How the Twins Front Office Addressed Past Playoff Weaknesses
Image courtesy of Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY SportsAn AL Central title is almost table stakes for the Twins this year. It says much about this team that the shortened 2020 season felt somewhat disappointing even though Minnesota took the division with a .600 winning percentage.
That's where we were at. Personally, I'm pretty pleased that the front office has built a club that looks well positioned to fend off a credible threat from the White Sox and defend its budding division dynasty, but I get it – for many fans, the proof is in the postseason pudding.
While I'm sure Derek Falvey and Thad Levine would agree it's important not to wildly overcompensate for what occurs in the small sample of a few October games, their offseason strategy does suggest that past playoff shortcomings were top-of-mind in their efforts to retool.
We've seen this play out in a few areas.
There were many contributors to Minnesota's all-too-familiar futility in the 2019 and 2020 postseasons, but defensive lapses in the infield loom large in memory. CJ Cron's failure to secure an off-target DP relay from Luis Arráez in New York was rough ...
But last year's Jorge Polanco flub at shortstop in the most crucial of moments was even more painful:
The signing of free agent shortstop and defensive specialist Andrelton Simmons almost feels like a direct response to these two plays specifically. Polanco's inadequate arm at short has cost the Twins on this and plenty of other occasions. And while Arráez wasn't primarily responsible for either miscue ... his limitations didn't help in either instance.
Now, the Twins install an all-world defender at short, while sliding Polanco over to a position for which he's much better suited. The Twins are high on his fit at second. At the same time, Arráez goes from being a so-so defensive second baseman to a so-so defensive utility man, adopting a role where his bat and versatility become even more valuable.
It would also be helpful, of course, if Josh Donaldson is healthy enough to play at third in the playoffs. But the Twins are controlling what they can control, and we'll get to planning around JD's risk factor shortly.
Back End of the Bullpen
Taylor Rogers was unreliable last year, and he's back. The need for him to get straightened out is obviously paramount. His stumble in a Game 2 appearance against Houston was troubling (albeit ultimately inconsequential).
But Rogers' postseason struggles with the Twins have nothing on those of Sergio Romo, who had assumed a role as co-closer by the end of 2020.
In Game 1 against Houston last September, Romo entered to open the ninth inning of a tie game, then proceeded to load the bases and walk in the go-ahead run (an ignominious distinction!) before giving way to Caleb Thielbar who let two more of the inherited Romo runs score.
It was Romo's first time pitching in the playoffs since Game 3 of the 2019 ALDS, when he let the Yankees pull away with two ninth-inning runs to complete a sweep.
The irony of it all is that Romo brought with him to Minnesota the mythos of a postseason legend. He's got three rings, and was a renowned late-inning force during San Francisco's amazing run of championships in the early 2010s. It was a surely a big factor in the playoff-bound Twins acquiring him in 2019 (and bringing him back in 2020).
When push came to shove, Romo couldn't deliver. Now, the Twins turn to Alex Colomé, who similarly centers his approach on a single spinning pitch, and doesn't dominate hitters in a conventional sense. Last year, Colomé's K-rate dropped to a new low, but his performance was as consistent as ever.
The market at large seems to be betting against Colomé, given his contract. The Twins meanwhile are betting he can be what Romo wasn't: a reliever who lives up to the legend. It's a short squeeze, I guess? I need to stop reading about GameStop and the stock market.
Based on all available evidence, the Twins are taking a good gamble. For what it's worth: Colomé has thrown two scoreless innings in the postseason, both with Chicago last year.
The unavailability of Donaldson in last year's playoffs forced the Twins to start Marwin González and his miserable .606 OPS at third base in both games. Meanwhile, the perpetual unavailability of Byron Buxton forced them to start Jake Cave twice in the 2019 ALDS, and to call up Alex Kirilloff with zero MLB experience to start Game 2 against Houston in 2020.
Donaldson and Buxton will continue to be question marks, and the Twins can hardly count on them being on the field in October. But the team's fallback options have dramatically improved.
Part of this is just time and development playing out within the system. Kirilloff should be a seasoned big-leaguer by the time this year's playoffs roll around. Brent Rooker, Trevor Larnach and others could factor as legit corner outfield depth, giving the Twins an array of quality options should Max Kepler be needed in center.
Moving Arráez into a floating utility role provides a huge upgrade over the greatly diminished González. While he's lesser defensively than Marwin, Arráez is actually an asset in the lineup and arguably an essential fixture. In general, having a definitively starting-caliber player in that 10th-man role sets the Twins up for a variety of contingencies.
In the event that everyone's healthy when the playoffs come around ... that'd present an interesting dilemma. But it's a bridge the Twins will be happy to cross when they get there.
First, they need to get there. A full 162-game season lies ahead and the Twins will face even stiffer competition in the Central, after the much-improved White Sox very nearly clawed the division away in 2020.
This Twins team is built for success in the postseason, but more importantly, it's built to endure the long haul of a six-month season and come out on top. The improvements above will serve them well on both fronts.
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