A team barely alive
Some are saying the Twins should abandon the effort to seriously compete in 2019 and aim to reload for 2020 and 2021, when prospects like Alex Kiriloff and Royce Lewis will be ready to contribute. That's a mistake to me--with a payroll commitment of only about $60 Million, they almost can't afford not to spend some serious cash. I'll lay out what we can learn from 2018 and what the Twins can do not only to compete but to put themselves in position to win the American League Central in 2019, ending this post with my offseason blueprint. First, let's look at the year now past--not quite a debacle, but quite disappointing:
2016 2017 2018 changeActual Wins 59 85 78 -7
They fell off by seven games, which isn't much considering a 26-game improvement came about the year before. Still, everyone was hoping for better. Their Pythagorean wins (the number of wins expected given their runs scored and allowed) were at 79, so there's not much bad luck involved in that number.
Where did the Twins' actual decline come from? Let's compare this year's decline to last year's improvement:
2016 2017 2018 changeLuck -7 +2 +1 -1Hitters WAR 17.0 28.7 15.2 -13.5Pitchers WAR 1.8 7.0 12.3 +5.3
So here's the bright side: Twins pitching in two years went from the worst around to now above average. This is an incredible achievement by Falvey and Levine, the coaches, and the players. The Twins have released pitching coach Garvin Alston after one year to enable new manager Rocco Baldelli to hire the person he wants, but judging from the results, one would have to give a hearty thanks to Alston for moving the needle significantly in the right direction for whatever degree of influence he had. Their challenge now is to keep up this level of quality and boost it on the margins.
To say that hitting was a disappointment is an understatement. While the lineup didn't totally fall apart, they certainly fell two big steps backwards. Getting just a little better from here isn't going to cut it in the minds of Twins fans or for the front office. More importantly, knowing the specific players who should take the blame leaves me both concerned and hopeful--quite literally, the Twins supposed five best hitters (Sano, Buxton, Morrison, Mauer, and Dozier) all dramatically underperformed. In no universe did fans, writers, pundits, projection systems, Paul Molitor, Thad Lavine, or Derek Falvey think there was any reasonable chance that the five of them would combine to post a cumulative WAR under 1. When you would have been just as well simply benching your five best hitters for all 162 games, there's literally no possible way to overcome that. And yet, the Twins still ended three wins under .500 for the year, a mark far more respectable than what could have happened.
So the bad news is that Twins's best players now all have big question marks surrounding them. The good news though: 2018 was certainly a black swan event, the likes of which the Twins offense has never seen nor imagined. No one could have predicted it, and the probability of it happening again is exceedingly small. These players are all better than this, and we should expect this year to be expunged from their memories after they achieve more success going forward.
I'll break down the hitters by WAR (technically fWAR, or FanGraph's WAR), focusing on the players that mattered most. I'll list last year's players who have been replaced for comparison's sake, as well.
WAR 2017 2018 change15 Hitters 24.9 14.6 -10.5LF Rosario 1.7 3.4 +1.7RF Kepler 2.4 2.6 +0.23B Escobar 1.3 2.4 +1.1SS Polanco 2.1 1.3 -0.82B Dozier 4.4 1.0 -3.41B Mauer 3.4 1.0 -2.4CF Buxton 5.1 -0.4 -5.5C Castro 2.5 -0.2 -2.7DH Vargas=>Morrison 0.3 -0.7 -1.0 3B Sano 2.5 0.0 -2.54O Granite=>Cave 0.3 1.3 +1.0BC Gimenez=>Garver 0.7 1.3 +0.55O Grossman 0.8 0.7 -0.1MI Adrianza 0.9 0.5 -0.4MI Santana=>Forsythe 0.1 0.4 -0.3
Moves that worked
Sticking with Rosario in 2017: Rosario had a successful year in 2017, but many were worried that it was more of a fluke--that Rosario would return to a below-league-average hitter, as he was in 2015-2016. Instead, Rosario kept hitting at a high level and simultaneously improved his baserunning and fielding into also above-average territory. If he can maintain these tools, expect an all-star team appearance for Rosario, perhaps even in 2019. Under team control through 2021, the case can also be made that Rosario's trade value will never be higher--what kind of pitching riches could the Twins acquire if they offer Rosario and move Jake Cave into left? Still, the most likely scenario is that the Twins keep playing Rosario every night for a few years, and perhaps they should keep offering him long-term contract extensions till he signs one.
Trading Luis Gil for Jake Cave: The Yankees were never going to play Cave in the outfield, so trading him for a low-level hard-throwing prospect was perhaps a good move for them, but it was a great move for the Twins, as Cave contributed more to the team winning than Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and Joe Mauer combined in 2018. It seems that Cave can legitimately hit and field, and so the Twins plan on keeping him around. He is perfect as the fourth outfielder for years to come. Before the trade, Zach Granite was struggling and Ryan LaMarre jumped over him to begin the year in the big leagues, but Cave's success led the Twins to trade away LaMarre without fear.
Relying on Mitch Garver more than Bobby Wilson or Chris Gimenez: Last year, the Twins were reluctant to trust Garver behind the plate, trying him out as a pinch hitter, DH, and outfielder. That's a problem, because Garver isn't a good enough hitter to be highly valuable at any of those positions--but at catcher, he's a great hitter. This year, Garver caught in over 650 innings, and while his catching metrics are overall slight negative, his strong hitting makes up for it. Good-hitting catchers are hard to find, and the Twins should live with little shortcomings in Garver if he can be a above-average hitter--that is, above-average for a hitter, way above average for a catcher.
Moves that bombed
Playing through lower-body pain: How many times do the Twins have to get bitten by this to change their emphasis? Logan Morrison (hip), Brian Dozier (knee), Miguel Sano (leg, hamstring) and of course Byron Buxton (toe) all tried to play either through an injury or come back too soon from recovery. The evidence is abundant that hitting suffers immensely when any part of the legs can't be trusted. Playing hurt often means playing to hurt your team, and it should no longer be tolerated, let alone encouraged.
Managing Byron Buxton's injuries and swing: Buxton is too good for this to be the result. By the butterfly effect, migraine headaches led to a broken toe, the already-mentioned foolish attempt to return too early, and lots of confusion over his swing mechanics. The new trainers, new manager, and yet-to-be-named new hitting coach will have Buxton's success as perhaps their top individual priority.
Failing to trade Dozier before the beginning of the year: The rumor was that, for Dozier to escape to the the Dodgers before the season, the Twins were demanding Jose De Leon and Cody Bellinger in return. The Dodgers, even without the benefit of hindsight, were never going to do that trade. The Twins should have accepted DeLeon and another lesser player as the best deal they could have gotten. It looks especially bad now, as the Twins' "best hitter" was not at all their best hitter anymore--Dozier inexplicably (was it a lingering knee injury?) went from being 25% above average to 10% below average in one year. Needless to say, Dozier was hoping for a hundred-million-dollar or more contract in his first free-agent try, but might now have to settle for a one-year deal and try again next year.
On to the starting pitchers:
2017 2018 change6 Starters 7.2 9.7 +2.5Berrios 1.7 3.3 +1.6Gibson 0.2 2.8 +2.6Colon=>Odorizzi 0.1 2.6 +2.5Mejia=>Lynn 0.8 0.8 0.0Santiago=>Romero -0.2 0.7 +0.9Santana 4.6 -0.5 -5.1
Moves that worked
Sticking with Berrios and Gibson: It took Berrios a few additional years after his debut to find his footing, but the patience with him is paying off. When you have a pitching prospect like Berrios, it may take some years of struggle before becoming a reliable contributor--Berrios was such all year, without giving the coaches reason to worry or doubt. La Maquina is under team control through 2022, so the Twins will pencil him in as often as possible for the next four years.
Gibson's struggle was ongoing for years, but this was the year he put all that behind him and had confidence on the mound for the entire year. I was among those who were ready for the Twins to cut ties with him two years ago, but he has proved me wrong by being the rare pitcher whose age-30 season is better than any year prior. We shouldn't expect Gibson to exceed his 2018 success, but he has certainly earned a rotation spot next year.
Trading for Jake Odorizzi: The Twins spent the offseason trying to get Chris Archer. When they couldn't meet the Rays' asking price, they went down a notch and acquired Odorizzi from them in exchange for Jermaine Palacios, who went on to have a poor season in A and AA and seems a long way from ever contributing in the majors. Odorizzi wasn't the near-ace the Twins were hoping for, but at a notch below, he was a much better contributor than Bartolo Colon last year. The Twins should not hesitate to make such a routine move to plug a hole again, as adding two or three wins in exchange for a marginal prospect is a bargain no matter which way you look at it. By the way, Archer struggled on the year and was traded mid-season for a lesser return to the Pirates, so perhaps it all worked out well for the Twins.
Moves that bombed
Signing Lance Lynn and thus blocking Adalberto Mejia:
I hesitate to call this a big mistake--Lance Lynn's contract was limited and the Twins recognized early enough that he wasn't the pitcher they thought they were getting, skipping occasional starts and pulling him early. Still, the Twins would have been better off trusting Meijia, Romero, or Gonsalves to take Lynn's 20 starts. The results would likely have been no worse, and furthermore perhaps one of those three would be a clear asset for the major league team in 2018. Instead, the Twins and Twins fans alike still are unsure of these three not-so-young-anymore pitchers and their role going forward. We can't second-guess the Lynn signing too much, as it was cheap and easy, and this was likely just a down year for Lynn, who should be effective for the Yankees or some other team for years to come.
And the bullpen:
2017 2018 change11 Relievers 2.4 2.4 0.0Rogers 0.4 1.9 +0.8Pressly -0.2 0.8 +1.0 Gee=>Duke 0.6 0.8 +0.2Kintzler=>Rodney 1.1 0.5 -0.6Breslow=>Moya -0.1 0.1 +0.2Hildenberger 0.8 0.0 -0.8Belisle 0.0 -0.2 -0.2Duffey -0.4 -0.2 +0.2 Boshers=>Reed -0.1 -0.2 -0.1 Tonkin=>Magill -0.2 -0.3 -0.1Busenitz 0.1 -0.8 -0.9
Moves that worked
Making Taylor Rogers more than a LOOGY: Being left-handed is certainly a blessing for most pitchers, but sometimes they get trapped into a specialty role. Instead, Molitor used Rogers often against lefties and righties alike, and he shined in the process, boasting more than a strikeout per inning and nearly five for every walk, and giving up the bare minimum of home runs you could ever expect. I doubt Rogers will ever be this good again, but you can hope he'll come close. He's definitely the kind of pitcher the Twins are happy to have for at least four more years in his prime.
Signing Zach Duke and Fernando Rodney: Duke didn't make himself into a top-notch reliever, but his 52 innings pitched were solidly above-average for a team that struggled to find strength in their bullpen. Rodney contributed just as well, too. Again, signing players like these (and then trading them away if the season becomes lost) should be routine moves that happen every year alongside any bigger moves. These players are often available each year, and the Twins' scouts will prove themselves if this kind of signing usually works out as it did with Duke and Rodney.
Building up Pressly and trading him for value: Ryan Pressly got some press after the Twins traded him for Jorge Alcala and Gilberto Celestino, saying that the Astros recognized that he needed to change his mix of pitches simply to throw his superior breaking ball more often. It should not be overlooked that the Twins helped Pressly develop very well, and any tweaks the Astros have done are because they stand on the proverbial shoulders of giants.
Not signing a top-quality reliever: The Twins could have convinced themselves that Wade Davis or Greg Holland were worth big contracts. If they had done so, we'd probably now be lamenting how much we are on the hook. This isn't to say that the Twins shouldn't sign a more expensive reliever now, but only that in 2018 the options were poor and they were wise to avoid making a high-risk, low-reward mistake.
Moves that bombed
Leaning on Trevor Hildenberger: One of the biggest disappointments of the year was the failure of Hildenberger to step up as the Twins' next elite reliever. Did Molitor call on him too often--having him pitch in nearly half of the Twins' games? Did he wear down early and never recover? Was he thrust into a high-leverage role too soon in his career? Or is he just an average pitcher, and the Twins should not have given so much credence to his late 2017 performance? Hildenberger might be an area of focus for the new pitching staff. They have a lot of plates to spin in order to improve this bullpen, and Hildenberger might be the biggest and wobbliest.
Bringing back Belisle: This one's a puzzler to me: Matt Belisle was not a good pitcher in 2017 and got worse in 2018; why did the Twins sign him mid-season? The only thing I can think of is that the Twins wanted his leadership and cameraderie in the bullpen--to have him more as a player-coach and a mop-up pitcher rather than a true bullpen building block. Still, they must have realized that in August, as the end of July featured two bad Belisle outings that led to one-run losses. Maybe his playing days aren't done, but I surely hope they are done in Minnesota, although I'm open to the idea of hiring him as a minor-league pitching coach.
Duffing around the course: Tyler Duffey is just hanging around, not bad enough to be cut but not good enough to help the team win. I suppose he's better than relievers behind him on the depth chart, but I'm hoping the Twins bullpen improves to the point where it will be more obvious that the Twins can move on from Duffey.
Mind your own Busenitz: Alan Busenitz has been disappointing to be sure, and part of the problem was in keeping him away from the majors for two months, but he failed to make the most of his 23 appearances in the majors, showing that perhaps he did deserve to be in AAA after all. He'll be in the doghouse again to start 2019, and I have no problem making him earn his way back to the majors again as he's done three times already.
Subtraction by Addison: Reed was thought to be one of the top relievers on the free-agent market, and the Twins were able to snag him for only a two-year deal. He turned in very inconsistent performances in the second half, but I don't think this is too big a disappointment, and I'm glad he'll be in Minneapolis next year to bounce back and earn his next big contract.
We have the capability...
Well, the label "big spenders" is something of an exaggeration, but the Twins have the opportunity to spend more than ever before in longer-term contracts and set themselves up for success in 2019 and in their future. The Twins major-league payroll sits at around $60 million, leaving them $60-80 million to add for 2019 alone to reach even league average, and there's nothing stopping them from spending even more. The same wide-open salary continues in the future. It will be up to Falvey and Levine to spend it wisely, but they can't revert to Terry Ryan-style frugality.
Rocco Baldelli will lead that team
Their first task is to build out Rocco Baldelli's coaching staff. He should choose a pitching coach that he can trust, but also someone who can usher Twins pitchers into modernity. It seems currently that pitching strategy is changing faster than ever before, and the new pitching coach will need to manage openers, starters, quick hooks, and firemen--and nuture pitchers to throw more breaking balls, keep their velocities up as they age, avoid tipping pitches, prevent injuries, and manage fatigue better than any Twins pitching coach in years past. I have no idea who Baldelli, Falvey, and Levine should choose, but the choice is perhaps more important than ever before.
Better than they were before
The Twins' hitters have a few holes, and the opportunities for improvement are more obvious than last year. Here's how they should approach this team renovation.
Trust the supposed three best hitters: It would be far too hasty and foolish to give up on Sano or Buxton. Eddie Rosario has surpassed them and inspires more confidence for sure, but Sano and Buxton's trade value will never be lower than right now. Don't forget that they are 25 and 24 years old, 3-4 years before their statistically-likely prime. They still have growing and developing to do, and they were too good in the minors and in long stretches in the majors before for 2018's performances to be representative. Grant them a fresh start in the new year and I'm betting that Twins fans will be rewarded.
Trust Sano at third base: Good fielding has returned as a emphasis for the Twins, with Kepler, Buxton, and now Rosario helping out in the field, but to those names you can lighly pencil in Miguel Sano, who is just fine at third base, and far more valuable there than at DH. The Twins should keep Sano at third till it is utterly obvious that he shouldn't be playing there, and we seem to be a long way from that. Presuming that the Twins infield will be shifting much more than in 2018, the coaches will have to work out how best to play him--he can't be roaming in short right field like we saw Travis Shaw or Justin Turner do in the playoffs--but there is flexibility here and the coaches can make it work.
Sign a good-hitting second baseman: No, don't re-sign Logan Forsythe. The Twins need a very good hitter at second base more than they need a good-fielding shortstop. I'm not sure that Manny Machado is even a good fit nor nearly worth the money. I'd go with Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera as free agent signings, but also look for someone arguably better on the trade market, like a one year rental of Scooter Gennett. The Twins have several in-house options for 2020 and beyond, so a one- or two-year commitment here makes a lot of sense.
Trade for a real slugging first baseman: There are a few disappointing options at first base on the free agent market, but there's a obvious name that might be gettable in a trade: One year of Paul Goldschmidt. I'd beware a bidding war, but trades for no-doubt mashers are not often regretted. If that doesn't work, a trade for Justin Smoak or Carlos Santana could be arranged, but the Twins should also look at taking on longer contracts if a good deal can be had for Wil Myers or Brandon Belt. But plan A should be Goldschmidt.
Sign a designated hitter: Picking up Logan Morrison didn't work out, but it was the right idea. Matt Adams or Lucas Duda could be a relatively inexpensive boost to a lineup that has been missing a go-to DH for years, though I still expect that Willians Astudillo and Tyler Austin will get starts at DH as well as corner infield positions throughout the year.
Plan on using Jake Cave often to keep Kepler, Buxton, and Rosario fresh. If any starting outfielder gets a nagging injury, put him on the disabled list without hesitation and keep him there till all are confident he is recovered.
Say goodbye to the hall-of-famer, has-beens, and almost-weres: Joe Mauer seems all but retired, and the Twins shouldn't entice him back unless it is for a true bargain on a one-year deal. Grossman, Gimenez, and Belisle should also retire and the Twins shouldn't feel forced to bring them back. Sadly, Danny Duffey doesn't seem to have a way back. I have no problem keeping him in Rochester in case he truly earns it back, but I wouldn't plan on it happening.
Better, stronger, faster
Improvements to the pitching staff need to emphasize faster fastballs, sharper curve balls, and above all, clear-cut quality. Lance Lynn or others like him should not be an option for this team unless they come even cheaper than last year. Also, the bullpen can't continue to limp along--the Twins are way behind in getting an advantage out of their relievers and it is time to end that.
Sign an almost-ace: I can't quite use the term "ace", as a pitcher in the top echelon is nearly impossible to get, but the the Twins need a clear-cut top-notch pitcher, and there's several to choose from. My pick is Nathan Eovaldi. With a 100 mph fastball and a tendency to avoid walks, he will give Twins fans both excitement and winning immediately. Trevor Cahill is another good option, or Patrick Corbin if you want to aim a little higher
Stick with what works: Trevor May might become great, we know Rogers and Moya are capable, and I mentioned staying faithful to Addison Reed. This gives the Twins four pitchers they can rely on--maybe not to be the top of the bullpen, but to at least stick around for the year.
Bring in expensive talent: I figure the Twins need two new top relievers in 2019, as well as one depth acquisition. Trading for any of these may be an option, but I think the bullpen is the best area to spend the deep pockets the Twins have starting this year. I'd target Jeurys Familia and Kelvin Herrera, and pick up a lefty like Jerry Blevins for good measure.
Manage the rest carefully: Hildenberger, Magill, and Busenitz haven't inspired confidence yet, so keeping them in Rochester till needed isn't a bad idea. Make sure they are trusted as true contributors in the majors before trusting them with a roster spot. Of course, we all hope that Hildenberger is very close to earning that trust, but there was much to cause doubt in him in 2018.
So here's my 2018 season-long roster, comprised of the 30 most important players, along with somewhat optimistic hoped-for WAR numbers for each. These numbers add up to a bit over 100 wins for the 2019 Twins. Most of these players will not hit these "hope" numbers, but some will, and others will come close, and a few will exceed them enough to make the Twins a contender in 2019. Join me in my optimism; a AL Central title and thus a World Series is within reach.
WAR 2017 2018 2019 hope CF Buxton 5.1 -0.4 5.01B Goldschmidt 5.2 5.1 4.53B Sano 2.5 0.0 3.7 LF Rosario 1.7 3.4 3.5 2B Lowrie 3.6 4.9 3.1RF Kepler 2.4 2.6 2.6SS Polanco 2.1 1.3 2.0C Castro 2.5 -0.2 1.5DH Adams 1.2 0.8 1.2 4O Cave 0.3 1.3 1.5CI Astudillo 0.7 1.4BC Garver 0.7 1.3 1.3MI Adrianza 0.9 0.5 1.0CI Austin 0.1 0.4 0.7SP Berrios 1.7 3.3 3.5SP Eovaldi 2.2 3.0 SP Gibson 0.2 2.8 2.6SP Odorizzi 0.1 2.6 2.1SP Pineda 1.1 1.7SP Romero 0.7 0.5RP Rogers 0.4 1.9 1.5RP Familia 0.3 1.8 1.0RP May 0.5 0.8RP Herrera 0.1 0.4 0.5RP Hildenberger 0.8 0.0 0.5RP Reed 0.9 -0.2 0.5RP Moya -0.1 0.1 0.3RP Busenitz 0.1 -0.8 0.3RP Magill -0.3 0.2 TEAM WAR 36.8 28.8 52.0Wins 85 78 100