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  • 4 Plausible Developments That Would Dramatically Alter the Twins' Fortunes


    Nick Nelson

    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.

    Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    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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    I would say the most likely is that Kirilloff develops into a force. But I want him in RF. Kepler’s ultra low batting averages won’t do and he’s had plenty of time to adjust that pull first mentality. The second most likely is that Miranda steps in and plays a lot. I would then sign a solid hitting LF for and OF of new sign in LF, Buxton in CF and Kirilloff in RF.

    I hope Ryan is like his starts save the last one, which was frightening. I don’t know what to expect there. Falvey and Levine can turn their grade from F to A if they can sign Robbie Ray and Danny Duffy. And re-sign Pineda.

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    1 hour ago, bean5302 said:

    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. 

    Tough description as a Willingham, Cuddyer type.  In my ole eyes, those were two totally different players.  Willingham had lots of power and not much else.  Cuddy also had power, albeit not as much.  But Cuddy also hit for average, doubt he struck out as much and although not fast was a very good right fielder with a great arm...who also was more than adequate at first, second and third.  He did win a batting title in the other league, didn’t he?

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    6 hours ago, Dave The Dastardly said:

    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. 

    If the Twins trade Josh and don't pay all or most of the contract, the Twins will have to give up a decent prospect. Donaldson was the 2nd best player on the team this season. If the Twins want to compete next season, which the FO is saying they want to, they won't trade Donaldson. 

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    6 hours 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.

    True, but.....how many long term successful starters are there that have his type of velocity and control in this day and age?

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    I think I initially misread this as an "in 2022" article, but I like that it wasn't. This all seems a bit more plausible to me over the longer haul, though with the exception of Jax matching Duffey's prime success (that seems downright impossible to me).

    2022 is going to be very bad for the Twins - way too many rookies who are going to take their lumps - but a good year in terms of development and growth could set the table for success for 2023.

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    #1] Ryan is an athlete and competitor and bright. Don't underestimate those qualities. His FB is average velocity, 91-94, but plays up due to location and release. We were informed his secondary stuff needed work. OK. But I watched his games and his secondary stuff looked pretty good to me his first 4 starts. Not talking about the teams he pitched against, just watching his stuff. His last start was pretty scrappy, but come on, we're talking about a rookie pitching his final game after attending a family situation. 

    At the risk of sounding really old, I just love the moxie of the kid and believe his stuff plays and plays well. I am NOT going to annoit him as a future ACE. For one thing, I've learned that ACE status is rare and COMPLETELY unpredictable. But I honestly see his floor as a quality #3 and very probably a quality #2 in a season or two. Anything more than that is up to him and time and experience.

    (FWIW, I also see Ober as a potential #3 if he just stays healthy and keeps growing and can keep the HR numbers down)

    #2] Nick, you have more optimism regarding Jax than I do. He is, unfortunately, a victim of circumstance in his delayed development. But I DO SEE a decent FB and a very njce slider. And the kid is smart. Fully appreciate numbers posted previously as to his rookie performance. But there is that key word: ROOKIE. For someone who wasn't even expected to pitch at the ML level this year, how much do we stare at the final numbers? Shouldn't we, in this case, just look at the positives and the FB and slider and just wonder about gaining experience and wonder/project what he might do in the pen? Honestly asking. I think he might have a real role there in the future, but I'd think it would be mid 2022 and not before.

    #3] Never doubted AK before and won't now. This last wrist injury is not the same injury he had previously. So at this point, there is nothing chronic to worry about. He will probably end up at 1B because he's so good and natural there. And that's fine. But he's also solid in the OF.

    #4] Nick, IMO, you are way off on Lewis for 2022. Maybe I'm just a blind optomist, but I believe in this kid so much! I 100% believe he is going to hit, provide power and speed and be exciting. I fully believe he has all the tools necessary to be at least a "competent" SS. I say this as no expert, but I've seen enough from milb hilights and ST games to recognize the skilllset is there. Now, I'm not expecting greatness right away, or in the future, but be should be at least solid. And I expect growing pains both offensively and defensively early on. But I will be pleasantly shocked if he's ready for 2022 in any way other than a late season promotion. No matter his talent, attitude, intelligence or "gamer" ability, he just needs to PLAY.

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    17 hours ago, bean5302 said:

     The advanced stats and metrics painted some unpleasant things for him this season, but he's still got a season to make some adjustments. 

    Well that's very noble of you to grant him that extra leash.  You are as wise as you are beneficent.  😉 

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    7 hours ago, DocBauer said:

    #1] Ryan is an athlete and competitor and bright. Don't underestimate those qualities. His FB is average velocity, 91-94, but plays up due to location and release. We were informed his secondary stuff needed work. OK. But I watched his games and his secondary stuff looked pretty good to me his first 4 starts. Not talking about the teams he pitched against, just watching his stuff. His last start was pretty scrappy, but come on, we're talking about a rookie pitching his final game after attending a family situation. 

    At the risk of sounding really old, I just love the moxie of the kid and believe his stuff plays and plays well. I am NOT going to annoit him as a future ACE. For one thing, I've learned that ACE status is rare and COMPLETELY unpredictable. But I honestly see his floor as a quality #3 and very probably a quality #2 in a season or two. Anything more than that is up to him and time and experience.

    (FWIW, I also see Ober as a potential #3 if he just stays healthy and keeps growing and can keep the HR numbers down)

    #2] Nick, you have more optimism regarding Jax than I do. He is, unfortunately, a victim of circumstance in his delayed development. But I DO SEE a decent FB and a very njce slider. And the kid is smart. Fully appreciate numbers posted previously as to his rookie performance. But there is that key word: ROOKIE. For someone who wasn't even expected to pitch at the ML level this year, how much do we stare at the final numbers? Shouldn't we, in this case, just look at the positives and the FB and slider and just wonder about gaining experience and wonder/project what he might do in the pen? Honestly asking. I think he might have a real role there in the future, but I'd think it would be mid 2022 and not before.

    #3] Never doubted AK before and won't now. This last wrist injury is not the same injury he had previously. So at this point, there is nothing chronic to worry about. He will probably end up at 1B because he's so good and natural there. And that's fine. But he's also solid in the OF.

    #4] Nick, IMO, you are way off on Lewis for 2022. Maybe I'm just a blind optomist, but I believe in this kid so much! I 100% believe he is going to hit, provide power and speed and be exciting. I fully believe he has all the tools necessary to be at least a "competent" SS. I say this as no expert, but I've seen enough from milb hilights and ST games to recognize the skilllset is there. Now, I'm not expecting greatness right away, or in the future, but be should be at least solid. And I expect growing pains both offensively and defensively early on. But I will be pleasantly shocked if he's ready for 2022 in any way other than a late season promotion. No matter his talent, attitude, intelligence or "gamer" ability, he just needs to PLAY.

    Great take Doc.  I too share your hope and beliefs :).

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    I think #1 and #3 are well argued and plausible.  Ryan's deception is legit and Kiriloff looks like a pro IMO. 

    I think #2 and #4 were the right archetypes for this blog but the wrong players.  Jax, if he ever becomes that reliever, almost certainly won't do it in 2022.  The guy that could is Alcala.  His results speak to a young man who has turned the corner and could be lights out.  And the guy who should have been #4 IMO was Marten who is much closer to pro ready and might be the kind of do-it-all LF that could transform the lineup and the outfield D.  He could be this team's Whit Merrifield and has a much better chance of it in the near term than Lewis.

    I still believe in Lewis, but the kid is going to need some patience.

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    On 10/13/2021 at 11:51 AM, bean5302 said:

    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.

    Except neither Perkins nor Duffey went to the bullpen in year 2. It took years and riding the AAA shuttle first before they made the move.

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