Today, a new season of Minnesota Twins baseball gets underway. While 2021 won't represent a full return to normalcy in baseball, it figures to be a big step in that direction.
Can the Twins take a big step of their own and get over the hump in October? First, they'll need to fend off a challenge in the Central from a familiar and formidable foe.
Image courtesy of Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The 2020 MLB season will be mostly looked back upon as an anomaly – an abbreviated 60-game sprint, played out before empty ballparks, leading up to a hugely expanded playoff field. It was an odd, warped year of baseball that nonetheless produced a worthy champion.
For the Twins and their fans, 2020 season was fun, yet unfulfilling. The team played .600 ball and won the division (or more accurately, Chicago lost the division), then went out with a whimper in the postseason.
With 18 consecutive playoff losses in tow, Minnesota's directive in 2021 is crystal-clear. But that's putting the cart before the horse. They need to get to the dance before they can step onto the floor, and unlike last year, reaching the postseason will be no mere formality for quality teams.
That's nice and all, but the Twins are favored by most projection systems, including the latest forecast from Five Thirty Eight, a stats & analytics super-site. Their algorithm gives Minnesota a substantial advantage in the AL Central with a 64% chance to make the playoffs and 47% chance to win the division.
The White Sox have plenty of hype, and rightfully so. They're a talented young team coming off a breakout year, bolstered by big-name offseason additions. But until further notice, this division belongs to the two-time defending champs, and Chicago will need to get past the Twins.
Projections and bettings odds are fun and all, but it's time to let it play out on the field. Here's the roster Minnesota is bringing to battle out of the gates:
It's a deep and balanced group, which is also (knocking on wood) remarkably healthy at the moment. In our season preview live-stream on Wednesday night, Seth and I went through the Twins 2021 roster position-by-position, and were joined by MLB.com's Do-Hyoung Park. You can watch that below, or keep scrolling for the skinny on each position, with links to the full breakdowns for each.
The Twins are perfectly equipped for a new era of workload management behind the plate, with two starting-caliber options who figure to split the time almost evenly. Garver is one year removed from playing at a borderline-MVP level and Jeffers looked tremendous as a rookie. Astudillo is a better third catcher than most other teams can boast, and Rortvedt gives them a legitimate prospect in the minors who's nearing readiness. This position is stacked.
This is definitely a prove-it year for Sanó, who followed up his breakout 2019 – and contract extension – with a disappointing 2020 campaign that saw him bat .204 while leading the league in strikeouts. He looked pretty solid defensively in his transition to first base, but the slugger's bat will determine his future. Sanó certainly has the makings of a prototypical run-producing first baseman. If he can't shake off the inconsistency and contact woes, the Twins have no shortage of options behind him; Rooker is just waiting his turn.
Sanó is still acclimating to the right side of the diamond, and now the guy playing alongside him at second base will be doing the same. Polanco is shifting over from shortstop, to a position where he seems a more natural fit. His success as a second baseman will be defined in part by his ability to adapt defensively and let his fielding skills shine through, but even more so by his ability to rebound at the plate after a lackluster campaign and second consecutive offseason ankle surgery.
The first year of Donaldson's historic free agent contract with the Twins was more or less a flop, as his problematic calf flared up multiple times and kept him out of the lineup for half the shortened season, as well as the playoffs. The good news is that he looked mostly like his usual self when on the field. If he can shake off the injury relapse and play a full season at age 35, he can completely change the complexion of this team – offensively and defensively – but we should probably expect to see a significant amount of Arraez and Astudillo at third.
In one of their most intriguing offseason moves ever, the Twins supplanted Polanco from shortstop (where he started in the 2019 All-Star Game) by signing an all-time great defender in Simmons. It's an open question whether the 31-year-old can continue to play at that same historically outstanding level in the field, coming off a season where he hurt his ankle and his defensive metrics tanked, but on a one-year deal there's not much risk. The upside, if he's anywhere near his previous defensive norm, could be transformative. The downside basically involves going back to the previous Polanco-Arraez alignment in the middle infield, which is hardly a nightmare.
Left field will belong to Kirilloff at some point, but up until then, a platoon of Cave and Garlick will be keeping the spot warm, with Arraez likely rotating through a fair amount. The team's top prospect brings tantalizing excitement to this position, but Cave and Garlick should be a perfectly serviceable interim solution. With Rooker, Larnach, Keon Broxton, and others all serving as depth, the Twins are in no danger of being needy here, even with longtime staple Eddie Rosario now gone.
Can Buxton stay healthy enough to play a full season, or even anything close? As usual, that's the big question in center field – one with pivotal implications for the team at large. If he can stay on the field he's a decisive difference-maker, but unfortunately the Twins must plan around the expectation of his absence at this point. They're fairly well equipped to sustain his loss, with Kepler able to shift over and plenty of depth in the corners, so Buxton's presence almost feels like a bonus this year – one with game-changing potential.
Kepler is one of the best defensive right fielders in the game, but for much of his career, his bat hasn't quite measured up. Is he the average hitter we saw through 2018, or the true offensive asset we saw in a breakthrough, 36-homer 2019 season? His step backward in 2020 points to the former, but now Kepler has a chance to get back on track and re-establish himself as a top-tier right fielder. The pressure is mounting a bit, with top prospects starting to press.
Cruz's ongoing battle against Father Time is one of the big storylines heading into the 2021 season. Very few hitters in major-league history – even in the class of all-time greats – have remained productive at the same age as Nelly, who turns 41 in three months. But the good news is that he can drop off significantly and still be an asset at DH, and the better news is that even if things go totally awry, the Twins have numerous quality bats they can plug in at this position. It's really hard to envision a scenario where DH isn't a strength for this team.
It's difficult to remember a time when the Twins had this much starting pitching depth. Not only are they strong at the top, with the reigning Cy Young runner-up Maeda and the steadily great Berríos leading the charge, but through the middle and beyond the back end. Pineda and Happ are better than most third/fourth starters. Dobnak, with his freshly minted contract extension, is on the outside to open the season. Top prospects Duran, Balazovic, and Canterino could all make an impact imminently. Thorpe has looked tremendous this spring. Just a ton to like here.
This unit certainly represents the biggest question mark on the roster heading into the season. Almost every pitcher in the mix is either looking to rebound from a down year, modestly experienced, rejected by other teams, or all of the above. And yet ... how can we not faith in the way this team operates its bullpen plan? They've proven they know what they're doing, and so I trust them, and you don't have to squint too hard to see any pitcher in their collection being a real asset. With that said, if things unravel in the relief corps this year, the Twins will definitely be open to criticism after letting several key contributors from an outstanding 2020 bullpen walk.
The Twins are fielding a hell of a team this year. Health will of course be the primary determinant of their fate, and it's not an area they've fared well recently, but as they take the field in Milwaukee, they'll be healthy and at full strength.
What more can you ask for?
Happy Opening Day, and cheers to the return of baseball. This team is absolutely capable of winning a World Series. Can they fulfill their potential in what may be Nelly's last ride?