Are the Minnesota Twins the Best Team in the American League?
Image courtesy of Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsThe three defending division champs – Yankees, Astros, Twins – are rightfully being framed as top dogs in the AL. Generally, the trio is stacked in that order; the latest Vegas betting odds portray Minnesota as third-most likely among AL teams to win the World Series at +2000, solidly behind New York (+350) and Houston (+700). This hierarchy is perfectly understandable:
- The Yankees, coming off an injury-plagued season that still saw them win 103 games and nearly reach the World Series, added the top free agent in Gerrit Cole.
- Houston lost Cole to the Yankees, accounting for the flip-flop at the top, but this remains a mostly-intact team that tallied 107 wins and came within a game of clinching its second title in three years.
- The Twins had an aggressive and fruitful offseason, building upon the sturdy foundation that yielded incredible regular-season results in 2019, but they are unproven at this level, especially in the rotation.
New York has been pummeled with a barrage of bad news in the rotation, which was in need of Cole's upgrade after producing so-so results last year. James Paxton underwent back surgery in early February and will miss the first few weeks of the season at least. More disturbingly, Luis Severino is dealing with forearm soreness, and at last check, was slated to undergo a "battery of tests" from "several specialists." Obviously, there is concern here. [Update: Severino will indeed miss the season due to Tommy John surgery.]
If the Yankees open up the season with both those key starters sidelined, their rotation figures to look something like this: Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery, Jonathan Loaisiga. While the Twins certainly can't compete at the No. 1 spot, I think there's a good case they are significantly stronger outside of it. New York will hope to get back Paxton and Severino at full strength somewhere along the way, but Minnesota has Michael Pineda and Rich Hill in the offing.
Offensively, both the Twins and Yankees are going to be good. If it's anything like last year, it could be close to a wash. Fuller seasons from Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge would do much to offset the addition of Josh Donaldson to the Bomba Squad. But no team – including the Yanks – can match Minnesota's lineup depth.
Okay, so what about the Astros. They've won 100-plus games in three consecutive years. They built a model for success that others throughout the league (including Minnesota) openly seek to emulate. They are clearly loaded with talent, boasting a high-octane offense and the reigning Cy Young winner.
I can buy that, on paper, Houston is a better team than Minnesota. But the whole "on paper" concept has been thrown askew for this club, as revelations of past cheating come to light. With both their manager and general manager fired, and players under unprecedented verbal assault from their peers around the league, the Astros face a firestorm the likes of which we've never seen.
How will this maelstrom affect their on-field performance? Maybe a lot, maybe a little. We have no way to know. But it certainly adds an element of uncertainty for this group of players, as they deal with cold receptions from players and fans across the league, under a new (albeit seasoned and respected) manager, with their every move scrutinized.
Granted, we still haven't flipped the calendar to March. There's a long way to go before Opening Day. But Twins camps has been filled so far with positives: Donaldson exerting his leadership, prospects starring in an opening exhibition blowout, Rocco Baldelli officially certifying World Series aspirations, pitchers blowing away opposing hitters in early action.
Miguel Sano, who showed up a year ago with a heel laceration that set him back significantly, is now in the proverbial best shape of his life. Nelson Cruz survived an early scare with his balky wrist. Byron Buxton, whose 2019 season ended with shoulder surgery, is already taking hacks in the cage without any apparent limitations.
The negative storylines, such as Fernando Romero missing spring training with visa issues, are thus far sparse and relatively minor. Obviously I recognize this won't always remain the case, but the Twins are at least starting from a good place and, as alluded to before, they're well equipped to sustain the inevitable injuries and tribulations that come along.
One thing working against Minnesota in this conversation is experience. The Yankees and Astros have both shown the ability to sustain elite performance over multiple seasons. They've both made deep playoff runs. The Twins won't be able to boast those kinda credentials until they actually do it, which is why we won't see them jump New York or Houston in the betting odds despite the circumstantial advantages discussed here.
Still, the fact that a respectable case can be made for the Twins as pennant favorites at the start of spring training? Well, it's exciting and frankly a little difficult to process. Minnesota spent so long as an also-ran, and was such a scrappy underdog even in the modern glory days, that the Twins being viewed across the league as an intimidating and overmatching opponent will take some getting used to.
I look forward to it.
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