As The Defense Goes, So Goes The Twins
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA TodayOver the past 15 seasons, the Twins have ranked in the top half in team defense seven times, according to Fangraphs. They had a winning record in six of those seasons (every year but '07 when they were 79-83) and made the playoffs five times. In the eight years they've fielded a below-average defense (which includes each of the past six seasons), the Twins have been over .500 twice with just one postseason appearance ('09, Joe Mauer's MVP season).
With an above average defense, the Twins have averaged 89 wins and with a sub-par defense they've averaged just 72 wins. And that's pretty close to being in line with what you see across the league.
Taking a look at the past five seasons, teams who finished in the top 10 in defense averaged 85 wins and those in the bottom ten averaged just 75 wins. It's very difficult to be a good team that's bad at catching the baseball. As always, there are plenty of exceptions. The '14 Reds and Red Sox both ranked in the top five in defense but lost 86 and 91 games, respectively. On the other end, the '15 Pirates won 98 games despite being in the bottom five in defense.
Last season, the Twins were 29th in defense, ahead of only Oakland. The only position where the Twins had above average glove work was at first base, where they ranked 8th. Center field (16th) and second base (19th) were spots where the team was at least passable. But right field (23rd), third base (24th), catcher (25th), and shortstop (27th) were all pain points for the Twins' defense, and thanks to Robbie Grossman's horrendous performance the team had the worst-rated left field defense in baseball.
The hope is that Castro will boost the defense behind the dish, but what about the other positions? Max Kepler spent more time in right field with the Twins last season than he had played the position over his entire minor league career. Hopefully with more reps in right his defense will improve, he certainly appears to have the physical tools to be an above average fielder. In left, Eddie Rosario has been one of the best defenders in baseball the past two seasons. But he only accounted for about a third of the innings in left last season, as he spent some time in Rochester and played some center field.
That leaves the biggest unanswered questions are on the left side of the infield. The obvious in-house candidates to fill those spots are Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eduardo Escobar. If I'm going to give Kepler a break due to lack of minor league reps in right, I suppose I need to do the same for both Sano at third (thanks to his 2014 Tommy John surgery) and Polanco at shortstop (because he inexplicably played second base last season in Rochester). But it would be risky to hope they can both make the major improvements necessary to become even just average defensively. Considering they'd be playing next to each other in the field, a lack of improvement from both would be a defensive disaster.
In his offseason blueprint, Seth recently offered up punchless leatherwizard (copyright Eric Longenhagen) Engelb Vielma as a glove-first alternate at shortstop. Vielma hasn't played above Double A, but for what it's worth both Falvey and GM Thad Levine have had success aggressively promoting young shortstops (not that Vielma is anywhere near the prospect Francisco Lindor or Elvis Andrus were). The only other player with infield experience on the 40-man roster is Danny Santana, and the free agent market is thin. How everything shakes out in the infield also relies heavily on whether or not Brian Dozier is traded.
With the Winter Meetings coming up this week, many more questions may be answered. What would you like to see the Twins do to improve their defense?
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