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  • Week in Review: Steps Forward and Setbacks


    Nick Nelson

    The Minnesota Twins got back their best player, but learned they'll likely be without their best pitcher for a long time. On the field, there were fireworks and frustrations.

    If there's one thing you can count on this year's team for, it's that they won't give you much time to savor the small victories.

    Image courtesy of Bob DeChiara, USA Today

    Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 8/23 thru Sun, 8/29
    ***
    Record Last Week: 3-3 (Overall: 57-73)
    Run Differential Last Week: -9 (Overall: -99)
    Standing: 5th Place in AL Central (18.0 GB)

    Last Week's Game Recaps:

    Game 125 | BOS 11, MIN 9: Jax Runs into a Buzzsaw in Boston
    Game 126 | MIN 9, BOS 6: Twins Explode in 10th for Wild Finish
    Game 127 | BOS 12, MIN 2: Bats Can't Salvage Another Pitching Implosion
    Game 128 | MIN 2, MIL 0: Albers and Bullpen Combine on Shutout
    Game 129 | MIN 6, MIL 4: Twins Fend Off Threats from Brewers, Rain
    Game 130 | MIL 6, MIN 2: Jax Struggles Again, Offense Goes Quietly

    NEWS & NOTES

    The last man standing from the Opening Day rotation is now gone, along with any semblance of stability the Twins may have leaned on when looking ahead to their starting pitching situation in 2022. Kenta Maeda is slated for elbow surgery on Wednesday, and it sounds like Tommy John is the plan. 

    Barring an unforeseen change of course during the procedure, Maeda is looking at a surgery and rehab that will cost him most or all of his 2022 season. He was the only veteran starter under control for next year, meaning the Twins will be essentially starting from scratch in building their rotation.

    On the brighter side, Byron Buxton was finally activated from the Injured List, having played just three games since May 6th due to a hip strain and broken hand. He returned to the lineup on Friday and started all three games against Milwaukee over the weekend. Buck hasn't quite found his stroke yet – he went 0-for-11 with five strikeouts in the series – but it sure is nice to have him back. 

    Other updates from the past seven days:

    • To make room for Buxton on the active roster, Mitch Garver was placed on IL due to lower back tightness. A few days later the Twins reinfused some catching depth to account for Garver's absence, recalling Ben Rortvedt from Triple-A and optioning Charlie Barnes.
    • Randy Dobnak advanced to Triple-A in his rehab assignment, starting for the Saints on Thursday and allowing one run over 4 ⅔ innings while progressing to 78 pitches. There's a decent chance he returns to the Twins to take Maeda's vacant turn this week.
    • More churn in the bullpen: Righties Kyle Barraclough and Edgar García were sent to Triple-A, with Jorge Alcala and Ian Gibaut stepping in to replace them. To make room for Gibaut on the 40-man, Luke Farrell was shifted to the 60-day IL, though it doesn't seem he'll be there long as he recently started a rehab assignment with St. Paul. Derek Law also fired up a rehab cent stint with the Saints this past week.

    HIGHLIGHTS

    The biggest highlight of the past week came at Fenway Park, where Miguel Sanó launched an instantly legendary blast that cleared the stadium and measured as the longest home run by a  major-league hitter this season at 495 feet.

    It was the most memorable moment in another strong week for the slugger, who drove in eight runs in six games. Since the start of June he's slashing .254/.328/.504 with 14 homers and 16 doubles in 66 games, and critically, he has cut his strikeout rate down to the 30% range from the 40% range where he'd mostly sat since the beginning of 2020. In fact, here in August, he's fanned in only 28 of 98 plate appearances (28.7%). That's closer to the league average than where Sanó resided in during his prolonged run of struggles. 

    It really does seem like Sanó is sacrificing the pull-power fixation for a bit more contact and balance at the plate, making him look like the more complete hitter we saw earlier in his career. This is a promising development for 2022 and a much-needed one given all the setbacks. 

    Also in the category of much-needed positives for 2022: Bailey Ober's splendid outing on Wednesday in Boston, where he spun five shutout innings with seven strikeouts. Pitching in a tough ballpark against a very good lineup that otherwise crushed Twins pitching, Ober continued to excel by peppering the upper regions of the zone with fastballs, then going low with the offspeed. It's a formula that works well with his combination of command and physical extension.

    Ober has a 2.35 ERA over his past six starts, and overall, his 4.24 K/BB ratio on the season ranks second among Twins starters, trailing only Michael Pineda. When you're beating out José Berríos and Maeda in that category as a rookie, that's a pretty good sign. 

    At this point, so long as he can stay the course for the rest of the season and maintain his health, Ober is all but assured of a spot in the 2022 rotation. That might be the only thing we can say with confidence about that unit's outlook at the moment.

    Some other noteworthy performances from the past week:

    • Josh Donaldson's bat had been stagnating a bit – he was slashing .216/.273/.294 in August entering the week, with a .731 OPS dating back to the start of July – but saw a major revitalization against the Red Sox and Brewers. Starting all six games, Donaldson went 9-for-21 with three homers and six RBIs. He also made his first start at third base in two weeks on Saturday – seemingly a good sign for his balky hamstring.
    • Jorge Polanco just continues to do his thing. He finished the week 6-for-21 with two home runs and two doubles while driving in five. When Polanco is keying a lineup that has Sanó, Donaldson, and others clicking, this is a pretty good offense, as we saw in Boston when the Twins put up nine runs in successive games. I'll be curious to see what they can do in the final month with Buxton back.

    LOWLIGHTS

    In lineups that feature all the names above, it was a little odd to see Rob Refsnyder drawing multiple starts as the No. 3 hitter last week. I mean I guess it doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things but ... why? 

    Refsnyder's surprisingly hot start at the plate as a Twin is now a distant memory; he went 2-for-13 with five strikeouts last week and is slashing .188/.278/.208 in August, with three GIDP and one double.

    I think I get it. The Twins are trying to elevate possible 2022 role players into heightened roles so they can get more extensive looks (and maybe a small confidence boost) here in the waning weeks of a lost season. But Refsnyder is one of many in this situation who have failed to seize the momentum of a solid stretch and grasp an opportunity.

    Joining him in this category:

    • Brent Rooker has managed two singles in nine games since his big weekend against the Rays earlier this month, and went 0-for-10 this past week. The endless march of strikeouts simply isn't going to cut it, although he's been drawing a bunch of walks lately which is intriguing.
    • Claimed off waivers in early August, García showed promise during his first string of outings in a Twins uniform, but things quickly devolved, and on Wednesday in Boston, the bottom fell out. Over 1 ⅔ innings, the righty was clobbered for seven earned runs on four hits, three walks, and two homers. He threw just 23 of 48 pitches for strikes, inducing a mere two swings and misses. It was one of the worst relief outings of the year for a really bad bullpen, and the kind of performance that can singularly torpedo your belief in a marginal arm.
    • With Buxton returning, the window might have already closed on Nick Gordon to showcase himself, and he didn't make a strong closing statement. Gordon went 2-for-12 with six strikeouts in the Boston series, and is slashing .185/.267/.259 in nine games since returning from Triple-A. I foresee an offseason DFA.

    Even amidst all this misfortune, no player's struggles were as deflating as those of Griffin Jax, who saw his impressive run in the Twins rotation come to a screeching halt. Against Boston on Monday, the rookie was absolutely pulverized, coughing up nine earned runs over 4 ⅔ innings. Jax didn't fare much better in his following turn on Sunday, with the Brewers running up six earned runs in five frames against him.

    His total line for the week: 2 GS, 9.2 IP, 15 ER, 13 H, 8 BB, 9 K, 5 HR

    This comes on the heels of a stretch in which he allowed only eight earned runs TOTAL over 26 ⅓ innings in five starts.

    It's not that Jax's latest starts were devoid of encouraging signs – he's seen a nice increase in fastball velocity, and there was some skillful execution mixed into the struggles – but there are also fatal flaws showing through. Chiefly: an inability to escape from his susceptibility to the long ball, which ties more broadly to the frequency of loud contact. 

    Statcast data shows that – even with his successful results mixed in over the previous stretch – opposing hitters are squaring up Jax far too often. 

    jaxstatcast.png

    There are a number of factors playing into this – among them, the lack of a quality third pitch and the tendency for his slider to flatten out. It adds up to a player who might be better suited for the bullpen, which isn't ideal for a Twins team that will be desperately trying to compile capable starters for next year.

    TRENDING STORYLINE

    Forget next year; the Twins are getting pretty desperate for starters now. There are still 32 games left to get through this season. That's a lot of innings to cover for a team with zero veteran starting pitching depth remaining.

    Ober's workload needs to be managed carefully. Jax probably can keep taking the mound every fifth day, but if things continue to trend as they did this week, you have to ask yourself when it becomes counterproductive for his development. (Then again, he turns 27 in November, so maybe they're not too concerned with that.) Trotting out blow-up candidates like Barnes and John Gant runs the risk of running an already overburdened bullpen ragged – not to mention threatening the "respectability" that the front office has spoken of wishing to maintain.

    Unfortunately, the Twins just don't have many other alternatives. But, they do have one pretty good option, who happens to line up pretty nicely for a possible Twins debut in the coming week.

    Joe Ryan, headliner of last month's Nelson Cruz trade, made his second start for the Saints on Wednesday and – much like in the first – he was overwhelmingly dominant. The right-hander struck out eight of the 17 batters he faced en route to four innings of one-run ball. Through two starts in the new organization, he now has a 2.00 ERA and 17-to-2 K/BB ratio in nine innings. 

    While it's fun to see former fringe prospects like Ober and Jax rise above expectations and establish themselves as potential contributors, Ryan would bring a different type of excitement to the table. We've seen a lot of rookies pitch for the Twins this year, but not many with the pedigree of Ryan, who featured as the organization's seventh-best prospect in TD's latest updated rankings. His status as a top prize from the recent deadline would make him an even more compelling figure to follow.

    Twins fans could really use a morale booster like that. 

    Granted, he probably can't be counted on for much length – Ryan hasn't exceeded 83 pitches or 5 ⅓ innings in a minor-league start all year – but I'm not sure that's a luxury the Twins can expect from anyone in their current starting stable anyway.

    LOOKING AHEAD

    On Monday, the Twins travel to Detroit in the middle of their homestand for to play one makeup game against the Tigers, which I'm sure they're thrilled about. They'll return to Target Field on Tuesday for a short series against the Cubs, then head to Tampa to take on Cruz and the Rays. 

    The TBDs for Minnesota in Wednesday's and Friday's probables loom large. Dobnak and Ryan seem like front-runners to take those turns, although Barnes – currently in the minors – could also theoretically be in play. 

    MONDAY, 8/30: TWINS @ TIGERS – RHP Bailey Ober v. RHP Casey Mize
    TUESDAY, 8/31: CUBS @ TWINS – RHP Zach Davies v. RHP John Gant
    WEDNESDAY, 9/1: CUBS @ TWINS – LHP Justin Steele v. TBD
    FRIDAY, 9/3: TWINS @ RAYS – TBD v. RHP Michael Wacha
    SATURDAY, 9/4: TWINS @ RAYS – RHP Griffin Jax v. RHP Drew Rasmussen
    SUNDAY, 9/5: TWINS @ RAYS – RHP Bailey Ober v. RHP Luis Patino

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    It must be hard to create these reports, but you do a really nice job. 

    The rotation is such a mess, please give me Ryan so I have some hope.  I do not believe in Dobnak, I have no faith in Jax, Pineda should not be resigned, Maeda is gone for the year.  And don't even mention Gant or Barnes.  So the rotation next year is Ober, Ryan and let's hope Balazovic looks great in the spring, Winder is ready to jump up and another prospect emerges because adding a veteran starter to this group does nothing. 

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    I want to see Ryan, if Dobnak can bounceback, and maybe Strotman. Done with Barnes, Gant, and Jax. Stop calling up guys like Gibaut and Vincent over Moran. Really starting to wonder what the plan is right now...

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    At this point, Winder and Duran being re-habbed and resting and Balazovic taking regular turns in AA and continuing to get in IP, sure looks like the rotation will/should be Ryan, Dobnak, Ober, Jax and Albers to finish things off.

    4 of those 5 figure in to plans for 2022 in varying capacities. 

    Very good chance ST Paul is absolutely loaded in their 2022 rotation, but Albers could have depth value on a milb deal again. 

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    As you look to 2022, Ober is no doubt a bright spot.  Dobnak will be around next year only because of his inexplicable contract. Jax is a great story, I am sure he is a very nice kid and he has no place on a major league mound. Pineda will not or should be resigned. Maeda may have thrown his last pitch as a Twin. 

    So contend in 2022?

    I wonder how Vegas will make the Ober/Uber line on that? 

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    The analysis on Jax might be a little harsh given he debuted in the majors in June.  He has a lot of work ahead of him.  What we are seeing is fairly predictable.  As you mention, there are a lot of positives with him, and that's all we can hope for.

    I would be careful not to read too much into the 3-3 week.  The umps were really not feeling the love, you could say, when it came to calling fair games for the Brewers on Friday and Saturday.  Neither of the lineups the Twins put out there are going to win many games.

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    1 hour ago, Dodecahedron said:

    The analysis on Jax might be a little harsh given he debuted in the majors in June.  He has a lot of work ahead of him.  What we are seeing is fairly predictable.  As you mention, there are a lot of positives with him, and that's all we can hope for.

    Problem is that he turns 27 in November. He's like 6 months younger than Jose Berrios. This is not a traditional rookie development project. Jax doesn't have a ton of time to pull it together here. Which is why they might be better served to get a look at him in a relief capacity sooner rather than later. 

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    2 hours ago, Nick Nelson said:

    Problem is that he turns 27 in November. He's like 6 months younger than Jose Berrios. This is not a traditional rookie development project. Jax doesn't have a ton of time to pull it together here. Which is why they might be better served to get a look at him in a relief capacity sooner rather than later. 

    There is a good chance he ends up in the BP,  They just don't have a lot of options at the moment because of the crazy number of injuries on the MLB and Milb side.

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    I actually have faith in Dobnak's long term viability as a 4/5 and feel comfortable penciling him into the starting rotation next year. I think his poor performance was somewhat related to injuries (immediately ducking to avoid incoming)

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