For the Twins to get back into the playoffs in 2023, they will need a host of elements to go well. Not only will the Twins require significantly better health in 2023 — they will also need some players to make leaps in the new year. Whether it’s younger established players or prospects, the Twins need big improvements from some young players to be a successful team. I’ve put together a list of players I think can take those steps to be impact players in 2023.
Since the Twins acquired Joe Ryan in exchange for Nelson Cruz at the 2021 trade deadline, he has impressed, and at times, dominated. In 32 starts, he has pitched 173.2 innings with an ERA of 3.63 and a FIP of 3.90. He has had a 25.7% strikeout rate and a 7.1% walk rate. These are all very good numbers for a guy coming off of his rookie year, and he would slot into just about any rotation in baseball. Ryan isn’t a typical breakout candidate due to his early success, but I believe at 26 years old, he has the ability to develop into more of a frontline starter and break out as a true star.
In 2022, Ryan was much worse after a tough bout with Covid-19. Per Fangraphs, in starts before his long absence due to the virus, Ryan had a 2.25 ERA and a 3.25 FIP, but in starts after he came back, he had a 4.08 ERA and 4.30 FIP. Essentially, before his 3-week Covid absence, he was the frontline starter the Twins needed him to be, and after, he was a back-end of the rotation starter. Hopefully, once fully recovered in 2023, we can see Ryan lead the rotation and be a frontline starter.
Beyond his mediocre numbers after his Covid-19 absence, Ryan’s performance against right-handed hitters in 2022 surprised me. I expected him to be a typical pitcher who performs better against same-sided batters. In the minors, Ryan had typical splits, where he was better against righties than lefties, but that was not the case in 2022. Against right-handed batters in 2022, Ryan threw fewer fastballs and more sliders. But his fastball was one of the best pitches in baseball in 2022 based on Baseball Savant’s run value metric, while his slider was well below average. For Ryan to become a frontline starter, he will need to improve his performance against right-handed batters, by either improving his slider or throwing fewer sliders against right-handed batters. If either of those strategies is effective and he can return to top physical shape, Ryan can be the Twins best starting pitcher (as the roster is currently constructed) and possibly become the frontline starter the Twins need in 2023.
Almost every number available shows that Jovani Moran is a really good relief pitcher who is ready to be an impact reliever for the Twins from Opening Day forward. From his 2.21 ERA and 1.78 FIP in 2022 for the Twins in 40.2 innings, to his 11.95 K/9, Twins fans should be excited for him to join the fold more in 2023. While his numbers holistically are awesome, he does walk a ton of batters. However, he limits home runs and strikes out enough hitters that the walks have rarely haunted him at any level, and his overall numbers should continue to be strong in 2023.
While Moran has been extremely stingy against both righties and lefties, as a 2-pitch pitcher who relies a ton on nasty changeup, he has reverse splits, meaning he is better against right-handed batters than lefties. Because of this, he would benefit if the Twins add an additional left-handed reliever, so if Caleb Thielbar is unavailable, he doesn’t have to be the guy to just come in against lefties. Instead, he should be used in other high leverage situations, whether it’s an 8th inning in a 1- run game, or if there are guys on second and third and one out. If the Twins are going to hunt any matchups for Moran, they should seek right-handed hitters in 2023. Facing primarily righties will further improve his numbers and make him a weapon in a bullpen that could be the best in years for the Twins.
Kirilloff has unfortunately been on these types of lists for 3 years. The Twins expected that in 2021, once they blatantly manipulated his service time, he could come in and be a star left fielder every day for years to come. That expectation was reasonable at the time. In 2018, he was the Twins Minor League Player of the Year, and his strong performances continued in 2019 during his first taste of the upper minors at AA. He had wrist problems flare up for the first time in 2019, but after a strong performance at the Twins alternate site in 2020, which they believed warranted a rare playoff Major League Baseball debut, it was time for the global top 20 prospect to be an impact player for the Twins.
That has not yet happened for Kirilloff as his wrist has bogged him down. Over the past two seasons, Twins fans at times saw him hit the ball hard and really be the hitter prospect analysts promised us, but far more often his wrist left him sidelined, or he at least performed at a subpar level. In 2021, his batted ball data indicated that he would start seeing a lot of hits and extra base hits with a .544 xSLG, but he didn’t play enough for those results to come, only playing 59 games for the Twins. In 2022, he was bad in the MLB, but at AAA he showed that a great hitter is in there, with a 1.106 OPS. There even was a stretch with the Twins from July 2nd to July 23rd when he posted a 157 wRC+, making him a 57% above average hitter. During that stretch, it seemed that he was finally coming along, especially when he went 6 for 13 with 2 home runs and 6 RBIs, in what seemed like a pivotal series against the White Sox. Soon after, he fell off a cliff and didn’t play another game in the majors for the Twins in 2022.
Wrists are tricky and sometimes hitters never get back to their best due to a wrist injury. That could be the unfortunate reality for Kirilloff. But if the new medical staff can help him navigate the wrist problem, he can be a huge bat in the middle of the lineup, hitting for extra bases and average, and could even be the best left-handed hitter in the Twins lineup.
When the Twins drafted Ryan Jeffers and signed him above slot value, he was seen as a player who would be a really good power hitter, but he likely would have to move off catcher due to his defense. Thus far, he has been a very solid defensive catcher, but he has not yet tapped into the bat that the Twins thought they were getting. In 2022, Jeffers was an above average pitch framer, who handled the staff well, and a well below average hitter, with a wRC+ of 87, making him 13% below average. If he can tap into more power, which prospect analysts believed he had, he can be a real asset for the Twins in 2023. If the Twins can get above average offensive production from catcher, that’s a huge advantage on the competition, when most catchers are their team’s worst hitters. We saw that when Mitch Garver had a monstrous season in 2019, and when the Twins had AJ Pierzynski and Joe Mauer in the 2000s.
The most obvious way for him to put up better offensive numbers is for him to play almost every game when the Twins are facing a left-handed pitcher. If that’s around 40-50 games, he’ll be in a great position to succeed, especially if he can even slightly improve against right-handed pitchers. While Christian Vázquez has been better against lefties than righties, he hasn’t been nearly as good over his career as Jeffers has been. Against lefties, Jeffers has crushed, with a wRC+ of 125, which is really good for anybody, but especially for a catcher. Hopefully, he can thrive getting more of those platoon matchups while continuing to be a very good defensive catcher. If he does, the Twins could have a big offensive advantage at catcher, making their lineup dangerous enough to really contend for a division title.