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The Missing Pieces: Building a Championship Team in Twins Territory

Posted by John Olson , 26 February 2018 · 715 views

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Over nearly four months, the Twins have approached the 2017-18 offseason with a keen eye on the 2018 regular season, as with 29 other major league teams (well, more or less, I suppose) to hit the ground running for another playoff push and potential run at the World Series. After all, winning the last game of the season should be the target for every team, right?

In reality, we as informed fans know these things come in stages. The landscape of baseball, especially at the onset of the season, allows us to stand atop the ridge and survey the battlefield in front of us. The Twins have an opening window, and Twins Territory has seen the bright lights of the playoffs once again after many years of being in the cellar. Looking around the Central Division, we can see our foes and size them up.

The White Sox, having dealt away the majority of their established talent over the last few seasons, are in the midst of their rebuilding. The window is not yet open on the South Side, but the future sure does look bright. The Tigers, on the other hand, have had their window shut - after years of dominate teams - the aging stars of the '00's and the early teens have either seen themselves traded away (Verlander, JD Martinez) or succumbing to the effects injuries and age (Victor Martinez, Miggy Cabrera). Father time, after all, gets everyone in the end. Dayton Moore's Royals have also seen their window shutting. Attempting one more valiant push for the playoffs in 2017, only to see their core players from their 2015 World Series winning team slowly leave via free agency (Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Alcides Escobar).

The Cleveland Indians may still stand atop the Central Division, lead by outstanding starting pitchers Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, as well as phenom shortstop Francisco Lindor, All Star Jose Ramirez at 3B and a healthy Michael Brantley back in left field. An uphill climb for the Twins, to be sure, but not an impossible task. The Indians are not a perfect team, but the onus is on the Twins to usurp them as Division champions.

That is where our focus starts, but surely not where it ends.

Building a Championship Team, New and Improved

The Twins watched for years, or decades, as teams with giant payroll capacity steamrolled their way to championships. Sure, you had the '03 Marlins thrown in for good measure to keep things honest, but the vast majority of World Series winners over the past 20 years have shown that they could afford to sit at the high rollers table. The Cardinals won it all in 2011, but they had the greatest player on the planet, at the time, in Albert Pujols, a hall of fame manager in Tony LaRussa and a pitching staff lead by a former Cy Young winner, the revitalized Cris Carpenter. The Twins never quite had all the stars align to make a run.

The Twins, though having compiled many competitive seasons during the 2000's, were never the big fish. We weren't the sharks. We didn't swallow our opponents whole, we nibbled them into submission. We were the pirahna's. We had Cy Young pitchers, we had MVP players, we had great managing and a front office that kept us in the hunt for years. We just never had all of it at the same time.

However, the old way of building a championship team - throwing as much money as possible at a roster, accruing as much established talent and stars - is out of fashion. As much chagrin as fans have experienced over these last several months of Hot Stove (or more aptly, Cold Stove) season, we have the Collective Bargaining Agreement to thank for the Luxury Tax threshold penalties, draft penalties, repeat offender penalties, etc. Even the Evil Empire itself has shown incentive to temper their spending, opting instead to embrace the youth movement. Everyone is either in a race to get younger, faster, more talented (and cheaper), or they are tearing down - tanking - in order to start the trudging process of rebuilding.

Commodities like JD Martinez, Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta - who, if they had been free agents while the "old", draconian team building method - would have been all but guaranteed to be the largest salary-getters of the offseason. The pedigree and prior performance alone would have garnered bidding races to add them to existing rosters at, perhaps, hundreds of millions of dollars over extended years. The focus has shifted, teams have gotten more informed, more savvy and less willing to be penalized. Young, talented players - starting pitchers, especially - have become the new wave most prized commodity, with teams willing to sell the farm in order to milk the pre-free agency years from these budding stars.

Enter: 2018 Minnesota Twins

The Twins enter the 2018 season, watching their young core players like Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios, develop into potential stars. Buxton, fresh off his gold glove winning 2017 season in which he turned around a putrid start to the season, with a wRC+ of 59, only to torch the second half to the tune of wRC+ 130.
Berrios pitched solidly all season, despite a rough and confusing orientation into the league in 2016, with an ERA of 3.89 and FIP of 3.84 - suggesting that despite the excellent defense behind him, he wasn't solely benefiting from the fruits of their labors. His K/9 rate of 8.59 was the best on the staff, which sorely lacked strikeout pitching, and limited the damage of the long ball. He was a much better pitcher at home (as most pitchers outside of Coors Field or other bandbox parks are), but Berrios will need to keep improving in this way. His wOBA (.246H vs. .345A) is concerning, as is the fact he gave up four times as many home runs on the road as he did at Target Field (3H vs. 12A). All of which lead to his home ERA being significantly lower (2.41ERA) to his road (5.17ERA).

The future, though, is bright in Minnesota. Building in the vein of the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros, both of whom have experience similar rebuilding efforts in recent years, watching their former high level draft picks like Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa become cornerstones of perennial championship contending teams. The Twins have moved, almost in lock step, watching and proceeding with their rebuild. Buxton and Berrios, both 2012 draft picks, are part of that - as are other young, key contributors like (another) potential star Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario.

Beyond this season, and perhaps for some - later in 2018, Twins prospects are flooding the pipeline and will be pressing their major league counterparts, soon. Stephen Gonsalves, Fernando Romero, Nick Gordon, Brent Rooker and perhaps the most exciting young shortstop prospect since the aforementioned Correa and Lindor - 2017 1st overall draft pick, Royce Lewis. The Twins certainly seem to progressing according to plan.

Trust the method.

What Needs To Go Right

The Twins will likely never be the Chicago Cubs. Even in their worst years, they still drew droves of their rabidly passionate fans to the bleacher seats. They still spent money on free agents. They can adapt to the changing landscape, whether that's a youth movement or attempting to buy a championship. They have the resources and media market to go either way. When the Cubs brought Theo Epstein in to be their "Curse breaker", the same way he had done in Boston years before, he immediately shifted the paradigm in Chicago. No longer would they be middling, buying the Alfonso Soriano's of the world to try to win 84 games. They would tear it down, re-access and build from the inside. He made the "rebuild" cool, because it had vision. "Theoball" has been thrown around as a term for the latest, greatest way to build a team. Its hard to deny, after 3 World Championship teams under his reign - the man is a genius.

On the other hand, the Houston Astros are a better model for the Twins to follow - step for step, that is. When the Astros announced in 2011 that they knew they wouldn't be able to compete, in fact, they planned on not being able to compete, and were upfront and honest with their fanbase about their rebuilding approach, I won't lie to you, I thought they were out of their minds. How brazen, how ludicrous, can management be? Not only will we be fielding a 'quad-A' team this season, but for several seasons? The season ticket holders shall surely riot! After 3 straight seasons of 100 loss teams and one 90 loss team, something changed. Their recent draft picks, the ones they had stocked up on - Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., George Springer, Alex Bregman - had all reached the bigs. They were all producing. Correa was a Rookie of the Year. Keuchel won a Cy Young. In 2017, they put it all together and won it all. On the backs and talent of their young stars, AJ Hinch and a management team that had the guts to rebuild when it wasn't popular.

The Twins are on the verge of a similar cycle. I won't say that the Twins are guaranteed a World Series if they follow the mold, this is baseball after all, but I will say this - look at the trend. Look at the similarity.

In the same way that Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow tore it down to build it back anew, Thad Levine and Derek Falvey are massaging this team into a potential championship caliber roster. The talent is emerging, Buxton and Berrios. Sano, Kepler, Rosario, Gonsalves and others. Royce Lewis is on the way, already burning through on the "Joe Mauer track" in the minor leagues.

The onus is on management to make sure that this scouted and drafted talent is driven to their full potential. The noise surrounding Anibal Sanchez signing, hearkened back memories to a time when the former Terry Ryan-lead group would pander to the fanbase with mediocre (or plain bad), past-their-prime signings of Bret Boone and Sidney Ponson. But a closer look will see that its calculated. The knee jerk reaction of the fans didn't see, or know, Trevor May wasn't ready to start the year, so his 60 Day DL stint effectively opens up a spot for a flier on a guy like Sanchez. Josh Kalk, Twins pitching analyst and forefather of the pitchF/X, perhaps with others in scouting, may have seen redeeming value in not only Sanchez, but also well-knocked around former top prospect Jake Odorizzi.

The talent pool is deep, and the moves are less pandering and more about calculated risk/reward. The same can be said about signing Fernando Rodney, an established closer who - despite pitching in an offensive division and a bandbox park of Chase Field - held on to his closing role with a playoff team in 2017. Newly signed Logan Morrision slugged 38 home runs with the Tampa Bay Rays, opting to join the Twins as (assumably) a primary DH and to spell Joe Mauer at first base. A savvy move, and hard to argue the upgrade quality over a potential Kennys Vargas/Robbie Grossman log-jam. There is reason to be excited.

The Missing Piece(s)

The missing pieces the Twins have left to fill in this puzzle to assemble a championship team are always going to be the most difficult. As a hopeful bystander during the courting of Yu Darvish, the Twins need a true ace. A stopper every fifth day, someone to right the ship when the dog days hit or the bats disappear. A guy who can win a 1-0 game when the team is in a rut. Johan Santana was the last, true ace in Minnesota, and that was over a decade ago. The Astros had not only Keuchel, their homegrown number 1, but also brought in Justin Verlander as a 1A in 2017. The Cubs in 2016 had their three headed monster of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks - none of whom had an ERA over 3.10 in the regular season. Even the upstart Royals in 2015 brought in Johnny Cueto to flank their extremely talented and exciting young Yordano Ventura, who before his untimely death, showed promise to be a front line starter for years to come.

Darvish, though, signed with the North-Siders in Chicago, and with no other clear ace on the market, the Twins have a choice to either add or stand pat with the remaining starting pitchers on the free agent market. While Jake Arrieta has the name and star power, its likely with his velocity drop and entering his age 32 season, that the days of being an established ace are behind him. Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn, while good pitchers in their own right, are not number 1's. They are number 3's on a good team, and while they would still make solid additions to this years Twins roster, I believe the need for a true ace still exists.

Perhaps The Twins could add one at the trade deadline, as the Astros and Royals did during their World Series runs? The possibility exists, and names like Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman have been floated as targets, but will this management team be willing to pay the cost to acquire? Dallas Keuchel (and Clayton Kershaw, but lets not go crazy here) is on the free agent market next season, does it make more sense to wait, let your team gel and develop another year before selling the farm for an Archer or Stroman in trade - use your monetary capital as opposed to your talent capital to get that ace? We all have our individual opinions on the direction our favorite team goes, and many of us feel like we could arm-chair quarterback our way to a World Series - but the powers that be in the General Manager's office and beyond have far more information, and the choice to follow the road they've laid out for us in Twins Territory requires patience, but its compelling.

Much has to go right for the Twins to be a World Series Champion in 2018. The last two champions have had Cy Young winners and MVP's leading the charge, that is a high bar for the Twins young talent to clear. The Twins do, however, have the beginnings of a World Series championship caliber team, and who's to say this isn't our year?

It is baseball, after all, and anything can happen.

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