With the Twins boasting one of the worst records in the league and continuing to affirm it with their play week after week, it's natural to start thinking about the big picture, and wondering what the path forward looks like.
Has their championship window closed? Is a full-on rebuild in the offing? Or is this a bump in the road that calls for retooling on the fly and getting back after it in 2022?
I personally lean toward the latter, for a number of different reasons. Among them: these five key positive player trends all support the idea that Minnesota could move back into contention relatively quickly.
1. Jorge Polanco Is Returning to Form
I'll admit: I was about ready to give up on Polanco as a standout player. In mid-April I openly wondered when Rocco Baldelli's faith in the infielder would be shaken, noting that Polanco continued to hit in critical lineup spots regularly despite woeful production over his past full season's worth of games. Incidentally, Baldelli's confidence DID appear to diminish around that time ... temporarily.
In the latter half of April and into May, Polanco frequently found himself hitting in the bottom half of the lineup, which had almost never happened under Rocco's watch. We also learned somewhere around this time that Polanco was once again being bothered by his twice-repaired ankle. Things looked grim. But to his great credit, the 27-year-old started to find himself at the plate again.
After finishing April with a miserable .555 OPS, Polanco raised that mark 150 points by slashing .253/.343/.494 in May. He's kept clicking in June, where he is thus far 8-for-24 with two doubles and a home run. Batted-ball data backs up the improved production; as Nash Walker points out, Polanco leads all second basemen in hard-hit rate since the start of May.
The ankle might still be barking, but Polanco is finding a way to battle through and get the job done. Right now he actually has a higher hard-hit rate, barrel rate, and average exit velocity than any prior season in his career. Dude is mashing.
He's restoring his status as a building-block type player, which is excellent news because Polanco remains under contract for at least the next two seasons, with club options for 2024 and '25.
#2. Taylor Rogers Is as Good as Ever
His frequent struggles in 2020, combined with the inherent volatility of relief pitchers, led plenty of us to wonder whether Rogers' days as a top-tier relief arm were over – to the extent that bringing him back in arbitration for $6 million was a subject of some debate.
Am I pleased to say those debates look pretty silly now.
Shaking off his mediocre work in the short season, Rogers has been phenomenal here in 2021, posting a 2.57 ERA and 2.59 WHIP across 24 ⅓ frames. His 12.6 K/9 rate would be a career-high, as would his 12.3% swinging strike rate, and he ranks 18th among all MLB relievers in fWAR. Take a look at his Statcast measurements and all those bright red circles.
Under team control for one more year after this, Rogers is proving he's someone the Twins can count on as an anchor in their bullpen. They've got much work to do with this unit, but having a centerpiece of his caliber makes a big difference. He's been among the few bright spots in a disastrous relief corps, but not the only one: Tyler Duffey's recent improvement and Luke Farrell's impressive early work are also encouraging developments.
#3. Josh Donaldson Is an Iron Man Again
I'm not sure Donaldson's season can be viewed as any kind of glowing positive in the grand scheme, but the fact he's been able to stay on the field as a regular fixture is huge, and frankly seemed unfathomable two months ago.
JD's first season with the Twins was ruined by a reemergence of his calf issues, framing his health as a primary question mark during the ensuing offseason, and he lasted all of one plate appearance before going down this year. With the Twins still on the hook for $21 million annually for three more seasons, Donaldson was quickly beginning to look like a constrictive burden in their roster construction efforts going forward.
The third baseman ended up missing only 10 games following the mild hamstring strain in Game 1. Since returning on April 14th he's played in 45 of a possible 47 games, starting 43 of them. Even with the missed time, Donaldson ranks third on the team in plate appearances. Since coming off IL, he leads all Twins in both PAs and games played.
His performance may leave something to be desired and he runs like he's dragging an anvil, but at 35, Donaldson is showing he can hold up as an everyday player and he's still clobbering the ball even if the results haven't been there. The outlook here has improved drastically. This team was going to be in serious trouble if things continued to devolve.
#4. Rookies Are Ready for the Challenge
In a season where so much has gone wrong, it would only make sense for rookies to come up and look totally overwhelmed. I mean, when even the established veterans are looking lost, how are young kids supposed to find their way?
Instead, while there have been exceptions, most of the newcomers on this roster have risen to the occasion. I talked in the latest Week in Review column about the impressive early showings from pitcher Bailey Ober and infielder Nick Gordon. Alex Kirilloff has hit the ground running, although his balky wrist currently appears to be sapping all his power. Trevor Larnach looks like a seasoned vet in the batter's box.
These guys could all play fairly significant roles on a competing Twins team in 2022. Regardless of how they supplement from outside, there's no doubt that Minnesota's return to contention will need to be fueled internally to a large degree. The young wave is mostly inspiring confidence right now.
#5. Mitch Garver Is Elite Offensively Again
Garver went through an awful ordeal in Baltimore last week, and he'll probably be sidelined for a while. But, so long as he doesn't choose to quit baseball (I'd consider it), there's plenty of reason to be excited for his return.
In the month prior to his tremendously unfortunate mishap behind the plate, Garver wasn't just hitting well – he was dominating like few other hitters in the league. From May 2nd to June 1st he slashed .286/.444/.589 with four homers, five doubles, and a 17-to-16 K/BB ratio. His OPS during that span ranked third among all AL hitters and his .440 wOBA was almost 60 points higher than the next-best MLB catcher (Yasmani Grandal of the White Sox).
In the aftermath of a hideous slump that lasted throughout 2020 and carried over into the first month of 2021, this awakening from Garver has been reinvigorating. He's not just getting lucky and running into meatballs – he has fundamentally transformed his offensive game and turned back into the selective, smart, fastball-crushing force that earned a Silver Slugger award in 2019.
Garver was playing at an MVP-caliber level in the month before he went down, just as he did throughout the balance of 2019. If he can come back and sustain anywhere near that level, he'll be an enormous difference-maker, and he's controllable through the next two seasons.
I know I am. This team has a whole host of troubles right now but they're not rotting away at the core. In addition to the names mentioned above, they figure to get back their top two starters (José Berríos and Kenta Maeda) and their best player (Byron Buxton), although in two of those cases it could be the last ride here. Now, those guys have their own set of question marks – can Maeda get healthy and shake off his uncharacteristic early-season struggles, and can Buxton ever stay on the field for two weeks consecutively – but it'd be silly to give up on this team and blow it up.
Here's hoping the rest of the season gives us more silver linings to build on. As we learned not too long ago when a 78-win also-ran in 2018 blossomed into a 101-win world-beater in 2019 – not to mention the vice-versa scenario this year – the tides can turn quickly.
MORE FROM TWINS DAILY
— Latest Twins coverage from our writers
— Recent Twins discussion in our forums