There is a defined core in place – young, talented, and under control for several years to come. But the front office has surrounded this core with a remarkable number of players on short-term commitments.
So in 2018, the message is clear. This franchise's long-cultivated championship vision is finally being set into motion, with most of the key pieces already in place. Anyone who wants to be part of the ride going forward will need to earn it.Change in baseball is rarely sudden. Since their all-out collapse in 2011, the Twins have been gradually working back toward their previous standing as a perennial playoff contender. The process got underway in earnest the following June, when they drafted Byron Buxton second overall.
Like that of Buxton, Minnesota's rise has taken time, seeing its share of fits and starts. But it's no coincidence that just as he truly arrives – now established as a full-time major-leaguer, riding a sustained run of MVP-caliber performance down the stretch – the team appears ready to take off.
With all due respect to Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier and their years of tenure, this is Buxton's team. Maybe not in the clubhouse, yet, but his ability to impact games on a nightly basis exceeds anyone on the roster and almost anyone in the league. The center fielder is, fittingly, the centerpiece.
Let's start there.
Window of Opportunity
The American League Central came into existence back in 1994. If you've been watching Twins baseball for that long, then I urge you to think for a moment about all the years between then and now.
Over that duration, how many times can you remember three different teams in the division heading into a season where they were blatantly, transparently, unabashedly making zero effort to seriously contend?
I'd argue that it's unprecedented, and in many ways unique to the present state of the game. At least one major-league exec has gone on record in suggesting more teams are competing for the 2019 No. 1 draft pick than a 2018 World Series trophy.
The window is open, more so than we might see it again. An opportunistic front office led by Derek Falvey and Thad Levine has emphatically reacted by constructing a ballclub that appears up to the challenge.
Partially by savvy maneuvering, and partially by fortunate inheritance, they've put the pieces in place.
A Brain Trust With Brains Worth Trusting
The impact of Falvey's behind-the-scenes reconfigurations is difficult to quantify in terms of wins and losses, but the improvement is unmistakable.
In 2017, newly obtained hitting coach James Rowson and defensive guru Jeff Pickler both garnered rave reviews as key additions in the dugout. They left their imprints, on an offense that saw several young hitters take big steps forward, and a fielding unit that went from 29th to 12th in defensive efficiency.
These successful hires inspire confidence in the selections of Garvin Alston and Derek Shelton, joining this season as pitching coach and bench coach.
Lest you think the human element is being overlooked, these additions have been balanced by infusions of practical experience and perspective. Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, LaTroy Hawkins and most recently Justin Morneau were all brought on as recognizable and relatable special assistants. Jeremy Hefner, who was pitching in a Mets uniform less than five years ago, now serves as an advance scout and conduit of information from baseball research to the players on the field.
The advancements in terms of organizational infrastructure under Falvey's leadership have been monumental. After about 16 months of gradually layering in handpicked candidates, the franchise's personnel makeup is finally coming to resemble what Falvey initially envisioned, and sold Twins ownership on.
From the executive suite down to the coaching staff, pieces are in place to support a roster boasting enough talent, depth and experience to make some serious noise.
Built to Win
Paul Molitor has been on a nice run lately. After entering 2017 in the dreaded position of lame duck manager with new bosses, he reversed his dwindling fortunes with an exemplary year at the helm. Molitor led an upstart group to the postseason, was voted AL Manager of the Year, and secured a three-year contract.
Now, the front office has gifted him with an offseason windfall, supplementing a roster that was already primed to win with a healthy influx. The club's uncharacteristic free agent shopping spree pushed payroll to a record $130 million, and down in Fort Myers the vibe was clear: expectations for this team are very high.
This brings added pressure for Molitor, but I'm sure he'll happily take it in tandem with the bounty of talent he's setting out with in Baltimore on Thursday.
You can argue that every position on the 2018 Twins is a strength – though admittedly, you have to strain a little on the pitching side. (Click on any position below to find a full in-depth analysis.)
CATCHER: Reliably solid veteran Jason Castro pairs with rookie Mitch Garver, coming off a monster season in Triple-A and carrying plenty of confidence, to form a potentially formidable platoon.
FIRST BASE: Joe Mauer sure looks to be back on his game. While even his optimal production won't stand out relative to peers at first, it certainly has value in this lineup, and he's as good as it gets with the glove.
SECOND BASE: Over the past two years, Brian Dozier has been one of the best hitters in baseball. That shows no signs of changing as the pending free agent stares down a contract year with off-the-charts motivation.
THIRD BASE: Miguel Sano did enough at the plate and in the field this spring to mostly silence concerns around his injury recovery and physical state. He still has much to prove, but the 2017 All-Star's game-changing ability should not be downplayed.
SHORTSTOP: Losing Jorge Polanco to an 80-game suspension hurts, no doubt, but the Twins are fortunate in being able to fall back on the powerful Eduardo Escobar and the intriguing Ehire Adrianza in his stead. Oh, and their No. 3 prospect, verging on MLB-ready, plays the position (ostensibly).
LEFT FIELD: Many Twins hitters seemed to turn a corner in 2017. No one did it quite as convincingly as Eddie Rosario, whose newfound selectiveness at the plate yielded big returns (27 HR, 78 RBI, .830 OPS). So long as the K/BB trends stick, Rosario should be one of the league's top producers in left field. If his approach evolves further? Look out.
CENTER FIELD: Staying healthy and maintaining at the level he settled into last year after April would make Byron Buxton one of the biggest individual difference-makers in the major leagues: a hit-robbing, base-swiping, power-hitting force.
RIGHT FIELD: Max Kepler was a below-average but respectable hitter last year. With his picturesque swing, innate athleticism and history of adjustments, it feels almost inevitable that the 25-year-old will find another gear. If so, this will be one of the game's most fearsome outfields.
DESIGNATED HITTER: This spot didn't produce much thunder for the 2017 Twins, who ranked eighth out of 15 AL teams in OPS at the position. Logan Morrison should help with that; last year he outhomered the collective DH units for every team except Seattle (Nelson Cruz).
STARTING PITCHING: It's a stretch to call this position an area of strength, but the late additions of Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn shored up the rotation significantly, and there are enough quality reinforcements in the pipeline (Ervin Santana, Adalberto Mejia, Trevor May, Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves, to name a few) that it's not so easy to call it a weakness anymore.
RELIEF PITCHING: If last year was any indication, contact-heavy bullpens don't cut it in today's MLB. Minnesota's front office has progressively taken steps to power up the pen, populating it with proven strikeout pitchers. The new-look relief corps could prove to be the most imposing to come along for the Twins in more than decade.
I can't ever remember such a complete roster out of the gates for this team. Everywhere you look, pieces in place.
From Total System Failure To All Systems Go
The Twins made history by going from 103 losses in 2016 to a wild-card berth in 2017, and their momentum only continues to grow as we head into the new campaign. At a time where lackadaisical malaise has gripped many of the league's clubs, Falvey and Levine have built a culture of extreme urgency.
Sure, the two top execs can afford to be patient – they've got their vital young core locked in, plus a prodigious minor-league pipeline – but it's a different vibe in the locker room.
One could argue this doesn't create a particularly comfortable environment. But then, one can also argue that "comfort" became one of the central issues for this club during the latter years of Terry Ryan's regime.
For the 2018 Twins, complacency is not an option. While all these pieces are now in place, the vast majority of them can are interchangeable.
~~~This is setting up to be a truly exciting season. Make sure you're following along with Twins Daily all summer by following us on Twitter and Facebook, as well as entering your email address below to receive our newsletter!
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