Series Preview: Twins at Brewers, Apr. 1-4
Image courtesy of © Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY SportsProbable Starting Pitchers
Thursday, 1:10 PM CT: RHP Kenta Maeda vs. RHP Brandon Woodruff
After giving spring test drives to some “new” pitches (he already throws them all, but was exploring the potential of increasing their usage), Maeda takes the ball for his first Opening Day start in the United States. His three-pitch mix of four-seam fastballs, sliders, and changeups was more than equal to the task of dominating the Brewers last summer, when he famously flirted with a no-hitter and struck out eight Milwaukee batters in a row. This year, the Crew has added two solid left-handed batters, in Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Kolten Wong, but Maeda’s sterling 2020 was built on becoming more unpredictable and more dominant even against lefties. If he feels good about the progress he made on his curveball throughout the Grapefruit League, he should break it out right away.
Woodruff has morphed from a guy with great stuff but iffy command into a borderline ace by learning to use both his four-seam fastball and his sinker to great effect. Already armed with a nasty changeup, Woodruff becomes truly overpowering when he can command his heat. His four-seamer has exceptional rising action at the top of the zone, and misses bats as well as almost any fastball in the league. The sinker, meanwhile, manages contact and forces hitters to cover the whole plate.
Saturday, 6:10 PM CT: RHP Jose Berrios vs. RHP Corbin Burnes
I wrote about what I wanted to see from Berrios prior to his first start of spring training, and he checked all of those boxes. He’s showing the ability to shape his breaking ball according to the opposing hitter and the situation; the confidence to throw his changeup more often against fellow righties; and the intent to hit the outside corner against righties with his four-seamer. Now, his challenge is to carry those important developments over into games that count.
When Burnes tried to be a hypermodern hurler, using his four-seamer and slider to maximize strikeouts, he was unable to stay out of the heart of the plate. Hitters noticed, and delivered ringing rebukes in the form of a barrage of home runs throughout 2019. In 2020, though, Burnes came back as a sinker-cutter guy, with the ability to aim for the middle of the plate and let the pitches veer off in opposite directions. Twins hitters will need to go to the plate knowing what they’re looking for and planning to swing early; Burnes is ruthlessly efficient about putting opponents away in two-strike counts.
Sunday, 1:10 PM CT: RHP Michael Pineda vs. RHP Adrian Houser
The Brewers will probably trot out their best lefty-loaded lineup against Pineda, hoping that his slider has less than its usual depth and that they can tee off on his fastball. Pineda’s changeup was quite poor in 2020, which is understandable. He’d been held out of competition for over a year, and changeups tend to rely on a level of feel and confidence that can be hard to maintain under such circumstances. Still, if Pineda wants to have a strong 2021, he needs to remaster that pitch, and his first start will be a good test.
Whereas Pineda needs his changeup purely as a third pitch, though, Houser needs it just to have anything to keep left-handed hitters at bay. They bash his sinker-slider combination mercilessly, which has hampered his attempts to stick as a big-league starter—despite good velocity and movement. He tried out a new version of the change this spring, but look for the Twins to empty the bench of lefty bats (Jake Cave and Luis Arraez should almost certainly be in the lineup) to force him to prove the new offering works.
Scouting the Brewers:
Milwaukee breaks camp with a deeper bench than almost anyone else in the league, in terms of the sheer number of bodies Craig Counsell will have available. While Opening Day politics might dictate that Keston Hiura or Jackie Bradley, Jr. starts Thursday, Counsell will freely mix and match, platoon players, and make aggressive substitutions based on late-game situations.
Dan Vogelbach, the beefy left-handed first baseman-slash-DH, lurks as a likely pinch-hitter in pretty much any key spot. If the Twins have any concerns about Hansel Robles, Jorge Alcalá, or Cody Stashak facing a tough lefty, Rocco Baldelli will need to be aware of his lineup card when he turns to them. Because of the versatility of Milwaukee’s other bench pieces, Vogelbach could bat for Hiura, or for Luis Urías, or for Lorenzo Cain.
Urías takes over as the everyday shortstop, to open the season. Orlando Arcia remains in the mix, but will wait for opportunities to sub in for defense and spell Urías, whom the Brewers got in a trade with San Diego during the 2019-20 offseason. Last year. Urías didn't look like the well-respected hitting prospect he had previously been, but his bat looked much quicker this spring.
Travis Shaw is back at third base, though the Brewers will use a handful of players at that position over the course of the season. His presence allows the team to load its lineup card with lefties when a righty starts, but outfielder Avisaíl García could bat for him if the Twins go to Taylor Rogers or Caleb Thielbar in a key moment.
Only three teams shifted more often than did the Brewers in 2020. Look for Max Kepler to face a shift every time he steps to the plate. The same will probably be true for Miguel Sanó and for Byron Buxton. More broadly, after adding Bradley and Wong and with Cain returning from opting out of 2020, the Brewers have one of the best team defenses in baseball. The Twins will need to play some long ball in order to score.
The Brewers have a deep stable of hard throwers, including all three of their starters for this series, so if Sanó’s bat remains as slow as it looked during much of the spring, he could be in for a tough series. (Then again, the sinkers Woodruff, Burnes, and Houser each throw tend to run right into Sanó’s preferred bat path.)
The first two games of this series are virtual toss-ups. The Twins are a better, deeper team, but the Brewers make excellent use of their own depth, and they have the advantage of having all of their interchangeable pieces fresh and ready for this matchup. On Sunday, though, the Twins have a clear edge, because Houser should really struggle against this Minnesota offense. If things go according to plan, the Twins should take two out of three to open 2021.
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