In my first-ever blog entry, I implied that the Twins couldn't compete for a playoff spot. Moreover, I think they shouldn't worry about it. However, I don't think that means they have to give up on playing competitive baseball...putting a team on the field that fans are willing, even eager to watch. Nothing would make me happier than to watch some high-level prospects test themselves against major league pitchers and hitters. Besides, it gives the team a chance to test the limits of their young talent. Jose Miranda hit 30 homers last year at two different levels in an abbreviated season...so what does he have left to prove there? Why not see how that translates to the bigs, and at the same time let him show if his glove will play.
So, my preferred veteran core is:
- Byron Buxton - CF - Signed through 2028
- Jorge Polanco - 2B - Signed through 2025 (including team option)
- Josh Donaldson - 3B - Signed through 2024 (including team option)
- Mitch Garver - C - Arbitration eligible through 2023
- Miguel Sano - DH - Signed through 2023 (including team option)
That leaves four positions to fill, plus (in this day of crowded bullpens) at least three spots for capable backups. For the purpose of this exercise, I'm going to ignore the 40 man roster and assume no trades or free agent signings occur before the start of the season. Ages listed below are for opening day.
LF - Austin Martin (23)
- By most accounts Austin Martin's bat is ready, while his glove may never be adequate for SS. His games were about equally split between SS and CF last year, and with CF blocked by Buxton, why not make the transition now. I've got two real reaches in this lineup (see also SS below), and I'm not expecting Martin to be on the opening day roster; he has only 418 professional plate appearances and will turn 23 just before opening day. That said, I think there is a real need to get him significant experience in the bigs this year.
RF - Alex Kirilloff (24)
- Check the spelling twice, and make sure that name is written into the lineup as much as possible. Obviously Kirilloff's spot on the roster is secure after last year's showing, and while many have him slotted in as our first baseman of the future, I would prefer to see him get a serious look in the outfield during 2022 and start learning the finer points of playing bounces off the limestone in RF. Given our prospective pitching staff, there will be plenty of them. Why not Max Kepler, you ask? I haven't given up on Max, but I firmly believe that it is best to give a young player the majority of his games at a single position, giving him one (or two!) less things to worry about. So let's first see if Kirilloff has the speed and arm to play that RF spot.
SS - Nick Gordon (26)
- It's time for the Twins to either give Gordon a chance to stick at SS or move him. Pressed into service last year in CF, Gordon performed credibly, but surely they would like to see him as a SS after giving him most of his AAA games at the position in 2018 and 2019. He was a feel-good story (for part of) last year, but let's face it, he doesn't carry the bat to maintain an outfield position or 2B, where he is blocked anyway by a host of young OF's or by All Star Jorge Polanco. I think if you had asked the Twins in late 2019 who would be the opening day SS in 2022, they would have picked Royce Lewis. I certainly would have. However, with Lewis first losing 2020 to the pandemic and then losing 2021 to a torn ACL, I can't make a case where he is ready play at the major league level until he has at least seen significant innings at AA. Here's hoping his physical rehab from injury has gone well and he's ready to roar out of the gates and press Gordon (or whoever) for playing time by the second half of 2022.
1B - Jose Miranda (23)
- What more is there to prove at AAA? Miranda shouldn't be expected to duplicate (or even approximate) 2021 .973 OPS. But that's what this 'development' year is for...so these players can face major league pitching and learn to deal with the travel, the grind, the ups and downs of a 162 game season. With the versatility to spell Donaldson at 3B and Polanco at 2B, all Miranda needs to do at 1B is be a better fielder than Miguel Sano. It shouldn't take too long to see if that's the case.
Backup C - Ryan Jeffers (24)
- There is no guarantee that the Twins sign Mitch Garver beyond 2023, and it's even less likely Garver would still be playing catcher in 2024 at age 33. Jeffers was a head-turner in 2020 and a head-scratcher in 2021, but I think it's reasonable to believe that he will take what he learned last year and turn himself into a better hitter. Unfortunately he and Garver both bat right handed. Much as I would hate to say goodbye to Garver's heart and intensity, I suspect he could draw attention (and a reasonable return) as a trade candidate by mid-season 2022, clearing the way for a future platoon of Jeffers and Ben Rortvedt.
Backup OF - Max Kepler
- I'll come right out and say I'm not a big believer in super-utility players. Max can play all the OF positions and as the 4th OF he should get as many games as any of the regulars. Barring any long-term injuries, Rocco Baldelli will still rest the regulars 1-2 times per week, and Kepler should have the maturity to take the role in stride.
Backup IF - Luis Arraez
- Yes, Arraez can play three infield positions, and corner outfield in a pinch. No, he's not going to win any games for you with his glove. But it's worth spotting a sub-par infielder in the lineup to give everybody a rest, particularly if he can produce runs. Arraez can also take Sano's spot as DH against tough righties.
What is lacking in the above line-up? First of all, spots for Rooker and Larnach. I'm not a big believer in drafting relatively unathletic, hit-first prospects that are immediately relegated to the "we think he can play some corner OF, or perhaps 1B" log-jam. I don't track options closely but I assume both of these guys can ride the St Paul shuttle bus for another year in case of injuries. I don't think either of them should factor into the Twins' long term plans unless or until they show they can crush in the minors...and I mean 2021 Miranda-type numbers. Second, there is no reasonable backup shortstop without sliding Polanco over and slotting in Miranda or Arraez in his place, though I guess Martin could be pressed into service in an emergency. I guess that's the price you pay for a shortened bench (and a lengthened bullpen).
If you made it this far into my babbling, thanks for reading. I'm mostly writing this to sharpen my own thoughts and to pass the time on cold winter days now that the Minnesota pheasant season is over. But I'd love to hear your comments and critiques of my opinions.