4 Crucial Lessons to Take Away from the 2019 Minnesota Twins Season
Image courtesy of © Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports1. The position player core is solid
The question of the off-season last year was whether or not Byron Buxton and Miguel Sanó would be a part of the Twins future, and if they were, then to what degree? That question was partly answered as Sanó hit for a career high 137 wRC+ and put up a career high fWAR of 2.7 despite just playing 105 games. His defense at third base remained rough, but there should be no more disputes about his bat playing at the major league level.
Buxton’s answer to the question may not be as murky as split pea soup, but it isn’t as clear as the Twins would like. Buxton’s on-field play was fantastic, as he put up 2.7 fWAR in just 87 games played. But it’s that “87 games played” that again raises concern, considering that this was another season where he struggled to stay healthy. Buxton’s talent level will force the Twins to stick with him, but another injury-plagued season may lead them to look elsewhere.
Beyond those two players there were a few others who were overlooked like I was when they picked teams for dodge ball during gym class. These players put up seasons that were actually better than the two players who were the focus of the off-season. This is where I struggled, because while they had great seasons, I just got nailed in the spleen within three minutes, and you know what? Let’s just forget it.
Anyways, players like Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, and Mitch Garver sat on the back burner over the off-season with the two former players receiving the spotlight only when they signed extensions during the start of spring training.
Perhaps they should have been focused on more as Kepler broke out with a 4.4 fWAR season, Polanco had a 4.0 fWAR season, and Garver turned into Mike Piazza and put up 3.9 fWAR in just 93 games. Now also armed with Luis Arráez at second base, who looks to be Tony Gwynn 2.0, the Twins have a formidable core of young position players all either in pre-arbitration, just starting arbitration, or already extended for a number of years. The next step will be to figure out whether Eddie Rosario has a future on the team, as he put up his worst full season fWAR total with his bat and defense both regressing. With Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach looking to make a potential impact soon, Rosario may be on the move as the Twins look to upgrade their starting pitching.
2. A flexible bullpen is a good bullpen
Take a good look at the names in the bullpen to start the season and the names that were there in the end and try not to get a hearty chuckle out of it. Of all the pitchers on the Twins’ ALDS roster, only Taylor Rogers and Trevor May started the season with the major league team.
Players like Zack Littell, Cody Stashak, and Tyler Duffey joined the team from Triple A and made major impacts over the season before eventually finding themselves on a postseason roster. On the flip side, relievers like Matt Magill, Blake Parker, and Adalberto Mejía were on the team during the start of the season but were all victims of the DFA hammer as they were not effective enough in the Twins’ eyes and were shown the door.
But more than their sporadic effectiveness was the ultimate sin of not having any minor league options remaining. These days, the 25-man roster is stretched to the point where it becomes more of a 28-man roster, as relievers with options are shipped to the minors in return for more relievers with options as teams simply can’t employ enough fresh arms at the same time under the current roster rules. The end result was almost a clean sweep as the Twins rid themselves of arms without options in favor of young relievers. With those new players in the mix, the Twins’ bullpen peaked.
The Twins’ bullpen ranked second in the majors in reliever fWAR from August until the end of the season thanks in part to addition Sergio Romo and great performances from those aforementioned young relievers. Now the Twins have a solid core of Taylor Rogers, Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, Cody Stashak, and Zack Littell with an opportunity to mold their bullpen into something more.
3. The starting rotation is never complete
Perhaps no part of the team in 2019 was more in sync with the general plot of a Michael Bay movie than the starting rotation. At times it was flashy and awe-inspiring, at others it was dull and joyless. In total, it was a decent 5/10 that I would like to never see again.
From the start of the season until June, the Twins’ starting rotation was third in baseball with a 3.55 ERA, and while there were some peripherals that suggested regression, it seemed like they had the tools to succeed. There was a lull in the middle of the season and then from August onward the Twins ranked 19th in baseball by starting pitching ERA.
Reasons for this included the Michael Pineda suspension, the regression of Martín Pérez, and the health issues Kyle Gibson faced. Jake Odorizzi and José Berríos remained anchors in the rotation, but the deck of starting pitching cards shuffled consistently. Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, and Randy Dobnak did their best to glue it together down the stretch. Ultimately it was too little too late and the weakness reared its ugly head during the postseason, as Dobnak started Game 2 of the ALDS. It went quite poorly.
The Pineda suspension could not have been anticipated and was possibly the worst-case scenario for the rotation, but it brings us back to the eyebrow-raising decision made when the Twins did nothing before the trade deadline to upgrade a rotation that was starting to show signs of breaking down.
Not only that, but when the draft pick compensation was removed from Dallas Keuchel, the Twins decided to hold their ground. Not too long afterward, a quality starter quickly went from a luxury to a necessity. Going forward, the Twins should act more swiftly in regard to rotation concerns and build depth to handle such events.
4. Clubhouse chemistry is crucial
This one is about 70% speculation on my part simply because I have never been in the Twins clubhouse and have no clue what the personal relationships are like there. From watching the team play, listening to Rocco Baldelli and Nelson Cruz, and seeing how the players responded to adversity, however, it appears the 2019 Twins team was a close-knit bunch who got along quite well.
Contrast that with the 2018 team that employed two notably salty dogs in Lance Lynn and Logan Morrison, who both seemed none too pleased about how their respective free agencies went. Throw on top of that a few trades that saw some favorites leave town and, well, it seemed that the clubhouse chemistry was like oil and water.
This year, however, story after story poured out about how well the group got along and how cohesive they were on a day-to-day basis. From Rocco’s calm stoicism to Derek Shelton and “LAF” to Nelson Cruz’s naps and then to Marwin González facetiming Michael Pineda and Byron Buxton while celebrating the division title, each report indicated that this was a group playing together instead of for themselves and that may have been a major reason for success.
Wherever this is stemming from, hopefully the team chemistry is systemic and something that continues even as old players leave and new players join.
Now armed with this knowledge, it will be interesting to see how the front office runs the off-season. I'd ask for more but we all know what hope brings us Minnesota sports fans.
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