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  • Are the Minnesota Twins the Best Team in the American League?


    Nick Nelson

    In my 15 years following baseball as an adult, I can distinctly recall plenty of occasions where the Twins reported to spring training as clear division favorites. But never, to my recollection, have they been viewed through any objective lens as the class of the entire American League.

    As spring training gets underway here in 2020 and fellow contenders for the distinction face myriad issues and distractions, the Twins might very well deserve a billing as the team to beat.

    Image courtesy of Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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    The three defending division champs – Yankees, Astros, Twins – are rightfully being framed as top dogs in the AL. Generally, the trio is stacked in that order; the latest Vegas betting odds portray Minnesota as third-most likely among AL teams to win the World Series at +2000, solidly behind New York (+350) and Houston (+700). This hierarchy is perfectly understandable:

    • The Yankees, coming off an injury-plagued season that still saw them win 103 games and nearly reach the World Series, added the top free agent in Gerrit Cole.
    • Houston lost Cole to the Yankees, accounting for the flip-flop at the top, but this remains a mostly-intact team that tallied 107 wins and came within a game of clinching its second title in three years.
    • The Twins had an aggressive and fruitful offseason, building upon the sturdy foundation that yielded incredible regular-season results in 2019, but they are unproven at this level, especially in the rotation.

    But while Minnesota hits the ground running here in the early days of spring training, fully healthy and devoid of major drama, their peers at the top tier aren't in such favorable places.

    New York has been pummeled with a barrage of bad news in the rotation, which was in need of Cole's upgrade after producing so-so results last year. James Paxton underwent back surgery in early February and will miss the first few weeks of the season at least. More disturbingly, Luis Severino is dealing with forearm soreness, and at last check, was slated to undergo a "battery of tests" from "several specialists." Obviously, there is concern here. [update: Severino will indeed miss the season due to Tommy John surgery.]

    If the Yankees open up the season with both those key starters sidelined, their rotation figures to look something like this: Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery, Jonathan Loaisiga. While the Twins certainly can't compete at the No. 1 spot, I think there's a good case they are significantly stronger outside of it. New York will hope to get back Paxton and Severino at full strength somewhere along the way, but Minnesota has Michael Pineda and Rich Hill in the offing.

    Offensively, both the Twins and Yankees are going to be good. If it's anything like last year, it could be close to a wash. Fuller seasons from Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge would do much to offset the addition of Josh Donaldson to the Bomba Squad. But no team – including the Yanks – can match Minnesota's lineup depth.

    Okay, so what about the Astros. They've won 100-plus games in three consecutive years. They built a model for success that others throughout the league (including Minnesota) openly seek to emulate. They are clearly loaded with talent, boasting a high-octane offense and the reigning Cy Young winner.

    I can buy that, on paper, Houston is a better team than Minnesota. But the whole "on paper" concept has been thrown askew for this club, as revelations of past cheating come to light. With both their manager and general manager fired, and players under unprecedented verbal assault from their peers around the league, the Astros face a firestorm the likes of which we've never seen.

    How will this maelstrom affect their on-field performance? Maybe a lot, maybe a little. We have no way to know. But it certainly adds an element of uncertainty for this group of players, as they deal with cold receptions from players and fans across the league, under a new (albeit seasoned and respected) manager, with their every move scrutinized.

    Granted, we still haven't flipped the calendar to March. There's a long way to go before Opening Day. But Twins camps has been filled so far with positives: Donaldson exerting his leadership, prospects starring in an opening exhibition blowout, Rocco Baldelli officially certifying World Series aspirations, pitchers blowing away opposing hitters in early action.

    Miguel Sano, who showed up a year ago with a heel laceration that set him back significantly, is now in the proverbial best shape of his life. Nelson Cruz survived an early scare with his balky wrist. Byron Buxton, whose 2019 season ended with shoulder surgery, is already taking hacks in the cage without any apparent limitations.

    https://twitter.com/morsecode/status/1229427243719577600

    The negative storylines, such as Fernando Romero missing spring training with visa issues, are thus far sparse and relatively minor. Obviously I recognize this won't always remain the case, but the Twins are at least starting from a good place and, as alluded to before, they're well equipped to sustain the inevitable injuries and tribulations that come along.

    One thing working against Minnesota in this conversation is experience. The Yankees and Astros have both shown the ability to sustain elite performance over multiple seasons. They've both made deep playoff runs. The Twins won't be able to boast those kinda credentials until they actually do it, which is why we won't see them jump New York or Houston in the betting odds despite the circumstantial advantages discussed here.

    Still, the fact that a respectable case can be made for the Twins as pennant favorites at the start of spring training? Well, it's exciting and frankly a little difficult to process. Minnesota spent so long as an also-ran, and was such a scrappy underdog even in the modern glory days, that the Twins being viewed across the league as an intimidating and overmatching opponent will take some getting used to.

    I look forward to it.

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    I still don't think the starting pitching is high-level. Not sold on Berrios being anything more than a 15-win, 3.75 ERA pitcher. I hope I wrong, but we'll see.

    Barring a huge surprise, they're definitely not going to edge the Yankees or Astros in terms of a #1 starter. But I don't think that alone discounts them as a possibly better overall team. 

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    I don't see much of an argument for the Twins being better than the Yankees, especially since they've added Cole. They should likely be healthier this season since they had an astronomical amount of injuries!

     

    I could see Houston decline with all of the distractions spiraling out of control and [theoretically] no more cheating for the hitters. I wouldn't be shocked if the Twins end up with a better record. 

     

    But I also wouldn't be surprised if the Twins regress big time despite this season looking quite good on paper. You know what they say about counting chickens...

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    Most years I can imagine a path whereby the Twins make the playoffs and after that it is really not that hard to imagine guys like Berrios or Odorizzi stepping up big and the Twins getting hot regardless of the dismal showings of the past.   This year it is just a little easier to do the imagining.     I don't like talking about the playoffs in February or even March, April, May, June, July or August.     Simply put, if the Yankees, Astros and Twins were all in the same division where would you put your money to take 1st place.    Thats really a better test of who the best team is anyway.   Mine would be on the Yankees, then the Astros and then the Twins, so no, the Twins are not the best team in the American League.  I'm hoping they are the best team in the AL Central.

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    On paper, probably.  However, this team will go as their pitching goes and is likely to me more susceptible to the injury bug in 2020 as compared to 19.  It seemed like no matter who went down, somebody came off the bench and performed well above average.  An injury (or underperformance) to the pitching staff will create a big gap which is unlikely to be filled.  And, I think you can say the same thing if Cruz, Donaldson or Sano go down for an extended period.  You could probably add Garver to that list.

     

    I have cautious optimism at this point.  Last season was awesome, I am not expecting repeat performances like that on an individual basis.  

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    Barring a huge surprise, they're definitely not going to edge the Yankees or Astros in terms of a #1 starter. But I don't think that alone discounts them as a possibly better overall team. 

    I'm not convinced that Berrios even edges either of their #2 starters. But I do agree that that alone doesn't necessarily discount them from being a better overall team. 

     

    Though, I don't really think the Twins are better than the Yankees. I have no idea what to think of the Astros chances at the moment. What it boils down to in my mind is that I simply don't trust the Twins pitching. Pitching wins come October, and really that's all I care about in the long run.

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    Our line up is definitely the best. Our biggest problem last year was the BP folding before midway, there they couldn`t support the starting rotation & became overtaxed. We shouldn`t have that problem this year, they should be one of the best. Defense has improved, how much? It`s yet to be determined but we`ll fall short comparatively to others.

    How we fare depends on how we click off the bat & maintain it.

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    I think the Twins will be a better team than the Astros this year, but it all comes down to health and the starting pitching as to whether they can overtake the Yankees.

     

    • Berrios has to step it up yet another notch and become a true #1.
    • Odorizzi has to prove that 2019 was his new norm and not the anomaly to his previous years.
    • Pineda has to come back from his suspension and stay healthy and as productive as he was in the second half of last season.
    • No hiccups from Maeda switching leagues and he shows he wasn't moved to the pen the last two years for performance reasons.
    • Homer Bailey has to prove that the 2+ months of improved pitching (which still only produced a league average ERA+) is the real Homer Bailey, rather than the previous 4+ years.
    • Rich Hill, at age 40, will have to come back and do something that is seemingly impossible for him - stay healthy. 

    That's a lot of things that have to break right. I think two or three are likely to happen, with the last two being long shots.

     

    That means that some combination of Chacin, Thorpe, Smeltzer, Dobnak, Balazovic, Duran, et al. is going to have to step up in a big way. And it's probably too soon to ask that of some of those guys and too late for another.

     

    That doesn't even account for possible regression on the offensive side. There will likely be some, but from whom and to what extent is hard to say.

     

    The other thing that I think gets glossed over is the amount of depth the Yankees built up through the freakish amount of injuries they had last year - they won 103 games while only having 4 "regulars" with more than 125 games played.

     

    They've got some pitching questions, too, with Severino's forearm, German's suspension, and Paxton's back.

     

    But if we're assuming all of the Twins guys come back healthy then we have to assume the Yankees will, too, when making predictions. And if that's the case, I'll take Cole, Severino, German, Paxton over Berrios, Odorizzi, Maeda, Pineda in a playoff series.

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    The Yankees have a huge advantage in the bullpen. We may have a nice bullpen but it is not a shutdown end of game bullpen that the Yankees have. With our starters we have there will be 4 innings to be covered. Taylor Rodgers is good but we don't have one let alone two other ones to shut down a playoff team.

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    The Yankees have a huge advantage in the bullpen. We may have a nice bullpen but it is not a shutdown end of game bullpen that the Yankees have. With our starters we have there will be 4 innings to be covered. Taylor Rodgers is good but we don't have one let alone two other ones to shut down a playoff team.

    I was going to note the bullpen, as well. But then my optimism held me back a bit. What if Duffey and May continue where they left off in the 2nd half? And Littell shows last year was legit? Romo does what Romo does and Clippard is our "RPloogy"? Not the names of the Yanks, but could still be shut down, too.

     

    Love the optimism, Nick! I'll ride it until the games tell me otherwise.

     

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    But I also wouldn't be surprised if the Twins regress big time despite this season looking quite good on paper. You know what they say about counting chickens...

    Yeah I know what you mean. Remember San Diego and Philly last year - two huge signings of Machado and Harper, plenty of hype surrounding both teams (especially Philly). Let's not forget how the Indians were also an across-the-board AL Central winner in just about every prediction model out there before 2019.

     

    I've ran through the scenario in my mind. The Twins stumble, start 3-8 or something, and it turns out Cruz needs surgery and Donaldson's in an 0-24 slump. Guys start pushing. Sano and Buxton go into one of their infamous black holes at the plate. The league figures out how to pitch to Arraez, and Kepler's regressing. All of a sudden Astudillo and Adrianza are starting every game and LaMont Wade's playing in the OF every day for some reason.

     

    The White Sox are hot, a year ahead of schedule. The Indians are back.

     

    Here come the headlines: "Donaldson Unhappy in Minnesota", "Pineda needs surgery", "Twins baseball player arrested for playing Scrabble in a Cub Foods Parking Lot" and the house of cards just falls into shambles....

     

    Then I wake up and realize it was all a bad dream....at least for now. I think this team will be good, but I also think it's very important to get off to a very good start and not play catch-up for too long in April.

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    So far I haven’t heard any speculations linking the Twins leadership to the cheating scandal. (Fingers crossed). Can’t say the same for NYY. If both Houston and NY hitters suffer a Marwin Gonzalez type regression, the Twins lineup could be far superior.

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    On paper, probably.  However, this team will go as their pitching goes and is likely to me more susceptible to the injury bug in 2020 as compared to 19.  It seemed like no matter who went down, somebody came off the bench and performed well above average.  An injury (or underperformance) to the pitching staff will create a big gap which is unlikely to be filled.  And, I think you can say the same thing if Cruz, Donaldson or Sano go down for an extended period.  You could probably add Garver to that list.

     

    I have cautious optimism at this point.  Last season was awesome, I am not expecting repeat performances like that on an individual basis.  

     

    I think whether or not there is a gap in the pitching staff depends largely on when the injury/underperformance occurs.  The Twins are 10 deep in "respectable" starting options (Berrios, Odo, Bailey, Maeda, Pineda, Hill, Chacin, Dobnak, Smeltzer, and Thorpe) before accounting for any prospect breakthroughs.  That seems better than the Yankees, who are already turning to a guy who pitched to a 4.95 FIP last year, with 4.5 bb/9, a 1.5 WHIP, and only induced 13% soft contact.  It seems to me when Falvine realized top of the rotation help wasn't gettable, they shifted to depth of the rotation help, which leaves them in good position to absorb injuries.

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    Other than wins, how would you measure a team?  By height?

     

    Since the schedule is not equal, it's entirely possible for an inferior team to win more games.  Fangraphs projections show the Yankees to be in a division with 2 other teams essentially as good as the Twins (Rays at 90 wins, Twins at 88, Red Sox at 87).  The Central is projected to have the worst champion, worst runner up, and worst 3rd place team, while the 4th and 5th place finishers are each 2nd out of the three divisions.  Put more succinctly, the Twins are likely to play nearly half their games against a markedly easier schedule than either the Yankees or Astros.

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    The Yankees have a huge advantage in the bullpen. We may have a nice bullpen but it is not a shutdown end of game bullpen that the Yankees have. With our starters we have there will be 4 innings to be covered. Taylor Rodgers is good but we don't have one let alone two other ones to shut down a playoff team.

     

    Ummm, last year the Twins bullpen had only .2 WAR less than the Yankees, with a better FIP and essentially identical xFIP.  The Twins bullpen had a better k-bb%, an identical WHIP, and a better SIERA.  The only real advantage the Yankees pen had was in giving up less hard contact, and getting more soft contact.

     

    That being said, if you look at only the second half of the season (which more closely resembles what our current bullpen will hopefully look like), the Twins pen was better in WAR, FIP, xFip, k-bb%, WHIP, and SIERA, although the contact disparities remained.

     

    I think it cannot be said with any amount of certainty that the Yankees bullpen is better, much less a huge advantage.  The pens seem likely to be a wash.

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    So far I haven’t heard any speculations linking the Twins leadership to the cheating scandal. (Fingers crossed). Can’t say the same for NYY. If both Houston and NY hitters suffer a Marwin Gonzalez type regression, the Twins lineup could be far superior.

    Marwin Gonzalez's OPS in 2019 was 3 points higher than it was in 2018.

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