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Three Questions Awaiting the 2022 Twins


There’s no denying that 2021 has been a year of failed expectations for the Twins. Between ineffective performance and injuries, the team has fallen flat consistently. Looking at 2022, they have some big questions to answer.

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will ultimately steer the direction of the 2022 club this offseason. It’s a very stripped-down roster compared to how this season started in terms of expectations, and how the front office decides to rebuild or retool is yet to be determined. However, there are still pieces in place, and answering questions about three key subjects could determine Minnesota’s outlook in the year ahead.

Max Kepler

Signed to an extension at the same time as Jorge Polanco, Kepler was given the larger contract. He responded by posting a career-best .855 OPS and was a key contributor on the Bomba Squad. In 155 games since he’s posted just a .737 OPS and 103 OPS+. To say he’s failed expectations would be putting it lightly.

Still just 28 years old, Kepler does hope for a prime resurgence to be in front of him. Minnesota dreamed of a player ready to take a step forward, and they saw it for just a single season. Much of how the Twins were expected to compete in 2021 and beyond was reliant on the core of Kepler, Polanco, Miguel Sano, and Byron Buxton. Those players reaching the peaks of their potential at the same time was always the developmental hope.

 

As pointed out by Twins Daily contributors Nash Walker and Tom Froemming, there’s a lot under the hood to like about Kepler. He’s a strong defender, and the inputs still suggest that production has room for positive regression. It’s getting late early, though, and the reality is results must follow. The Twins outfield could be crowded next season, with Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach joining Buxton and Kepler on more of a full-time basis. This winter, the front office may be tempted by dealing the German-born corner. What is the next step for Kepler, and does it happen with the Twins?

Miguel Sano

On the books for $9.25 million in 2022, Miguel Sano would seem to be in the Twins plans for the upcoming year fiscally. While there were times he looked essentially unplayable at the beginning of 2021, the reality is that he’s a hulking power hitter that’s always been susceptible to cold streaks. The timing wasn’t there out of the gate, but not playing him has often been fruitless.

Since July 4, Sano has posted an .865 OPS, which has jumped up to an .895 OPS in September. He’s an asset at the dish while being a patient and potent slugger. The ability at first base leaves plenty to be desired, but there’s an argument to be made that keeps his head in the game rather than just having him hit.

Presumably, the Twins won’t have a consistent designated hitter in 2022, which would seem optimal when it comes to roster construction. With Kirilloff worth taking time at first base and Josh Donaldson benefitting from days off in the field, rotating through bats makes sense.

Where Miguel Sano fits into the Twins plans next season remains to be seen. Is he cast entirely as their designated hitter, how much time does he split with Kirilloff at first, and is the club more adequately prepared to ride with him through the low points?

Starting Rotation

Surprisingly the Twins bullpen has taken a positive turn down the stretch, and a unit that was a complete zero to start the year has produced in the latter half of the season. There are usable pieces there looking ahead to 2022, and even Alex Colome could wind up finding his option selected by Minnesota.

When it comes to the rotation, the front office has its hands full. Bailey Ober and Joe Ryan look like future pieces, but counting on either of them to be the Opening Day starter seems like an acceptance of futility. Depth and quality would suggest a need for a higher ceiling option to be brought in, and where or how high Falvey aims should say plenty about the intentions for competitiveness.

As was the case coming into 2021, Minnesota has plenty of top prospects on the pitching side. Many were shelved at different points throughout this season after having a year off in 2020, and relying on them as more than a bonus seems foolhardy. However, building a group punctuated with retread veterans shouldn’t be expected to move the needle much either.

Derek Falvey’s calling card in coming to the Twins was pitching prowess, and while he’s helped develop some throughout the system, an overhaul like this will take some serious architecting.

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I want Kiriloff, Larnach, and Buxton to be the OF and I want someone other than Cave at number 4 - Kepler?  Celestino if we need a CF.

I would love to see Miranda, Gordon, Polanco, Sano, Donaldson in the IF and DH and Arraez as U.

Jeffers is C.  Is Garver back or do we have Rortvedt?  Not the strength we thought we had.

Who else is on the bench?  Astudillo?

SP I would love to see Ober, Ryan, Winder, Pineda and FA.  Next three - Balazovic, Sands, Jax

RP Rogers, Thielbar, Not Colome, Alcala, Duffey????, Moran if he gets his mojo back, Cano and who knows?

Coaching - a real bench coach with a little old school savvy.  

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Yeah not sure about Kep anymore and really tired of tons of ground balls into the shift as well as pop ups.  I know he is trying harder to go the other way but the results are not there yet.  I could see Celestino in that role or possibly Mark Contreras who can hit for power and cover all three outfield positions.  Kep does need to up his game or as the OP said maybe trading him gets us something we need.

Center needs to be Buxton they have to find a way to extend him.  We don't have anyone that can do what he does when healthy.  Left is likely a rotation of Rooker, Larnach and Arraez IMO. Kirilloff could play there too but I think they play him first more often than not because he is a plus defender there.

I don't think we should sleep on Sano either he is going to hit 30 HR's and that is after doing almost nothing the first two months of the season.  If he was doing this to start the season he would be in the 40 HR club which is pretty exclusive.  I don't love Sano at first but he is OK there and he was made for the DH spot to become big little Nellie.  Pitchers are trying to pitch around the big fella right now especially in tight spots because they are afraid of what he can do.  I think he comes into his own next year.

I love the turtle, the hustle, the try hard every play, the emotion but I think that with Garver, Jeffers and Rortvedt we have enough catcher depth.  With no options left he can't be moved up and down so the value he brought is over.  I think Gordon likely takes his spot as the guy who can play Left, center, 3rd, short, 2nd and pitch as needed. Their offensive value isn't that much different with either as they both have 600 OPS's. Gordon can't play catcher but his speed and position flexibility and greater defensive value will likely have the turtle moving on IMO. 

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Sano Garver Donaldson floating thru DH duties. Miranda sharing time at 3rd. Kirilloff at first. Question is who is at shortstop, and who do we carry as catchers/spare infielders.

 

Rotation is Thorpe, Jax, Dobnak, Ober and Ryan with Smeltzer in the wings with Barnes. I see 75 wins from this group easy! (If they pitch at least five innings a start).

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At least no one has brought up Lewis yet.  I have seen comments in the past that Lewis is heir apparent at SS and it could be next year or after.  Not sure that is viable option.  Handful of games since 2019 with a knee injury doesn't bode well for a SS position that has to move quickly and plant throw etc.  SS needs to be addressed with a long term (meaning not a one year deal) FA acquisition.  If Gordon is the better option, then make it so if you don't acquire anyone.  You need stability on a diamond with C, SS & CF.  We have 2 out of 3, who is SS that solidifies the group. Very easily could have 1 out of 3 if Buxton moves on

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OF Buxton ..(must get him signed long term !!) Kiriloff and Kepler...i just dont see Larnach getting over his K-ing soon...Rooker same thing.  Have to find a place for Miranda next year too...which IMO puts Sano as the DH most of the time..rotating with Donaldson?  Arraez has to play about every day..not enough positions to go around. But this wont mean a thing if Twins cant find quality #1 and # 2 starters. + 2 missing bats relievers....and they are not in the system now.

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I see people lobbying for Larnach and Rooker. Good grief, two more .200 hitters with some power. If what you like is an offense based on solo homers, there you go. Kepler, another .200 hitter, seems totally expendable. You can get that for the major league minimum, not $9 million. If he were gone he would not be missed. I think Nick Gordon needs to be given a chance to play every day: Speed!

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Still treating Sano like a development piece.  Sad.  Arms on the mound that only decide to throw well 30-40% of the season don't get the same deference.  Give me his season stats, not what he did in one month.  He is not a prospect and should not be treated like one.  There is an inability to stay engaged here---you referenced you might have to keep him playing first to keep him tuned in.  20 HR and 20 2B is is no major threshold with the style of baseball being played now.  Rosario did it 3 yrs in a row 2017-2019, Dozier 2014-2018.  They are not hard to find--and those players were contributors year round and on the defensive side of the ball.  Use your statistics to figure out how many HRs Sano needs to even out his partial season contribution and being a defensive liability at 1st.  I say that number is close to 35.  Kiriloff and or Larnach are not athletic enough to play the OF and are less than average fielders there.  Logjam at first. 

Twins still have no LF'r.

Mr Kepler is very frustrating at the dish. James Rowson helped him open up and make contact deeper in his stance, thereby using the opposite field much more in 2018/19, but he is gone now.   There is something to be said for having the league's best RF sweeper, who can also play center.  If you let Kepler go, you have to be positive you are upgrading the position.  With more left handed batters than ever, RF is responsible for a lot of assists every game.  The fact that you have a defensive hole in LF and a CF'r that is not consistently available to play makes the position more important.

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I would think that a last place ball club with no enthusiasm, poor fundamentals, sporadic offense, poor fielding, and almost no pitching, should mean everything and everybody is on the line.  To simply pencil in names next year due to name recognition, implying they are good would be very foolish indeed.

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Those statcast numbers really make Kepler look like an all-star player having a career year.  But he's not.  He's just not.  We can call any metric that suggests Kepler is doing fine as "Fake News."

The front office approach has been, I believe, to maximize statcast production and that would equate to greatness for the players and lots of wins.  Kepler seems to be doing everything he was told to do, and it's simply not amounting to anything meaningful for him or for the team.  It is perhaps not fair to blame Kepler for being mediocre in his prime.

As for Sano, I wish him all the best.  I know he will have great moments in the future.  It is my pie-in-the-sky wish that his future accolades happen on another team.  The Twins need consistency, not occasional highlight reel footage.

I'm optimistic about who the Twins have in the pitching pipeline.  But who the heck am I?  I predicted this year's starting staff, sans Shoemaker, would be incredible.  *sad trombone*

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Every single player in the Twins system should be available. If a trade improves the team, make it. Josh Donaldson and Jorge Polanco are the only two Twins who can hit and field.

Byron Buxton is a true talent but if he cannot be signed, the Twins need to see what other organizations may offer in return for our dynamic CF.

Miguel Sano hits the ball as hard as anyone, but his deficiencies are pretty big as 1B and his slumps, K's, and average make him expendable if he returns a decent pitcher. 

Max Kepler is an enigma offensively but his defense is solid. The team needs good defense and Larnach, Rooker, and Kirilloff do not begin to measure up to Max. Again, if Kepler returns the pitching the Twins need he can be traded. 

Starting pitching help is needed unless the Twins plan on a full stripping of their current core and totally rebuild. Ryan, Ober, Dobnak, Thorpe, Smeltzer, etc. will result in 100+ losses. I do think Ober and Ryan could work as the back end of the rotation.

My comments are not aimed at wholesale trades and sweeping change across the diamond but to those of us who watch the Twins play it is obvious that there are changes needed to the roster if the team wants to be competitive in 2022. I do not denigrate those who are looking for the Twins to roll with the current squad and let the young arms get experience, but am hoping for a return with relevance next season through 4-7 offseason moves.

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4 hours ago, umterp23 said:

At least no one has brought up Lewis yet.  I have seen comments in the past that Lewis is heir apparent at SS and it could be next year or after.  Not sure that is viable option.  Handful of games since 2019 with a knee injury doesn't bode well for a SS position that has to move quickly and plant throw etc.  SS needs to be addressed with a long term (meaning not a one year deal) FA acquisition.  If Gordon is the better option, then make it so if you don't acquire anyone.  You need stability on a diamond with C, SS & CF.  We have 2 out of 3, who is SS that solidifies the group. Very easily could have 1 out of 3 if Buxton moves on

I wouldn't worry too much about the ACL injury by itself. Soccer players come back from ACL all the time, in a sport that twisting on the knees is essential, and with plenty of contact in the area. Sure, he probably will be rusty at the beggining, and probably will not play his best SS intially. But I would bet that he can come back from this.

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In a salary cap league (of the Twins' own imposition) Kepler is expendable, certainly at his 2022 salary. He needs to be dealt for pitching and his salary diverted to more pitching.

No one will take Sano at his 2022 expense. On any other team, he is a DH and a DH only. To say his defense "leaves something to be desired" must be a quote from his kindly aunt.     

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I don't see how Kepler brings much back in trade value right now. If his 100 OPS+ isn't good enough for one of the worst teams in baseball, why would a better team want to acquire him and give up anything valuable?  Larnach hasn't proven that he's ready to be an every day outfielder.  Trading Kepler now seems like selling low so that a cheaper, slower player with less defensive aptitude who is still trying to figure it out at the plate at AAA can come in and struggle.  

Kepler has also been hurt this season.

I'd give Max the first half of next season to try to build value for himself, whether that be staying as part of the core or being moved at the deadline at a higher return value.  If Larnach figures it out a AAA and starts lighting it up there or Martin is banging on the MLB door otherwise, then that's when the 'move Kepler' conversation should begin.

Kepler as a 4th OF is an interesting notion.  Sure, he'd be expensive for that position in a vacuum. However, if you have pre-arb players starting in LF and RF, who cares?

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Quote

The ability at first base leaves plenty to be desired, but there’s an argument to be made that keeps his head in the game rather than just having him hit.

Flip side of this is you make Sano the full time DH so the only thing he has to focus on is hitting. Maybe that elimates the 6 weeks at the start of the season where he swings through every pitch he sees.

2019 might very well be career years for both Kepler and Sano, but both still bring a necessary skill set to the Twins next year. Kepler would take Jake Cave's dubious honor as the best 4th OF in the MLB if Larnach and Kirilloff emerge as starters. Sano is never going to change from what he is, which is a bat that is underqualified to hit 3-5 in the order, but is absolutely a weapon in the bottom half of the order.

A little positive regression for both of these guys next season and the Twins won't have much to worry about offensively.

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Another question - #5 - are our pitching gurus really as good as we have claimed?  Was Shoemaker wrong to make the statements he made?  He gave up one run in 20 innings over four starts in St Paul.  Sure we dumped him, but that is just a way of ignoring the truth in the statement.  When Happ departed we all cheered - who wants him.  The Cardinals did.  Somehow he is 4 - 2 with a 4.08 ERA for St Louis.  Berrios is 4 - 3 with Toronto and a 3.31 era - down from 3.48 with us and is the kind of pitcher we hope we can sign in FA.  Coincidence or something to wonder about?  

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You have to keep Kepler. I think he's a much better overall hitter than he's shown this season. And we absolutely need his defense, great in RF and solid in CF occasionally. I have no doubt his injuries have affected him this year. It's been obvious at times. And I'm going to continue to bang the drum of the Twins needing a quality RH 4th OF so Kepler, and others, can sit at times against LH pitching. 

I'm still good keeping Sano, though I wouldn't be upset if he was moved as part of a deal for a SP. I can live with his "streakiness" as a hitter because he's very dangerous and can carry a team at times. But, generally speaking, I want him hitting around 6th-7th. I think his defense is better than what the error numbers show, though I think he was better last year, which I don't get. Big target, great arm, great at scoops and digging balls out. He'll share 1B with Kirilloff, maybe Garver, and also DH. He's just too dangerous to dismiss, but should keep that dangerous bat lower in the order.

OBVIOUSLY SP is the #1 concern. The Twins HAVE to make a major investment in someone to lead the staff. And they have the $ to do so. I'm not sure who that guy will be, but Stroman just jumps out to me as the obvious choice, for various reasons. Is he going to cost $18M? $20M? I don't have the answer, but he or someone similar is key. Next, the FO just has to pull out another Odorizzi/Maeda type trade. The system is deep enough they SHOULD be able to find a match for a good, solid SP with a couple controllable years without having to make it hurt. This may be harder to do a 3rd time, and harder than just using $ to sign a FA. But that's what the FO is paid to do. I believe they then need to keep Pineda, or sign someone similar. (IMO, Pineda is almost a done deal). Ober and Ryan fill in 4th and 5th with Dobnak, healthy, as competition and depth. But there is also tremendous depth beyond that with beyond that coming up. But you just have to have 3 decent veteran types to lead the rotation to at least begin the 2022 season. From there, things can become fluid.

It sounds easy. doesn't it? Target a guy or two at the top of your list and just get it done. Do what you've done before and do it again. Then sign a solid veteran to a 1yr deal, or maybe a 1+1. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it sounds but it's what they need to do.

IF they can do that, however, they will have proved their abilities. Next comes that 4th OF I'm banging the drum for. Then comes a pair of RP for $8-10M to add what we have. I just don't know they have the $ to sign one of the TOP FA SS. But as nice as it would be, do they have to? A quality defensive SS who is OK with the bat, and the offensive ability/potential of the lineup might be all we need. Galvin? If Simmons had been the hitter he was the last 3-4yrs he might have been a great signing. Didn't turn out that way. Could the Twins believe he might rebound and be that guy again?

 

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I think there is a story in Kepler's Statcast number that DOES add up to his mediocre production, and maybe to a path forward.

His worst trait is xBA but it's not horrible. His hard-hit stats are good, but never great, especially for a corner outfielder. (Someone on TD once pointed out that Max's fly balls pre-2019 were long enough to be deep outs, but seldom long enough to be hits. I'm betting his 2021 flies look the same) To stand out, he needs to get *some* stat that's well above average. To do that, he needs to sacrifice something.

Should he be swinging for the seats more, to get the hard-hit numbers over the hump to being a standout? Since he has good discipline, it looks like he could go there. The Bomba Squad season showed this approach can succeed, but 2019 was a world of juiced baseballs where the majority of pitches were fastballs. After 2021, the low xBA tells me he would sacrifice too much contact to be viable. His AVG is barely playable as it is.

Maybe his best approach is the other way around. Shorten and flatten the swing, and work on line drives. This may seem disappointing, but he has enough foot speed, discipline, and physical strength to make this a productive approach. So, more aiming for .260/.360/.410 than the current .210/.310/.410.

Is that an improvement? Well, OPS goes up by just .050, which is nice. But a sensible RC27 would go from:

205 TB * (105 H + 75 BB) / (500 AB + 75 BB) / 395 outs * 27 = 4.4 runs/game for a lineup of fly ball Keplers

to

205 TB * (130 H + 75 BB) / (500 AB + 75 BB) / 370 outs * 27 = 5.3 runs/game for a lineup of line drive Keplers

Which is a huge improvement

 

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That's what I've been thinking Max should be doing for some time.  He does run well.  Sacrifice some "power' to make more consistent "contact" and he'd be an improvement.  If I pencil in Pineada #4, Ryan #4 and Ober #5 that means I need to sign a top flight SP as my #1 (Rodan, Ray, Stoman, Gausman) and I need to trade for my #2.  (Alcantara, Montas, Bassitt).  If I could somehow acquire an Eduardo Rodriguez or James Kaprillian I would have some "depth" while still having a Dobnak or Gant around.  With this approach, I can see how things look for Balazovic, Winder, et al next season and if they're ready move em' up.  I also still wonder, that while Sano is looking better, doesn't that also make him at least a LITTLE more viable as a trade candidate ?  Not sure what Cron's status in Colorado is after this season, but if the DH comes to the N.L. I think the Rockies could be very intrigued with Sano's potential mashing at Coors.  Maybe a blockbuster for Marquez ?  Settle for a solid vet arm like Jon Gray ?  I'd have to monitor the trade values, because I believe Sano is currently a negative but maybe Sano can get out from being underwater and a deal could be made.  An outfielder like Connor Joe is interesting to consider from the Rockies as well. 

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