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4 Plausible Developments That Would Dramatically Alter the Twins' Fortunes


Nick Nelson
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When things break completely right with a certain player, it can profoundly change a franchise's course for the better. 

In this article, I'll outline four (not totally unrealistic) developments for young Twins players that would have such an impact.

When things are going bad, as they did in 2021, it's easy to get caught up in the mindset that nothing ever goes right. But of course, we all know that's not the case. 

Twins fans have seen many unanticipated "glow-ups" over the years – players rising above their stations and surpassing expectations to become pivotal game-changers in the team's strategy. Examples would include: Taylor Rogers going from middling SP prospect to All-Star RP; Tyler Duffey doing more or less the same; Mitch Garver emerging as an elite offensive catcher; Jorge Polanco and Brian Dozier developing 30-HR power in the middle infield; and so on, and so on.

With these precedents in mind, let's leave the misery of this season behind us and envision some plausible best-case scenarios.

If any of these four developments play out, they could significantly ease and expedite the current team's return to contention.

1: Joe Ryan is a frontline starting pitcher

During his brief five-start MLB debut, Ryan did some rare things. It's not often you see a major-league pitcher take a perfect game into the eighth, or strike out seven consecutive batters. Even a veteran.

There are three possible paths forward for Ryan. The first is that big-league hitters figure him out and he implodes, perhaps shuttling between the minors or shifting to a bullpen role. The second is that he goes through the standard adjustments and reaches his low-end potential as a back-of-rotation arm.

The third path is that instead of being adjusted against, he makes the adjustments. He gets better. What if Ryan's best moments were entirely representative of what lies ahead?  

The 25-year-old posted a 3.43 FIP with the Twins this year, and threw strikes at a rate that you don't really see, from rookies or otherwise. If he can continue to do that while missing bats and keeping the ball in the yard (last part is most in question), Ryan could easily settle in as a legitimate No. 2 starter. Imagine what a difference that would make in the rotation-building initiative going forward.

#2: Griffin Jax becomes a relief ace

No one would've thought Tyler Duffey was destined to become a dominant major-league pitcher when he was posting a 6.43 ERA in 26 starts during his first full season in 2016. But, you might've looked at certain elements of his game – namely, a clearly excellent breaking ball that was producing great results – and seen the potential for something more. 

A few years later, Duffey was one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the league.

Jax was no better as a starter this year than Duffey in 2016, but he also looked equally miscast in the role. The clearest sign is that he was VASTLY better his first time through a lineup (.197 AVG, .597 OPS) than the second time through (.283, 1.010). Within that, you also have the existence of a clearly excellent breaking ball – Jax's slider generated a 36% whiff rate and .270 xwOBA – but little else.

"Relief ace" might be a small stretch, but I almost think "solid reliever" should be the baseline expectation for Jax once the Twins stop letting him get bombed as a starter. Move your gaze a shade in the optimistic direction and you could easily have a prime Duffey-type here. How big of an asset would that be for a bullpen that is currently short on high-quality options?

#3: Alex Kirilloff blossoms as a perennial MVP contender at first base

Kirilloff's numbers as a rookie were far from spectacular. In 59 games before undergoing wrist surgery, he slashed .251/.299/.423 with eight homers and 34 RBIs. His OPS+ of 98 reflects slightly below-average offensive performance. But he did all this as a 23-year-old with essentially zero previous experience above Double-A, and he was battling through a torn wrist ligament for most of his time on the field.

Despite all this, he flashed upside aplenty. Kirilloff shrugged off an 0-for-15 start and went on a tear as April turned to May and he acclimated. In the four games before spraining his wrist, he launched four homers and two doubles, boosting his slugging percentage to .571. His average exit velocity at the time would've ranked third in the majors behind Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge if he qualified. Not only that, but Kirilloff showed to be stunningly smooth and adept defender at first base, which will almost surely be his long-term defensive home.

As a sweet-swinging, run-producing lefty whose fielding chops at first can contribute to a sterling overall reputation, Anthony Rizzo stands out as a decent high-end comp for Kirilloff. He never was never named Most Valuable Player, but in his age 24-through-26 seasons (which are the three lying directly ahead of Kirilloff), Rizzo was a three-time All-Star, and twice a top-five MVP finisher. In the last of those three seasons, Rizzo was among the leaders on a championship-winning Cubs team. 

#4: Royce Lewis makes an immediate and sustained impact

The expectation for Lewis should be a slow, methodical return to action, with some rough patches as he regains his footing on the field. By the time spring training rolls around next year, he'll be two years removed from last real competitive baseball action. Most players would need some time to shake off the rust. 

Of course, Royce Lewis is not most players. He's a former No. 1 overall draft pick who was ranked by MLB.com as the 17th-best prospect in the game before losing his 2020 to a pandemic and his 2021 to a torn ACL. Sometimes natural talent rules out, as we saw with the aforementioned Mr. Kirilloff, who came back after missing all of 2017 due to Tommy John surgery and slashed .348/.392/.578 at Single-A.

The idea that Lewis will hit the ground sprinting upon his return feels a bit more far-fetched, given that he had some mechanical issues to iron out even before the injury. At the same time, he hasn't been sitting around doing nothing over the past two years, and he's also had the opportunity to mature mentally and physically. Lewis turns 23 next season, so he'll be the same age or older than fellow top prospects like Kirilloff and Byron Buxton were when they debuted. 

Lewis' defensive utility makes him a very intriguing figure in the team's planning. He's played primarily shortstop in the minors but some believe he's more likely to end up in center field. Those happen to be perhaps the two biggest positional uncertainties in Minnesota's future outlook (assuming Buxton is not re-signed).

If the Twins operate under the belief that Lewis could viably take over at shortstop midway through the 2022 campaign, they can opt for a cheap short-term plug at the position this offseason and channel the brunt of their resources elsewhere. This may require a leap of faith, but Lewis is a guy who warrants it. And if he can stick at short (or even in center), he can be a game-changing factor for the franchise. 

Just as they planned when they drafted him in 2017.

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Call me greedy, Nick, but I'll take all four of the above...please.

The good news on Lewis is that when playing his last baseball he was the best player in the league while playing with the best minor league players in the game.  Do you know if he will be participating in the Twins Instructional Camp this fall?  Assuming they have one?

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It would be great if all or most of those things pan out.  I'll add two more:

Austin Martin makes the team out of spring training with his defensive versatility and well rounded offensive game giving the Twins an on base machine at the top of their order to replace the traded Luis Arraez who brings back a solid starting pitcher with multiple years of team control.  Martin eventually settles in at Left Field where his defense invokes memories of the Royals Alex Gordon.

Jordan Balazovic discovers how great it is to be healthy all the time and wows in April and May, first in AA and then at AAA for St. Paul.  After his first June start for the Saints in which he throws 7 shut out 2-hit innings striking out 12 he is moved to the Big Team where he impresses with a performance that earns him Rookie of the Year votes while flashing #1 starter stuff.   With a couple of solid veterans fronting the Twins rotation and Balazovic, Ryan and Ober holding down the #3, #4, and #5 spots the Twins reclaim the division from a talented White Sox outfit who fire Tony Larussa after another 1st round playoff exit.  The Twins meanwhile, exorcise all their Playoff winless demons and cruise thru the post season without losing a game in route to winning the the World Series over the mighty L.A. Dodgers in a 4-game sweep. 

"How Sweet it IS !!!" 

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Individually, all 4 are very plausible, even worth taking that leap of faith.  All 4 together at the same time?  Ummmmmm, that is where I wince a little bit.  My risking the '22 season altogether on that much of a leap of faith is a little scary.  I did notice you didn't mention Miranda in that foursome.  I think I would feel a lot better about the group as a whole if he slid in and Lewis was given another year to recover.  

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Hard to argue of these points.  All quite plausible.  There has been some chatter here about Jax to the BP because of how effective he has been the first time through the lineup.  Let’s hope we see that to start 2022.  Allow me to add a couple more.

Perhaps the most impactful development would be if the Twins produced several quality SPs from the current deep crop of prospects outside of Ryan/Ober.  Of course, this is a really generic statement that would be true of any team but the Twins have a bunch of guys that could be very good major league SPs.  The influence would go beyond the obvious impact starting pitching makes.  It would also free up dollars the Twins have been investing in SPs and redirect it to other needs or extending our core.  Our future is going to look very bright if just two of Duran / Balazovic / Winder / Canterino / Enlow / Sands and SWR get established at the ML level this year.  

Jose Miranda could also have a huge impact.  I like Donaldson but his influence is short term.  Miranda could be an anchor in that lineup for the next decade.  Buxton / Polanco / Kirilloff and Miranda would be formidable at the top of the line-up.  

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38 minutes ago, Major League Ready said:

Jose Miranda could also have a huge impact.  I like Donaldson but his influence is short term.  Miranda could be an anchor in that lineup for the next decade.  Buxton / Polanco / Kirilloff and Miranda would be formidable at the top of the line-up.  

Plus he just needs to prove he can do it at an mlb level. He's not a struggling player like Jax or a hypothetical like Lewis.

I really want to see Jax thrive as a long reliever. While he had a rocky season, he showed some exciting flashes and had a terrific attitude. It's tough not to root for him.

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I enjoyed this essay.  All four are good ideas, but Lewis is the one that worries me.  I wish he could have gone to the AFL and got some diamond time in.  I do not look for him this next year.  I also question why Martin was not in the fall league as well as Richardson.  

I like your take on Jax.  A RP from our minor leagues would be great.

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Nice wish list, Nick!!  It would be great if it happened, but highly improbable.  I just hope the FO doesn't go into the offseason expecting Ryan to be a #2 starter or Lewis being the team's future star SS or Jax being a valuable member of the pen - that is, if they truly want to retool this team into a contender in 2022, as reported.

I like Ryan a lot, but as a two pitch starter, his ceiling might be limited.  His IP were very limited and we just can't draw too many conclusions from his two starts each against 2 of the worst offenses in baseball(Cubs and Cleveland).  He is undoubtedly our top pitching prospect as of now, but have to look at 2022 as a learning process.  Coming off surgery, Lewis is unlikely to be of much value next year and all the scouting reports indicate he is not the long-term answer at SS.  If his best fit is CF it means replacing Bux, and that would be a big downgrade!  As for Jax, his HR tendencies would seem to preclude him from being anything more than a mop up reliever.  We have plenty of those types.  We need shutdown closer-types to move the needle!

Best chance is Kirillof being a major contributor.  I only hope he can be servicable in a corner OF, at least until Sano's contract has ended. Many say we could trade Donaldson or Sano, but this lineup would look very pedestrian without either one of these guys.  Until Larnach can prove he belongs, Kirillof should be pencilled in to LF(or RF if Kepler helps bring back a #1 or 2 starter).   But his upside is pretty encouraging, as you stated.

This hopefully is a pessimistic take, but if the FO is staking their future jobs on such advancements, rather than add outside players to the present squad, I think we'll all be in for a disappointing season.

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Ryan - he's 26 next year. Generally, you know what you have with a 26 year old. Now, COVID changed things and he was a nice get, but he's likely a backend starter, at best. That's not really his "low-end potential." I like Ryan a lot but my guess is that the Twins will move annoyingly slow with him next year - he pitched only 90 or so innings last year (not counting the Olympics) and the Twins will probably aim for him to pitch somewhere near 130-150 next year. That's not really a front-line starter. My guess is the Twins would happily take a 30 start, 135ip 105-110 ERA+, 2 WAR season from him next year and call it a win.

I do think Jax can be a solid relief pitcher but not an elite one. He gives up to many HR but at an inning or less at a time, he could be an arm. 

Kiriloff - I think this is the most likely of the ones but still not likely. I think (barring injury) he'll be a solid middle of the order bat and occasional all-star. MVP contender might be a bit much but he'll be a big offensive weapon for us.

Lewis - he's missed two years of baseball and struggled with the bat. His minor league numbers are just bad. He had trouble getting an OBP over .300 in A+. I'm really surprised prospect gurus ranked him as high as they do. Hopefully they are right and I'm wrong but I think the Twins would be crazy to rely on Lewis at all next year.

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I’m reposting this excellent analysis from @Otto von Ballpark because we’re going to read a narrative about Jax’s success the first time through the order that is not true. 

Jax, 1st 5 MLB starts, first time through the order:
5 GS, 4 H, 0 XBH, 0 R, 3 BB, 0 HBP, 11 K

Jax, next 9 MLB starts, first time through the order:
9 GS, 12 H, 8 XBH (6 HR), 12 R, 6 BB, 2 HBP, 14 K

His 4 relief appearances don't help either, first time through the order:
4 G, 9 H, 3 XBH (2 HR), 5 R, 4 BB, 7 K

All told, he had a 5.39 FIP/xFIP the first time through the order this season, 5.10/5.36 after moving into the rotation.

Still a fairly small sample, and obviously it can't account for the potential of his stuff playing up in the pen, but it doesn't appear that he has shown any particular first time through the order ability thus far.”

Original post here

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So much talk about Jax being at best a bullpen arm.  Others continue to downplay his potential.  Come on folks, lets remember how little this young man has pitched and that he didn't pitch in 2020....at all.

My point being that he needs innings and experience to continue his development.  Should that be as a starter or in the pen, I don't have a clue.  What I do know is that this young man may, yes, I said MAY, just be scratching the surface of what he can become.  And age means nothing with this young man because when everyone else from his draft year was beginning their careers, he was finishing his education at the AFA before serving his (and our) country for a two year stint in the Air Force.

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1 hour ago, mikelink45 said:

I enjoyed this essay.  All four are good ideas, but Lewis is the one that worries me.  I wish he could have gone to the AFL and got some diamond time in.  I do not look for him this next year.  

I have to wonder if the plan all along isn't to send to the AFL but rather Fall Instructs.  This way, the Twins can greatly control and watch over the final stages of his rehab.  They would probably have a little less direct control/contact if he is in AZ as opposed to Florida.

Hard to say either way, but that is my initial thought.

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33 minutes ago, Vanimal46 said:

I’m reposting this excellent analysis from @Otto von Ballpark because we’re going to read a narrative about Jax’s success the first time through the order that is not true. 

 

Jax, 1st 5 MLB starts, first time through the order:
5 GS, 4 H, 0 XBH, 0 R, 3 BB, 0 HBP, 11 K

Jax, next 9 MLB starts, first time through the order:
9 GS, 12 H, 8 XBH (6 HR), 12 R, 6 BB, 2 HBP, 14 K

His 4 relief appearances don't help either, first time through the order:
4 G, 9 H, 3 XBH (2 HR), 5 R, 4 BB, 7 K

All told, he had a 5.39 FIP/xFIP the first time through the order this season, 5.10/5.36 after moving into the rotation.

Still a fairly small sample, and obviously it can't account for the potential of his stuff playing up in the pen, but it doesn't appear that he has shown any particular first time through the order ability thus far.”

Original post here

Ya, I don't get the Jax love on this site. I mean, emotionally, I get it. But factually? Not at all. Could he move to the pen and be good? Sure. But it doesn't seem likely to me. 

As for the rest? I'd think Martin starting in LF out of spring training and being a great hitter/fielder is much more plausible than any of the  other things on this list. Much. 

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2 hours ago, Karbo said:

I'll add #5. Buxton and the Twins agree on a new contract.

1. I agree with this and raise you one. Buxton is signed to long-term contract AND stays healthy for at least 120+ games.

2. I agree that we would need Ryan (or another prospect) to succeed at a #3 level or higher next year.

3. Another plausible option is we sign Thor and he stays healthy and is a #2 pitcher (vs. signs with someone else or signs here and breaks down, etc.)

4. We need one of Martin, Lewis, Miranda, or Larnach to breakthrough. Someone to push through and become a top 5-6 hitter in our lineup.

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Donaldson is the developmental key; trade him and use the salary savings to help retain Buxton or chase down a decent starting pitcher, Donaldson's absence opening up 3rd base for Miranda, who has nothing left to prove in AAA. With Donaldson completely out of the picture Sano moves to DH, opening up 1st for Kirillof, and backs up both corner positions if needed. 

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1 hour ago, Vanimal46 said:

All told, he had a 5.39 FIP/xFIP the first time through the order this season, 5.10/5.36 after moving into the rotation.

 

The one thing this is missing, though, is the potential that being a dedicated one inning guy could add a couple ticks of velo to his fastball, which then makes his breaking ball all the better. It's not guaranteed, but we've seen it before (Perkins comes to mind)

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35 minutes ago, roger said:

So much talk about Jax being at best a bullpen arm.  Others continue to downplay his potential.  Come on folks, lets remember how little this young man has pitched and that he didn't pitch in 2020....at all.

My point being that he needs innings and experience to continue his development.  Should that be as a starter or in the pen, I don't have a clue.  What I do know is that this young man may, yes, I said MAY, just be scratching the surface of what he can become.  And age means nothing with this young man because when everyone else from his draft year was beginning their careers, he was finishing his education at the AFA before serving his (and our) country for a two year stint in the Air Force.

In terms of innings, Jax was quite limited in his first full pro season (2017), but I think he's caught up pretty well since then compared to other Twins SP draftees.

2016 draftees, career pro innings:
Poppen 483
Jax 398
Balazovic 325
Wells 313

2017 draftees, career pro innings:
Barnes 412
Sammons 390
Enlow 240

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2 hours ago, Doctor Gast said:

FO signs Buxton, he remains healthy and becomes the MVP. This is most plausible if he get signed.

I agree with this take.

  • Joe Ryan is a back end starter with mid rotation a logical absolute ceiling. 1%
  • Griffin Jax has a BABIP of .167 the first time through the order, leading to his lucky results. His FIP is 5.10 and xFIP is 5.36. Sorry, but he's a perennial emergency starter. Jax becoming a shut down closer? 0.1%
  • Kirilloff an MVP playing 1B? Kirilloff may have a great hit tool, but he doesn't take walks and he hasn't shown the 40 HR potential necessary to be a legit MVP threat at first. A player getting MVP nods is going to have to OPS 1.000 or close to it at 1B or DH. Chance? 1%
  • Lewis has (had) the athleticism and that makes it hypothetically possible he could join the team mid-season, but Lewis would have to totally transform his game at the plate where he was terrible at high MiLB levels and in the field where he was even worse. Chance? 3%

Buxton has the physical tools and he's shown bursts of crazy high production at the plate. I don't expect him to ever play a full season, but there's maybe a 10% chance it happens. If the full year happens, it would be easy for him to outproduce his average and get into MVP territory. Chance? 5%. Those are pretty good odds for a predicting a single MVP season.

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20 minutes ago, JDubs said:

 

The one thing this is missing, though, is the potential that being a dedicated one inning guy could add a couple ticks of velo to his fastball, which then makes his breaking ball all the better. It's not guaranteed, but we've seen it before (Perkins comes to mind)

Perkins was a 5 pitch pitcher who dropped pitches, increased his velocity and fastball separation from his slider, making the slider a functional pitch, in an era where a 96mph fastball was a big advantage. All that while dealing with Rick Anderson's nonsense.

So many things had to work out for Perkins. Is it hypothetically, theoretically, maybe possible Jax could do the same? Sure. Is is plausible? Absolutely not.

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8 minutes ago, Unwinder said:

What's our optimistic ceiling for Larnach?

He is very highly thought of in prospect circles.......ceiling? a 4 WAR season or two, I'd guess. Not what I expect, I think he's probably a 2-2.5 war player, as his defense appears limited. That is a good player.....we should be happy with 2.5 WAR, imo.

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I'm in on #1: I like Ryan a lot and while I think he's going to have some bumps along the way, I also think he will be a very good starter. The off-speed stuff looked better than advertised and the fastball plays. Do I think he's going to be contending for the Cy year-in and year-out? No, but could he be a dependable starter who gets a little all-star love in a good season and never really has a bad one? I think so. I have no idea how anyone defines "front-line starter" or "ace" or any of that any longer.

I'm out on #2: Just not sure Jax has the stuff to be impactful at the MLB level. Maybe his fastball ticks up if he moves into a full-time relief role and plays up a bit more...but I wouldn't see him as anything more than a long man in the bullpen at this point, and that's not going to have a significant impact. I would love to be wrong?

I'm in on #3, though I don't think it's going to be at 1B for at least another season. I'm all in on Kirilloff's hit tool if he can stay healthy. He's good great bat skills, makes great hard contact, and I think he understands the strike zone (it's just hard to lay off a pitch when you know you can still hit it). I see a lot of line drives in his future and I'm happy to see him start in one of the corners next season.

I'm out on #4,,.for now. Not because I don't like Royce Lewis, not because I've already decided he's not a SS...just think that despite his talent it'll take him half a season at least to knock off the rust and get up to game speed. but I still like Royce.

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2 hours ago, Unwinder said:

What's our optimistic ceiling for Larnach?

Optimistic ceiling? Probably occasional All Star, bat first, corner outfielder. A Josh Willingham, Michael Cuddyer type. The advanced stats and metrics painted some unpleasant things for him this season, but he's still got a season to make some adjustments. 

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I think Jax is certainly the longest chance of happening. I think the other 3 are reasonable enough. I think Kirilloff will be a star if his wrists hold up. My only concern with him is the injuries and that he's going to have a career of battling wrist issues that will kill his power. I think Ryan is probably a #3 starter, but I could also see him as a Josh Hader type relief weapon. I'd be happy with either result for a half season of Nelson Cruz during a lost season. I'm a Lewis believer. I don't know that he hits the ground running next year, but I believe in his athleticism and work ethic. I wouldn't be shocked by a May or June call-up next year at all. I just think the kid is a gamer and he's going to come into next year as ready as anyone in his situation could.

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