On Wednesday afternoon, the MLB Players Association and the league drew incrementally closer to an agreement on how to fit an MLB season into the second half of the summer. By all accounts, the schedule is likely to include about 60 games (perhaps a few more) in about 10 weeks, with an expanded 16-team postseason played thereafter. The Twins, who would suffer as much as or more than any other team if the season were canceled outright, are in great shape if such a season does materialize.
In all likelihood, teams will try to combat the truncated runway to a season by demanding less of their starting pitchers this season, lightening the considerable workload of a full-fledged starter in a five-man rotation. Even with (perhaps) an extra day off or two on the calendar, it wouldn’t be surprising to see teams utilize six-man starting rotations. Some of the same teams, and some others, will also shorten their leashes with starters, going to their bullpens earlier and using them in lieu of starters on certain days.
The Twins are in an excellent position to do just that. The delay to the start of the season virtually assures that Rich Hill will be ready come Opening Day (the tentative date for which appears to be July 19). That gives the team an enviable amount of rotation depth, however they elect to deploy it: José Berríos, Jake Odorizzi, Kenta Maeda, Hill, Homer Bailey, Devin Smeltzer, and Randy Dobnak.
The best strategy for the team would be to use the first six on that list as their starters early on, with Dobnak acting as a long man and stabilizing the middle-relief corps. Then, when Michael Pineda finishes serving his suspension for PED use, he can slot into the rotation over the final few weeks, with Smeltzer sliding into a role alongside and opposite Dobnak.
If there’s a weakness in the games of Maeda, Hill, or Bailey, it’s a lack of the arsenal depth and durability to dominate deep into games and seasons. In the frenetic sprint the proposed season figures to be, those are easy flaws to cover, especially given the depth of Minnesota’s bullpen. Taylor Rogers, who wore down slightly late last season after heavy multi-inning use and a few too many back-to-back outings, figures to be able to continue getting more than three outs at a time, with both a shorter season and the possibility of more off days involved.
Trevor May and Tyler Duffey still feel like less-than-bulletproof setup men, despite their dominance late in 2019, but in this kind of season, only one needs to return at the level at which we last saw them. Sergio Romo and Tyler Clippard provide valuable variation, and Cody Stashak and Zack Littell could act as openers or as solid middle relief options. Again, for each of these pairs of pitchers, only one has to meet expectations in order for the Twins to get by.
The inescapable weirdness of this season, and the extraordinary variance to which the season itself will be subject, will make pitching depth more important than ever, despite the lack of a draining final stretch after a long campaign. The Twins have that depth, and it will insure them against some of that violent variance.
For many Twins fans, however, the expanded playoff bracket might be daunting. Given that the club hasn’t won a playoff series in almost 20 years, needing to win two or three series just to reach the World Series feels suboptimal. Still, there’s a way to see this as a bonus for the Twins.
It’s exceedingly unlikely, even given the shortened season, that the Twins will fall short of the playoffs. In fact, even accounting for the variance inherent to this season, they remain very likely to finish with one of the four best records in the American League. That could well mean that the teams of whom Twins fans are (justifiably) afraid, come October, will have to avoid catching some bad luck against another, lesser team before they even earn the right to face Minnesota.
It’s reasonable to expect that, with their experience and more top-heavy roster, the Astros or Yankees might overpower the Twins in the playoffs again this year. If they must first beat a respectable team like the Angels or White Sox, even in a best-of-three, though, that gives the Twins a slightly better chance of avoiding the juggernauts, and of either reaching the Series without facing a powerhouse or being knocked out just by bad luck. While the latter would be bitterly disappointing, it would be slightly less frustrating than getting flattened by a genuinely superior team yet again. The former, of course, would feel no less sweet for most Twins fans simply because it came without the suffering and David-versus-Goliath dynamic that their recent encounters with the Yankees have had.
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