 most of last year, has good power, and finally is showing some discipline at the plate. He has a powerful arm and baserunners try to challenge it at their peril. Max Kepler has good power – 26 homers last year and don’t be surprised if he hits over 30 this year – and the Twins think his batting average can climb. He and Rosario are lefties, providing a balanced lineup.
- THE PITCHERS! Pitching wins titles, and all this offensive promise could go for naught if the Twins don’t improve their pitching. The outlook is good. Jose Berrios, the lefty who will start opening day, made his first all star game last year and showed signs of brilliance. He seemed to tire at the end of the season, but the Twins believe he’s the real thing – his curve ball is the best of any Twins pitcher since Blyleven. Kyle Gibson finally showed last year why the Twins have been so patient with him – he has great stuff, he finally is learning how to use it. The Twins lack a closer, though I think Trevor May is the most likely to fulfill that role. Last year he had a very bad habit of walking the first batter he faced, not something you want from your bullpen. But he has the stuff that you want a closer to have. Without going through the rest of the staff (including some interesting free agent pick ups), the Twins have reason for optimism – but, of course, we’ll have to see how they perform. They have a lot of young arms, but this is the one area where I’m a bit nervous. Again, pitching is the key to winning – good starters, good set up men, and a closer. The Twins have more question marks than answers at this point. Will Free Agent Martin Perez regain form? Who will join Gibons, Odorizzi, and Berrios in the starting rotation? Will the “young arms” perform as hoped?
I’m convinced that the team has the nucleus to assure it will be playing meaningful games deep into September. If the pitchers are as good as expected, they may be playing extremely meaningful games deep into October.
Now, however, the most important thing is to hope that between now and when the Indians come to Target Field later this month the snow melts and we can have March baseball.