When looking at the 2021 Minnesota Twins it is pretty easy to look around the diamond and see positives and negatives for nearly every player. Take Byron Buxton for example. On one side you have a game changing defender who has shown power over the last two years. If things break right, he could be in the MVP conversation. On the other side, you have a guy who is prone to injury and tends to go into extended slumps at the plate.
Which player are the Twins going to get in 2021?
Now take that line of thinking and apply it to the entire roster. When more things go right than wrong (the 2019 Twins), that’s a very good baseball team. When more things go wrong than right (the 2018 Twins), well, that’s a different story. Like a box of chocolates, you just don’t know what you’re going to get.
The Twins front office has done a great job of creating depth up and down the entire roster this offseason. They are 11-12 players deep in their lineup with starting caliber players after the addition of Andrelton Simmons, and they have a scrap heap of arms they can pull from to form the bottom part of their bullpen.
The worry is did they do enough to alleviate the risk in case of injuries or ineffectiveness from the team?
Let’s dive in.
Below you will see an evaluation plus projections on each position group (using Fangraphs Depth Charts projections) for the Twins and the “anxiety factor” - a thing I just made up that rates how risky each position group is with a “boom” or “bust” scenario. It's rated on a 0-10 scale. 10 being the most risk.
Mitch Garver was a monster in 2019. He won the Silver Slugger and posted a career best .995 OPS with 31 HR’s. In 2020, he battled injuries, landed on the IL for a significant portion of the year, and only appeared in 23 games. In those 23 games he was borderline unplayable with a .511 OPS. He never looked right, due to injury.
In a limited sample, Ryan Jeffers was impressive. In 55 AB’s he posted a 118 OPS+ and earned positive marks from his pitching staff and advanced metrics for his pitch framing abilities. Oh ya, and he took Shane Bieber yard.
It’s easy to see a scenario where the Twins have a lethal catching combo with two starting caliber players and offensive upside. It’s also easy to question the optimism. Is Garver fully healthy? Can we trust a 55 game sample size from Jeffers or is there a sophomore slump coming?
Anxiety factor: 3
I feel the Twins will get good production out of the catching spot. With injury, even Astudillo can sub in for a short period of time.
Fangraphs Depth Charts WAR projection: 2.7 (8th)
Mitch Garver: .236/.321/.442 - 1.2 fWAR in 294 PA’s
Ryan Jeffers: .249/.313/.415 - 1.4 fWAR in 320 PA’s
Willians Astudillo: .283/.314/.453 - .1 fWAR in 26 PA’s
Like Buxton, Sano might be one of the most frustrating players for Twins fans. He’s the definition of a roller coaster. In 2015 he looked like Miguel Cabrera in his rookie year. In 2016 he was hurt and put in right field. In 2017 he was an all-star. In 2018 he was overweight and sent down. In 2019 he was one of the best hitters in the league. In 2020, he posted the 2nd lowest OPS+ of his career (104).
So, what can we expect out of Sano in 2021? The Twins need him to be closer to his .830 career OPS than the .757 he posted in 2020.
Anxiety factor: 6
Sano’s inability to hit fastballs and work the count deep, drawing walks in 2020 was a concern. Despite a .395 OPS in 29 PA’s this Spring, Sano does look to be tracking much better in a small sample and projections expect him to bounce back. If things somehow break really well, he could see his way to a season like PECOTA’s 90th percentile projection for him.
Also, it should be noted that the Twins have other options that will see time at 1B this season. Kirilloff, Rooker, and Garver can all play here, which alleviates some risk.
Miguel Sano: .230/.322/.507 - 1.8 fWAR in 595 PA’s
Alex Kirilloff: .279/.326/.449 - .1 fWAR in 49 PA’s
Jorge Polanco moved to 2B with the Simmons addition bumping Luis Arraez to the utility role. Polanco, who was playing hurt in 2020, posted the worst offensive season of his career (.658 OPS). Now, with a surgically repaired ankle for the second year in a row, will Polanco be able to adjust to a new position and return to form? In 2018 and 2019 combined, Polanco hit .293/.353/.466. He also figures to get some work in at Shortstop.
Arraez, who has knee problems of his own, has hit over .300 in back-to-back years and will fill in at times all around the diamond. It’s easy to see a pathway to this duo being a great pair in 2021. But, with injuries a part of both their pasts and neither having defensive prowess, should fans be a bit more concerned?
Anxiety factor: 2
This duo projects to be near a top-5 position group among all 2B in baseball. They are covered in case of ineffectiveness or an injury. Not to mention there are other players in the org that could fill in if needed here (JT Riddle, Travis Blankenhorn, and Nick Gordon). It’s hard to see a scenario where Polanco was in fact worse than he was in 2020.
Jorge Polanco: .274/.334/.436 - 1.6 fWAR in 448 PA’s
Luis Arraez: .311/.370/.410 - 1.1 fWAR in 231 PA’s
One of the Twins biggest moves of the offseason was the acquisition of slick fielding SS, Andrelton Simmons. Simmons ranks 1st in DRS and UZR among all shortstops since 2002.
Like many Twins, injuries are no stranger to Simmons who suffered ankle injuries in 2019 and 2020. In 551 PA’s between 2019 and 2020, Simmons produced a 84 OPS+, below his career average of 91. The Twins don’t need him to hit in order to be valuable. They just need him to be on the field and continue to do what he does best, play defense.
Anxiety factor: 4
With Simmons' injury history, any long term setback could be detrimental to the strength of the 2021 Twins - depth. If Simmons' offense continues on a downward trajectory or he takes a step back defensively, that could also hurt the overall makeup of the team. Luckily, their backup was the starting SS for the American League All-Star game in 2019.
Andrelton Simmons: .277/.328/.393 - 2.9 fWAR in 581 PA’s
Jorge Polanco: .274/.334/.436 - .4 fWAR in 91 PA’s
Luis Arraez: .311/.370/.410 - .1 fWAR in 21 PA’s
When Josh Donaldson played last season, he was productive. His 131 OPS+ in 28 games was near his career average of 136. The issue was that he only played in 28 G due to calf injury and missed the entire first round of the playoffs. Not ideal.
The Twins need Donaldson on the field this season. He has now missed significant time in 2017, 2018, and 2020. The good news is that the backup options seem to be better than they were in 2020. The Twins can give Donaldson days off, when needed and still have a formidable lineup with Arraez, Polanco, and even Sano filling in.
Anxiety factor: 4
It’s comforting to know that there are other options to fill in for Donaldson in case of an injury that are better than Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza. However, I’m skeptical of Donaldson's ability to stay healthy. Rocco will have to pull the right levers to maximize rest and recovery. If he’s not out for a prolonged period of time, there are backup measures in place.
Josh Donaldson: .242/.363/.468 - 3.0 fWAR in 490 PA’s
Luis Arraez: .311/.370/.410 - .6 fWAR in 133 PA’s
Miguel Sano: .230/.322/.507 - .3 fWAR in 49 PA’s
Jorge Polanco: .274/.334/.436 - .1fWAR in 28 PA’s
The Twins non-tendered Eddie Rosario this offseason because they have lots of depth at the corner OF positions. Alex Kirilloff, who many believe will end up with the starting LF job at some point this year, was sent to the alternate site last week.
So, at least to start the year, the Twins will have to mix and match between Luis Arraez, Jake Cave, and Kyle Garlick.
Like every position, there’s reason for optimism...and concern.
Jake Cave has a career 107 OPS+ and can play all three OF positions. He was great as a 4th OF in 2019 - that’s good! Jake Cave posted a .674 OPS in 2020 across 42 games - that’s bad!
Brent Rooker had a nice debut in 2020 playing in 7 G’s, but his season ended with a wrist injury. Will the wrist injury linger and can his offense overcome his defensive limitations?
We know the type of hitter Luis Arraez can be, but he’s uh, not a natural outfielder, which could hurt the Twins in the field.
Then there’s Kyle Garlick who has mashed at AAA but success hasn’t translated to the pros where he has posted a .691 OPS. He’s 29 and if his offensive surge from Spring Training doesn’t continue, he could be DFA’ed.
Kirilloff’s demotion last week split the Twins fanbase. His Spring numbers are not encouraging and with only 415 PA’s above A ball, he’s no slam dunk in 2021. So LF is a bit of a mixed bag.
Anxiety factor: 6
Easily the most concerning position group on the Minnesota Twins amongst the hitters. Yes, they have lots of options but as you can see above, there’s equal reasons for optimism and concern. Kirilloff offers the most upside but for now will not be on the Opening Day roster. Trevor Larnach should be mentioned here as a potential option as well.
Alex Kirilloff: .279/.326/.449 - .7 fWAR in 329 PA’s
Luis Arraez: .311/.370/.410 - .5 fWAR in 147 PA’s
Jake Cave: .248/.309/.426 - .1 fWAR in 126 PA’s
Brent Rooker: .234/.305/.437 - .1 fWAR in 56 PA’s
Kyle Garlick: .218/.272/.399 - -.1 fWAR in 42 PA’s
Like Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton has had his share of a rollercoaster Twins career. He’s had his injuries and struggles at the plate. However, 2020 was promising. He capitalized on a strong 2019 and led the entire team in bWAR (2.1) over 39 games. He was limited in the playoffs, however, due to injury. Across his last 126 games, Buxton has a .833 OPS with 23 HR’s. The Twins have a .563 winning percentage when Buxton is in his lineup across his whole career.
The question mark of course, is can he stay healthy?
The Twins have options to backup Buck, but unlike other position groups, any player playing instead of Buxton will hurt elsewhere. For example, if Kepler is in CF, you’re weaker at two spots since Kepler is a downgrade defensively to Buxton and anyone who plays RF is going to be worse than Kepler. A healthy Buxton is a key to success.
Anxiety factor: 5
Since Buxton has shown effectiveness across the last two seasons, hopefully some of his offensive woes are behind him and he can be more consistent. However, injuries are a real concern. He’s only played only 100 games once in his career. Will this finally be the year? We’ll see.
Since 2019 Max Kepler ranks 16th in baseball in bWAR (4.1) for outfielders. His breakout 2019 looked to continue into the first part of 2020, but he went into a slump at various points of the year and basically forgot how to hit left handed pitching, something that helped his overall numbers in 2019. In fact, 2020 was the worst he’s ever been in his career vs. lefties. Meanwhile, in a small sample, 2020 was the best he’s ever been vs RHP.
In addition to his own injury history (missed parts of games in 2019 & 2020), his 2021 Spring Training has been discouraging (3-for-43). At his worst, he’s a great defensive platoon player who hits RHP well. At his best, he’s an above average all-around player and a major cog in the Twins lineup. What version are they going to get?
Similar to the backup options in LF Garlick, Kirilloff, Rooker, and Cave figure to get playing time.
Anxiety factor: 4
There’s concern about Kepler putting it altogether again like he did in 2019. Hopefully this slump in Spring is meaningless. The options defensively without Kepler in RF are a bit frightening. In any case, even if something were to happen there are enough guys in the Twins system that could fill in at the corner. Celestino and Larnach are not too far off.
Max Kepler: .248/.337.475 - 2.9 fWAR in 609 PA’s
Kyle Garlick: .218/.272/.399 - -.1 fWAR in 42 PA’s
Jake Cave: .248/.309/.426 - .1 fWAR in 28 PA’s
Nelson Cruz was the team MVP in 2019 & 2020. All he’s done in a Twins uniform is hit. The concerns with Nelly of course are his age, wrist injury (are we sure you can just play normally with a ruptured tendon?), and the fact he fell off the map at the end of 2020. In his last 11 games he posted a .256 OPS.
Anxiety factor: 2
Nelson Cruz: .267/.353/.524 - 2.2 fWAR in 574 PA’s
Josh Donaldson: .242/.363/.468 - .3 fWAR in 98 PA’s
Most teams don’t have a “backup” DH contingency plan in case things go south. If anything were to happen, there’s plenty of options for the Twins to fill in the DH spot to get players like Donaldson off his feet. Rocco may employ this strategy anyways to maximize rest & recovery.
Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, and Michael Pineda figure to be a strong 3 in this rotation. Can Kenta repeat close to his runner-up to the Cy Young award numbers from 2020? Will Jose Berrios finally take that step forward we’ve all hoped? Will Pineda be able to continue to be effective in a full season? Barring injury, these three should be pretty safe bets to continue with a strong 2021. It’s the rest of the staff that may be a bit worrisome…
Many (myself included), felt the Twins didn’t do enough in free agency to elevate the ceiling of the rotation. The floor, yes. But, they seemingly missed out on that upside move to really take a giant leap forward. They sat idly by as Darvish, Snell, Musgrove, and Taillon were traded. They made offers to Kluber and Morton but obviously, they chose a different path. They ended up with J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker. Happ has been serviceable since 2018 and posted solid numbers last year (ignore his postseason ). You could do worse for a #4 starter but after getting a late start in camp due to COVID, his age, and the fact that the AL Central employs many mashing right handed hitters, could they have done better here?
Shoemaker has been effective when healthy. The problem is, he never is. Shoemaker hasn’t thrown more than 80 innings since 2016. That’s a real concern.
In a 162-game season, teams can’t operate on a 5-man rotation. The Twins know how important depth is. They will be using their 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th options for starts. I am excited to watch Dobnak now that he has added a pitch and is coming off a strong Spring. Having a healthy Donaldson and Simmons behind him will be a massive plus as he has the 2nd highest GB% since he came into the league.
I think there’s enough arms here to create a top-15ish rotation. They can always add at the deadline too. I just wish they aimed higher this offseason. They’re only a move or two away from having a top-5 staff. Hope it doesn’t hurt them come playoff time.
Anxiety factor: 3
After losing May, Wisler, Clippard, and Romo the Twins replaced them with a handful of internal guys plus Hansel Robles and Alex Colome. Since 2019, the Twins have the second best ERA as a staff (Tampa is #1). So the front office clearly knows what they are doing. It seems their strategy is to lean on the top-4 guys in the pen (Rogers, Duffey, Colome, and Robles), hope their other guys can take a step forward after a strong 2020 (Alcala, Stashak, Thielbar), and get effectiveness from the scrap heap of guys they picked up this offseason. Maybe there’s another Matt Wisler in there (Law, Waddell, Gibault, Anderson, Hamilton, Sparkman).
I think there’s a lot of risk here. I wish they added 1-2 additional veteran arms to really help bolster this group. Each guy in the current pen comes with question marks and you really have no clue what you’re going to unlock, if anything, from the scrap heap guys.
Rogers - Is he the 2.61 ERA guy from 2019 or the 4.05 guy from 2020?
Colome - He continually outperforms his peripheral stats. Can that continue in 2021? Since 2019, he has posted a 2.27 ERA but a 3.78 FIP
Duffey - Should we read anything into his awful 2021 spring?
Robles - He posted a 2.48 ERA in 2020 but a 10.26 ERA last year in 18 games.
Thielbar - He started the year hurt due to a back injury. Can his 2020 be trusted?
Alcala - Very impressive 2020. Hope he can take a step forward in an elevated role in 2021.
If any of the top-4 are ineffective for prolonged stretches or injured, the depth in high-end arms gets tested. Unlike other position groups, the backup options are not as strong.
If one of the top-4 guys is not useful, this may look more like a bottom-10 bullpen than a top-10.
Anxiety factor: 6
Now that we have each position group broken down into parts and risk associated with each, we can draw a few conclusions.
If the season goes as Fangraphs projects it to - the team will win ~88 games.
If more things break right than wrong, guys are healthy, moves are made to bolster the team at the deadline, and steps forward are taken from certain guys - this team could easily win 94+ games
If more things break wrong than right, there are too many injuries and/or some guys regress - this team may end up winning ~83 games.
That’s a good sign when your worst case scenario is a borderline playoff time.
With the over/under set at 88.5 in Vegas, I am taking the under. But barely. I think there’s a chance things go more wrong than right and the team ends up winning 85-87 games but securing a wild card spot. I’m giving the Central to the White Sox. At the end of the day, it may come down to who is healthier and even with their depth issues, their guys have stayed healthier better than the Twins. Like Forrest Gump said, you just don't know what you are going to get.
Twins end up defeating the Angels at Target Field ending the 0-18 streak. From there, it’s anybody’s guess…