Silver Linings Amid September Storms
Image courtesy of David Berding-USA TODAY SportsFrom the big-picture view, one should feel very pleased with the franchise's current state of affairs. This year has undeniably been a success, and for those who suggest that a quick demise in the playoffs would change that, I hope you know how silly it sounds.
The Twins have already won more games than in any of the past eight seasons. They set the major-league home run record in five months. Minnesota's lineup has put forth a combination of good, great, and historically unprecedented performances. The new coaching staff has been spectacular by any result-based measure, and the front office that assembled it is now routinely mentioned among the game's most sophisticated and advanced.
In the grand scheme, this has been a phenomenal season and there's no doubt we'll remember it for years to come. But here, with the postseason only weeks away, it's also completely fair for fans to be thinking about the small picture. The right here and right now. Minnesota has put itself in tremendous position with 88 wins and a 5.5 game division lead here on September 9th, but there are a number of negative harbingers clouding the skies at exactly the wrong time.
The Twins have won two series against teams with .500+ records since the end of June, with one of those coming against a fading Boston team on the brink of elimination. The Michael Pineda suspension is obviously a monumental gut-punch, and leaves the rotation filled with starters who've failed to build up much confidence of late. A medley of key injuries have befallen the position-player core. Things are undeniably trending in a bad direction.
With that said, here are nine things you should be feeling good about as we gear up for the final three weeks of the schedule.
1. The Twins have two All-Star starting pitchers.
It hardly seems relevant right now given the way they (especially Jose Berrios) have pitched since, but he and Jake Odorizzi were among the league's best pitchers over the first three months of the season. And Odorizzi has quietly settled back into a hell of a groove, with a 3.05 ERA and only two home runs allowed over his past eight starts.
From mid-June into July, Odorizzi was out of sorts, giving up loads of homers and generally struggling to get through five innings. But in recent weeks he's returned to form, and Saturday's effort against Cleveland was one of his finest all year. The ups and downs serve as a reminder of the roller-coaster nature of MLB's marathon season. Which is all the more reason we shouldn't give up on Berrios. He's not so far removed from looking like a frontline ace.
This seems a good time to mention that in 2018, Berrios went through a similar (albeit less extreme) swoon in the latter half of the summer, but rebounded with a 3.28 ERA and one homer allowed in his final four starts, allowing a .174/.282/.221 slash line. In his final start, he tossed seven innings of one-run ball with nine strikeouts against the White Sox.
Finally, while losing Pineda at this point understandably feels like a grave development, let us not forget that the Twins sprinted to their amazing start in April and May with him as the least trusted member of the rotation. They've shown they can do it without him.
2. The bullpen is long and strong.
The present shortcomings of the rotation are made somewhat more palatable by the strength of the bullpen in recent weeks. Yeah, the whole Sam Dyson fiasco sucks, but in spite of it, Minnesota relievers hold the following AL ranks since the trade deadline:
- 2nd in FIP (3.90)
- 2nd in WAR (5.8)
- 2nd in HR/9 (1.19)
- 3rd in xFIP (4.22)
- 4th in K/BB (3.26)
- 5th in SIERA (4.21)
Taylor Rogers is elite, and is – crucially – getting plenty of rest here in the late stretch of the season. Trevor May is pitching as well as he ever has. Sergio Romo provides a vital veteran infusion. Tyler Duffey has quietly emerged. Brusdar Graterol is here, representing an extremely intriguing wild-card factor. As much as people want to fret about the rotation, we should all recognize the bullpen's astounding (and much-needed) turnaround. We've seen how bullpen depth can come into play during recent playoff runs. The Twins outshine several other playoff-bound clubs in this regard.
3. Offensive depth is why they're here.
You don't set MLB records for total home runs, and number of players with 20+ home runs, without widespread contributions, and that's just what the Twins have gotten. While we will know more soon, it seems likely the Twins will have to proceed without the totality of Byron Buxton's impact (and maybe with none of it). Max Kepler is dealing with a worrisome shoulder situation. Nelson Cruz's wrist has begun barking again. Marwin Gonzalez has been sidelined for some time with an abdominal issue. Jake Cave and Miguel Sano are banged up too.
It's a grim situation in the trainer's room right now, but the Twins still have an awful lot of weapons available even when they're shorthanded. And there is a glimmer of good news on the health front...
4. They'll likely have the luxury of resting their ailing players down the stretch.
It would've been nice if the Twins took care of business against Cleveland at Target Field, rather than dropping five of seven in the last two series, to effectively put this thing out of reach. We're not quite there yet. Still, a magic number of 14 with 19 games left to play puts the Twins firmly in the driver's seat, and they're one good week away from being able to essentially coast, with a cakewalk schedule against bottom-dwellers in their final 13 games.
Rest isn't a cure-all, but it sure helps, and is probably the only potential remedy for ailments like Kepler's sore (but not structurally damaged!) shoulder, or Cruz's wrist, or Sano's back. Thanks to their depth and the diminishing urgency to win, the Twins should be able to practice a lot of caution in the twilight of the season.
5. Kyle Gibson is capable of dominance.
The main outcome of Pineda's suspension is that it significantly elevates the importance of Gibson, who's currently sidelined while dealing with his own medical issue. Berrios and Odorizzi were going to slot among the team's top three playoff starters even with Big Mike around. Now, Gibson will likely step back into that picture.
I can presume, from experience, that this item will be the most controversial of the nine listed here. For whatever reason, many Twins fans seem to harbor an inordinate level of resentment toward the right-hander, who has toiled in this organization for a decade and has finally realized the quality of his stuff after working very hard to do so.
Yes, Gibson's been rough lately, and inconsistent for much of the season. But this isn't a man wilting mentally in the moment; it's a guy dealing with some truly terrible health-related misfortune. He opened his season coming off an E. coli battle and, as we've now learned, he has been battling ulcerative colitis throughout the summer. This daunting affliction has clearly affected his weight and strength, most recently causing a jarring drop in velocity, and so to me it's impressive he has still managed to post the seventh-highest swinging strike rate among AL starters while vaulting his K-rate to a new career high.
That speaks to the underlying quality of his raw stuff, which likely ranks as the best in the rotation. When Gibson is truly on his game he can overpower a good lineup. I don't know if we'll see that side of him again this year, in light of the circumstances, but at least the problem has been acknowledged and the team is taking some steps to try and get him right.
6. Eddie Rosario is lurking.
It's been a frustrating year for Rosario. He's lost all semblance of plate discipline and as a result he's become a fairly easy out amidst a lineup that offers few. He just keeps swinging more and more frequently out of the zone, and his production has steadily declined as a result.
But let us not forget: when he's locked in, there might not be anyone more dangerous. He loves big stages and big moments; the three-run blast at Yankee Stadium in the 2017 Wild Card Game lingers as an unforgettable highlight in a mostly forgettable game. He's still got time to turn it on and find his zone again.
7. The postseason is an unpredictable beast.
I know it's easy for Twins fans to feel a sense of dread about the playoffs, given the complete lack of success this franchise has experienced in October since 1991. As unfavorable developments stack up, it can be tempting to feel like failure is inevitable in an ALDS tilt against the Astros or Yankees.
But past letdowns against New York are now irrelevant. They just are. Houston's intimidating rotation guarantees nothing. The Twins are, at the end of the day, a tremendous team, poised to approach or surpass 100 wins with one of the greatest offenses in MLB history. They've shown resilience and tenacity against both the Yankees and Astros this year. This isn't a piranha pack bringing knives to a gunfight. Even if in a weakened state, the Twins are going to have a shot in a short postseason series.
8. No matter what happens, the playoffs are awesome!
I've heard people say they'd rather not make the playoffs than get swept out in the first round again. It's an amazing sentiment to me. I get such a deep sense of jealousy when watching postseason action from the outside – a constant reality over the past eight years. This team deserves a spot on the national pedestal, and all the attention and recognition that comes with it. Win or lose, the experience will be important for a young core that figures to mostly stick together for a long time. Which brings me to my final point.
9. This is only the beginning.
It's fair to say this is a unique opportunity for the Twins. You can't assume they'll be in this kind of position again next year, or the year after. But from that ol' big-picture view, they really are just getting started. Many key players are under control through multiple prime years to come. Their minor-league system ranks among the league's best. Rocco Baldelli might win Manager of the Year as a rookie skipper, while his first-year pitching coach Wes Johnson already has a solid case as the most impactful in the game. In their third year, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have put forth one of the best teams in franchise history, all while focusing on long-term contention above all. Based on what we've seen, I have immense faith in their ability to build around this core and develop players effectively.
The future is bright for the Minnesota Twins, no matter what happens in the coming month. That doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't feel concerned about the small-picture, and disheartened by this recent string of events. But as I was heartily reminded over the weekend, perspective is important. Taking a step back, Twins fans should be feeling awfully good about where things stand, and even in the short-term, there's more reason for optimism than it may presently seem amidst a storm of bad news.
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