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Front Page: 3 Players the Twins Need to Take a Step Forward in 2020


There has been constant talk this offseason about adding impact players to improve from 2019 a 100-win team. Obviously that is necessary in order to keep getting better but today I’ll name three players that could play the largest roles in repeating last season’s success.Jose Berrios

 

The first player the Twins will need to take another step forward in 2020 is Jose Berrios. He is currently the “ace” of the staff and he is so close to becoming one of the games best starters, but he is just not there yet. Berrios has been extremely consistent over the last three seasons with his ERA and FIP seeing no real improvement and both hovering around 3.75 each year. 2019 was his best season according to fWAR (2.7 in 2017, 3.1 in 2018, 4.4 in 2019), but he never really became the true ace the Twins need. He showed flashes of becoming that player, but just couldn’t do it over the full season.

 

Berrios getting to that next elite tier could be the most important upgrade for the rotation. He has the potential to be much better or the equal of any of the free agent starting pitchers we have discussed this offseason. If he can take that next step then the entire rotation looks so much better.

 

Byron Buxton

 

Buxton is probably the most obvious player for this article. His presence on the team makes everyone better no matter where he is on the field. He was only able to play in 87 games and he still accounted for 2.7 fWAR. If he can just reach his career high of 140 games he will be around at least 4.4 fWAR which is top 30 for position players. Buxton was able to raise his walk rate to a career high (6.4%) and decrease his strikeout rate to a career low (23.1%) in 2019. This came with career bests in hard hit% (35.4%) and fly ball% (48.5%). He showed so much improvement, it was just a blow to the whole team when he suffered a season-ending injury.

 

Keeping him healthy is going to be extremely important for repeated success in 2020. He makes the entire outfield and pitching staff better with his elite defense. Now that his bat seems to have become above average, it is not hard to see him getting MVP votes if the Twins are good and he stays healthy enough to be a main contributor.

 

Max Kepler

 

Putting Kepler on this list may seem like a surprise because of the huge step he took last season, but I believe there is still another step he can take. Just like Berrios, Kepler took a big step in his fWAR (1.5 in 2018, 2.7 in 2018, 4.4 in 2019) and I expect him to improve on that in 2020. His walk and strikeout rates stayed essentially the same as his career averages this past season at 10.1% and 16.6% respectively, but his contact numbers were great. His wOBA stayed around .315 for three years and then jumped to .355 last year. He also started trying to just hit the ball for solid contact which resulted in a career high for hard hit% and 42.4% and fly ball% at 46.6%.

 

It might be a bit unfair to expect him to improve after being a top 30 position player, but I think we saw just the first step in his ascension to being an elite outfielder. After all, that is why the Twins were eager to lock him into the contract extension.

 

Who do you hope takes another big step in 2020? Do you agree with the three players I listed below? Sign up and leave a comment!

 

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“A rookie.”

 

That sounds like a cop out in not naming a specific one, but the reality is that someone will likely get hurt or significantly underperform. We just don’t know which one. This past year, it was Arraez who stepped forward. Particularly given that our sense is that the top-ranked hitting prospects are seen as not quite ready, if one of them does indeed step forward in a needed way, that would be huge.

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On the flip side, I’m not sure I’d include Berrios.

 

We’ve had lots of discussion of what’s a “true ace,” but my view on it is this. Last year, his 4.4 WAR ranked 17th among starters who threw at least 100 innings. With 30 teams, that basically makes him a median No. 1. Yes, I acknowledge that he’s not quite an “average” No. 1 in that there are extremes on the top end.

 

By definition, that also means he would be the No. 2 on a good number of teams. In fact, he’d have been the No. 3 on the Mets and Cleveland and No. 4 on the Nats and Astros (assuming I consider Greinke an Astro for ending there). But the flip side is to say that he would have been the No. 1 starter on 20 teams. Where’s the cut off on what’s an “ace”? I don’t know, but I feel pretty good about having my guy be better than two thirds of the other teams’ guy at a given position. Particularly given...

 

Odo finished 20th among those with at least 100 innings, so in essence, our “No. 2” pitched like a slightly below average No. 1! AND, with Pineda at No. 48, our “No. 3” was close to being an average No. 2. They both pitched up a level.

 

The catch is that Gibson was right behind Pineda at No. 49. So Berrios taking a step forward would be awesome, but right now, with the roster we have now, I think the bigger need is for someone to take a step forward as our No. 4 starter, whomever that might be.

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Buxton and Kepler kind of go hand in hand.  Buxton in CF is great defensively on his own but also pushes Kepler back to RF were he is much better defensively (though he is alright in CF he is borderline elite in RF)

 

I think Berrios is what he is at this point. His delivery and release is funky trying to generate that power from a small frame.  it gets out of wack and everything flattens out.  I think he struggles with that his whole career. 

 

We need a young starter to step up I think Thorpe has the best chance of it.  Graterol maybe getting it going right away and by mid May he is up and dominating.  Have to find starting pitching and it looks like it isn't come from outside the organization.

 

Sano, can he stay focused and have a bat like he did the second half.  If he is asked to move to 1B can he get the footwork down and put in the time defensively.  I think he has the kills to be above average defensively at 1B but has to be committed and put in the work there. 

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1] Berrios: it's not stuff or talent by any means. And everyone has a bad day or two. His problem is usually a stretch in the second half that bogs him down. I keep asking if the problem is working out too hard during the season and just losing endurance as the season goes along.

 

The first half of 2019 I'd say he was amongst the best #1's around. Oddo was right behind him. How do they get a more even performance for the entire year?

 

2] Buxton: just stay healthy! Is there any rule restricting how wide the warning track can be? I'm only half kidding.

 

3] Kepler: I also think there is room for some improvement, though maybe not a ton. He's already damn good as is. I keep thinking his numbers might improve simply but letting Arraez and Polanco handle the top of the order, Cruz the 3 spot, and he takes over cleanup with Rosario sliding down to 6 behind Sano.

 

4] Rookie: I like this idea but, pitcher or player? Would be awesome for 1 of each. Don't ask me why, but I just keep getting this feeling Raley is going to end up being the 2020 Arraez at 1B or LF or both.

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1]

4] Rookie: I like this idea but, pitcher or player? Would be awesome for 1 of each. Don't ask me why, but I just keep getting this feeling Raley is going to end up being the 2020 Arraez at 1B or LF or both.

I like everything you said but especially this Raley/Arraez take. Not that I’m totally sold that it will be Raley that will be this years Arraez but between Raley, Larnach, Kirrilloff, and Rooker, I am confident we will have a rookie or two force their way onto this roster and make it impossible to send them back down. (Maybe even Jeffers)

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Assuming Rosario is on the team, his first half was all-star level. The team was legit one of the very best teams in baseball. Then he got hurt, lost his approach, and the team played average ball the rest of the year. If Rosie just watched the ball into the glove, stayed patient like the first half, and hit the cutoff man, he'd be a huge boost.

 

Buxton was another catalyst who only needs to maintain his level and stay healthy.

 

Berrios also swooned midsummer when the team declined into mediocrity. La Makina's legendary fitness routine might need tweaking top provider for more rest as he gets older.

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I'm not sure any of those are the ones we need to step forward. Buxton was doing fine, until ... we just need him to stay on the field. But I guess that could be considered a step forward if he manages to do that. Kep? Wow ... I think that's asking a lot, but he could ... if Bux stays healthy and Kepler can stay in one position and do what he does, he might move forward another step. If Berrios stays strong all season, I'll take that. But I'm looking for steps forward from others ... I'd like to see Rosario keep his momemtum all season and I'd like to see Odo take a big step ... maybe have his starts go one more inning and stay sharp.

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Dobnak and Smeltzer. Even if the FO swings a trade or signs Ryu, both Dobnak and Smeltzer will each get 10-20 starts at minimum. Injuries will happen, and Pineda is missing the first 39 games or something.

 

With Berrios and Pineda under contract for 2021, both of those two need to take control of the middle of the rotation.

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I think it's fair to want Berrios to take another step forward; he's been good, but had a rough August and while he was better in Sept it wasn't like he was April - July Berrios. He had the same August swoon in 2018; a little more consistency and he really is an ace. (I also prefer bWAR for pitchers over fWAR; bWAR more accurately describes what a pitcher DID in that year; fWAR more accurately describes what we should have expected. fWAR for pitchers is useful in trying to predict the future, but in describing what actually occurred on the field I think bWAR is better. JMO)

 

I think Sano is a guy we need the step forward from. If he can stay on the field and play 140 games that's a lot of extra impact. Every hitter is going to have a slump or three (excepting maybe Ichiro or Carew in their primes), but can Sano shorten his up an not go into an extended malaise where any pitcher with a decent slider turns him into an auto-K? Can he find a way to keep drawing walks during those periods where his swing is just a bit off? June last year Sano drew barely more walks than he did in May in more than twice the games. Those stretches where he's putting up huge K numbers and not also grabbing the free passes are where his approach gets a little painful. A little more consistency plus a full season (with plenty of rest still available) and he's a 5 bWAR guy, not a 3. He's coming into his prime and I think he can absolutely do it.

 

My #3 would be Lewis Thorpe. It's probably too much to ask that he make the same leap that Berrios did from year 1 to year 2; Berrios got more time in MLB to take his knocks and figure it out than Thorpe did in that first taste and Thorpe's got a pretty small sample size so far...but there's a lot to like there. Thorpe never dominated AAA like Berrios did, but he's always done a good job of keeping the ball in the park, getting Ks, not walking too many guys...the Twins need a young pitcher to step up and I think Thorpe is best equipped to do it.

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Pineda, and I think he can. Last year was his first after TJ, and the more he pitched, the better he looked. Here is his ERA and xFIP by month:

 

        April    May    June    July     Aug  Sept/Oct

ERA  6.21    4.50     3.58    2.59    3.52     2.25

xFIP  5.1     4.80       4.07    3.98    3.81     3.28

 

He increased his k/9 rate from 8.16  to 9.45 between halves. He dropped his HR/9 from 1.55 to 1.18. His second half k-BB% of 20.2% would have tied him with Robbie Ray for 15th in baseball. Berrios was 17.1% in 2019.

 

I think Pineda has the skills and mental fortitude to be an ace. If he steps up next year, we're going to be scary good.

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Don't think it's likely that Kepler or Berrios take big sustainable steps from here. They could, but it doesn't seem that likely. With Buxton, it's all about the likelihood that he can play 140 games.

 

The person who would seem to have one of the bigger opportunities to step up purely from a performance standpoint would be Rosario (assuming he's not traded)...and perhaps a 'surprise' rookie or second-year player along the lines of 2019 Arraez....but maybe on the pitching side.

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Of the three, I'm somehow most confident in Buxton and least confident in Berrios, but not queasy about any of them.

I would feel the exact opposite here. 

 

Berrios for the first half of the year was that ACE. He was great, one of the game's best. All he has to figure out is how to sustain it for a full season. He has been tabbed as one heck of a hard worker also, I think between he and the Twins training staff, they can figure this out.

 

Buxton hasn't done anything yet at the plate. He's a great defender, but a China doll when it comes to being durable. I don't put a ton of faith in him. That said, if he does ever hit his potential, watch out. 

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Great way to look at the coming season, Cooper.  If these questions are answered yes, the Twins will again be in the playoffs.  And although last year was so disappointing, once in anything can happen.

 

Agree that all three listed are important, very important.  Although Berrios has more upside, he is pitching at an ACE level if he can avoid what happened last August.  Heck, change August to what he did in September, which wasn't up to his early season standards, and I am guessing his numbers for the season are close to the best.

 

I have been saying all year that Kepler has more upside and if he can maintain that level of play for another ten or twelve years, he will be in the discussion for the Hall of Fame.

 

As for someone else important to add to this list.  I would say Arraez.  If he can hit like last year for a full season it will be huge for the Twins.  And I really expect him to do so.  But his most important improvement should be in the field when he is playing second base every day rather than all over the field including a lot in left field where he had never played.

 

As for rookies making a big contribution, I'll vote for Thorpe.  Lets remember how young he is and how little he has pitched after missing two entire years of his development.  Yes he has a few things to fix.  But watching him get lots of strikeouts in many of his appearances last summer, his future could be special.

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On the flip side, I’m not sure I’d include Berrios.

We’ve had lots of discussion of what’s a “true ace,” but my view on it is this. Last year, his 4.4 WAR ranked 17th among starters who threw at least 100 innings. With 30 teams, that basically makes him a median No. 1. Yes, I acknowledge that he’s not quite an “average” No. 1 in that there are extremes on the top end.

By definition, that also means he would be the No. 2 on a good number of teams. In fact, he’d have been the No. 3 on the Mets and Cleveland and No. 4 on the Nats and Astros (assuming I consider Greinke an Astro for ending there). But the flip side is to say that he would have been the No. 1 starter on 20 teams. Where’s the cut off on what’s an “ace”? I don’t know, but I feel pretty good about having my guy be better than two thirds of the other teams’ guy at a given position. Particularly given...

Odo finished 20th among those with at least 100 innings, so in essence, our “No. 2” pitched like a slightly below average No. 1! AND, with Pineda at No. 48, our “No. 3” was close to being an average No. 2. They both pitched up a level.

The catch is that Gibson was right behind Pineda at No. 49. So Berrios taking a step forward would be awesome, but right now, with the roster we have now, I think the bigger need is for someone to take a step forward as our No. 4 starter, whomever that might be.

Well thought-out post. Thanks.

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I like everything you said but especially this Raley/Arraez take. Not that I’m totally sold that it will be Raley that will be this years Arraez but between Raley, Larnach, Kirrilloff, and Rooker, I am confident we will have a rookie or two force their way onto this roster and make it impossible to send them back down. (Maybe even Jeffers)

I say Raley because I think he is the most ready and thus gets first opportunity to fill 1B, or a corner OF spot due to trade or injury and possible shuffling. I think a lot of people are sleeping on him because he didn't come up through the system. He's a big kid with good power who runs well enough to take an extra or steal a base and even play some CF in a pinch. But agreed it could absolutely be Kiriloff, Larnach, etc, especially if we're talking later like June on. (Similar to Arraez last year)

 

A lot of love on here for Thorpe and I'm on board with that idea from the pitching side. Kind of silly to put him behind Graterol though. But I am big believer in Thorpe and his stepping forward could be huge this year whether it be in the rotation or pen.

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We need these guys to take a step, but banking on it in lieu of supplementing the roster is just a bad/cheap (yes, they are “cheap”) decision by the FO/ownership.

 

We certainly need Berrios and Buxton to take a step. But, is that really a likely outcome? They have both shown significant physical limitations. Berrios seemingly gets exhausted around the same time every year, and is a pretty small guy in general. Buxton has never proven he can stay healthy. Chances are greater that both go down in flames with injury issues this year than both simultaneously put it together. That’s something that should be planned for.....not hoped for.

 

I’m not sure Kepler has any more to give. A stellar offensive season was likely aided somewhat by the ball fiasco. Similar to Berrios, he wore down last year. Is that likely to improve as a player ages into their late 20s? Probably not likely. The league will also have much more information/reports on Kepler.

 

Additionally, any more out of Kepler and he’s a league MVP caliber guy. I just don’t think it’s realistic to expect/plan for that. Regression over last year is almost assured.

 

Those guys all taking significant steps would be huge for this team. So would signing a dependable, high-end-ish starting pitcher. Both are equally as likely to happen (as in, neither will happen). Doesn’t make me feel real great about the 2020 playoff prospects.

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I would like to see Graterol take that step and become as good as Berrios is now. Not sure that he can given the fact the Twins might move him to the bullpen, which I hope they don't cause in the past whenever they do that they never give that guy the chance to go back to being a starter and I think he's too valuable and too talented to use only in the bullpen.

Sano would be the 2nd guy I'd choose. I'm hoping he comes into camp in great shape and ready to rock whether he's at 1B or 3B. 

Buxton would be my #3. A full healthy season is all I wish for. Add to that and if he'd learn to bunt for base hits and steal a base everytime he's on he'd be the other teams nightmare. We don't need him to hit 30+ homeruns. Become the disrupter. Back off just a little on trying to make spectacular catches and keep yourself on the field for the betterment of the team. 

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I'm with the voices who are saying "other". I can't expect steps forward from pitchers in their 30s (Pineda is there, Odorizzi turns 30 one day after Opening Day) - maintaining their established peaks would be enough to ask because they are pretty good.

 

The Twins have assembled a cohort of pitchers who will be in their age-24 seasons (Alcala, Thorpe, Littell, Smeltzer), age-25 (Dobnak, Romero), or age-26 (Poppen, Stashak, Berrios). The other 10 on our 40-man are either older than this or else so young (and/or unaccomplished) that 2020 will be a year of maintaining/tweaking or else developing at AAA, respectively. Our front office seems to be banking on these nine to take another major step forward. I'm not nearly as optimistic, so I find it hard to pinpoint one of these, thus I'm hoping for "two or three of them".

 

Among the hitters, I am also with the ones hoping for "health" as the means for stepping forward. A full season of healthy production from Buxton, Sano, and Rosaio (the latter of whom I believe was nursing a nagging injury or two) would make up for possible regression from some others who may have enjoyed their career year in 2019.

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The whole team needs to take a step forward in some facet. For the three listed, Berrios was taken out after 4 innings in the most important game of the year.. The season should be planned to end in late October. Buxton needs to stay healthy.  Kepler, IDK if he could have done more during the season. He disappeared in the playoffs. Nelson Cruz and Garver arehe only 2 players that really can't improve from last year's team. The rest all need to get better. Here is the proof. https://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/2019_ALDS2.shtml

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I do agree Berrios should take a step forward next year, however I’m not sure he will. To me he has elite “stuff”, and outstanding control and command. Why I don’t think Berrios will take a step forward and dramatically improve is two fold. For one his wind up and pitching mechanics look quite complex and I think over a season it is difficult for Berrios to maintain his mechanics over a whole season. Secondly when his mechanics get “off” it seems to fluster Berrios and that translates to his “August swoon”. I think a good deal of what Berríos’ problems are is mental and to me that’s something I think will difficult to overcome.

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