Week in Review: Road Warriors
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 4/1 through Sun, 4/7
Record Last Week: 3-2 (Overall: 5-3)
Run Differential Last Week: -1 (Overall: +6)
Standing: 3rd Place in AL Central (1 GB)
Willians Watch: 4-for-12 last week (Season AVG: .500)
Before we get underway with this week's column, a few housekeeping notes.
On Saturday, the Twins announced they'd designated first baseman Tyler Austin for assignment, in order to make room for right-hander Chase De Jong, who was re-added to the 40-man roster as an insurance arm. Austin can now be plucked by another team, or if he clears waivers he can elect free agency. It's also possible he remains in the Twins organization, but the odds are slim.
More importantly, as you can see, I've added a "Willians Watch" tracker above. I just feel like we need to keep our finger on the pulse of this one regularly.
For the most part, Friday night's game was a concentrated source of the team's lowlights for the week, but Jorge Polanco was a gleaming exception. While his teammates bumbled along, Polanco was a one-man wrecking crew, hitting for the cycle in his first four at-bats, then adding a single in his final turn for good measure. It was the first cycle by a Twin in about a decade.
A year ago at this time, Polanco was coming to grips with the reality of watching his squad start the season from afar. Now he's taking full advantage of being here from the get-go. The shortstop is raking, with a team-leading 12 hits (including six XBHs) in 35 plate appearances.
Meanwhile, Minnesota's leadoff man has also begun to find his stroke. Max Kepler put a quiet first week behind him, going 8-for-23 with three home runs and six RBIs. On Saturday, with Polanco in the three-hole, it was Willians Astudillo batting behind Kepler atop the order – an honor he has certainly earned. Astudillo is 7-for-14 on the young season, and this sequence on Saturday where he and Kepler went back-to-back was emblematic of their outstanding weeks at large:
Eddie Rosario hasn't quite found his sustained groove at the plate yet, but he's certainly been clutch. On Tuesday in Kansas City he came through with a game-tying RBI single in the ninth inning that set up a comeback victory. On Wednesday he delivered the decisive blow, a go-ahead RBI single in the ninth that capped another impressive comeback. And on Saturday in Philadelphia, Rosario entered as a pinch-hitter in the ninth, with the Twins nursing a precarious one-run lead, and delivered a three-run blast to seal the win.
The left fielder has only six hits on the season so far, and those are three of them. So, there's something to be said for making 'em count. But overall Rosario has opened his campaign in a slump, which makes me more giddy than concerned. I've come to learn that any drought in production for Eddie is usually the precedent for a scorching hot streak. That he's been able to contribute so much with his bat mostly in Silent Mode portends big things ahead.
On the pitching side, Michael Pineda backed up his masterful season debut with a convincing encore. The big righty was excellent against the Phillies on Saturday, allowing two runs on four hits over five innings with five strikeouts, while notching his first win since June of 2017. Jose Berrios followed with a terrific outing on Sunday, although his only damage yielded (a two-run homer by Rhys Hoskins in the sixth) proved to be the difference-maker. Berrios has a 2.18 ERA with 21 strikeouts through his first three starts.
And of course we've gotta show some love to the bullpen. This unit continues to outshine expectations. Over the past week, Twins relievers combined to allow just five earned runs in 20 2/3 innings (2.18 ERA) with four of those coming in Friday night's rainy affair. Blake Parker chipped in three hitless outings and picked up two saves. Ryne Harper delivered two scoreless appearances in Philly. Trevor Hildenberger and Trevor May combined to pitch six times without allowing a run.
As Marwin Gonzalez struggled through each of his appearances in spring training, it reached a point where I openly wondered about his readiness for regular-season action. The comments on that article mostly consisted of, "Who cares, it's spring training," which probably would've been my response under most circumstances. Hours after I published it, Gonzalez struck out four times against the Orioles, with five days left to go before Opening Day. Still, Rocco Baldelli's sentiments reflected the consensus: Asked by a reporter (not me!) post-game about the third baseman's ugly night, Baldelli blinked a few times and said he wouldn't have even thought twice about it had it not been brought up.
On Opening Day, Gonzalez delivered the decisive knock for Minnesota, driving in the game's only two runs with a nice piece of opposite-field hitting. We all chuckled. Spring training stats, amirite?
The problem is this: Outside of that crucial double in the opener, Gonzalez has looked pretty much exactly the same as he did in spring training – sloppy, ineffective, and borderline lackadaisical. He's 3-for-22 with three singles otherwise, and hasn't been very sharp in the field. We saw his vaunted defensive versatility tested for the first time on Friday, when he slid to first base, and he committed two errors almost immediately.
A review of his 2018 season shows that Gonzalez struggled out of the gates for Houston, and he eventually found his footing on the way to a solid year. In fact, April and May have typically been among his worst months, while his offensive has tended to tick up in June and July. So it may well be that these early struggles aren't related to signing late, or a poor spring, but simply part of his normal pattern.
Speaking of strong first 2019 impressions that weren't backed up... Jake Odorizzi. The right-hander twirled a gem in his first start and couldn't get through the first inning in his second. Friday was an all-around mess, played under drizzly and chilly conditions. Odorizzi couldn't find his command, throwing 18 of 36 pitches for strikes before being pulled with just two outs recorded. This forced the Twins to use five different relievers, creating a need for extra help over the weekend and – basically – writing Austin's ticket out of town.
Said Odorizzi after the game: "I got out there. It was raining. I warmed up. It was raining. The first inning it was raining. I didn't have a feel for the baseball."
It bears mentioning that other pitchers in the game didn't seem to have nearly such a hard time, but given how good Odorizzi looked his first time out, I'm inclined to write this one off. We'll see if he can shake off the ugliness of Friday's game and bounce back strong, as the Twins did on Saturday.
How hard will Baldelli try to find ABs for Astudillo? Right now, the guy is making an airtight case for regular run in the lineup. Through 114 major-league plate appearances, he's hitting .374/.395/.570, and there's not much in his unorthodox approach – swing at everything, hit everything hard – to suggest it's a mirage. Plus, there's just an undeniable spark he brings when he's in the game.
In theory, Astudillo as an everyday player sounds great. In practice, it's not so straightforward. The Twins have two other catchers on the roster; Jason Castro is a steady veteran that pitchers like to work with, and Mitch Garver is a still-developing 28-year-old coming off a strong rookie year. Astudillo can also play third, and started there last Wednesday. But Gonzalez is gonna get his reps there and the eventual return of Miguel Sano (who might start a rehab assignment this week) will further crowd that picture.
La Tortuga isn't going to play much outfield. And his pathway at DH is blocked by Nelson Cruz. So where do you get him in?
With Jonathan Schoop off to an uninspiring start, I'm eyeing second base as an intriguing possibility. Astudillo made two of his first four MLB starts at second last July, but hasn't played it since. He also logged only 140 innings there in the minors. I'm not sure he has the range or footwork to be a legitimate option at second base, but then again I'm clearly grasping for answers. The Twins need more Tortuga.
DOWN ON THE FARM
Minor-league affiliates announced their season-opening rosters last week, and Seth had them fully covered here. Go ahead and get the rundowns below:
- AAA: 2019 Rochester Red Wings
- AA: 2019 Pensacola Blue Wahoos
- A+: 2019 Fort Myers Miracle
- A: 2019 Cedar Rapids Kernels
Those first three names all ranked among our preseason Top 20 Twins prospects. But the transcendence from Balazovic, who was an honorable mention, might be most eyebrow-raising. He's been generating real buzz coming into the season, and in his first start for the Kernels we saw why. Over five innings of one run ball, the 6'4" right-hander walked none and struck out nine, including six straight at one point:
While there have been glimpses, Minnesota's offense hasn't been quite as explosive as advertised in the early going. It's tough to see that changing at Citi Field, where they'll have to contend with two of the most dominant starting pitchers in baseball. After that two-game set, sandwiched by the last two off days they'll see in a while, the Twins return home to face a Tigers squad that's played well off the block. Forecasts currently call for highs in the 30s and 40s, with a possible mid-week snow storm looming.
TUESDAY, 4/9: TWINS @ METS – RHP Kyle Gibson v. RHP Jacob deGrom
WEDNESDAY, 4/10: TWINS @ METS – RHP Jake Odorizzi v. RHP Noah Syndergaard
FRIDAY, 4/12: TIGERS @ TWINS – TBD v. RHP Michael Pineda
SATURDAY, 4/13: TIGERS @ TWINS – RHP Tyson Ross v. RHP Jose Berrios
SUNDAY, 4/14: TIGERS @ TWINS – RHP Jordan Zimmermann v RHP Kyle Gibson
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
- Game 4 | MIN 5, KC 4: Cruz Steps Up
- Game 5 | MIN 7, KC 6: Twins Come Back From 3-Run Deficit
- Game 6 | PHI 10, MIN 4: Polanco Cycles in the Rain, Rest Is All Pain
- Game 7 | MIN 6, PHI 2: Twins Find Power Stroke, Slug 3 Homers in Victory
- Game 8 | PHI 2, MIN 1: Kepler Stays Hot, Hoskins Pops Deciding Homer
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