Yes, we all know that health uncertainty is the banner headline for the 2023 Twins. "If they're healthy" is the rallying cry for even the most optimistic fan.
As pivotal as they are, these situations just aren't very fun to analyze or talk about, because they feel so beyond anyone's control. Much of the team's outlook hinges on whether Tyler Mahle can pitch without shoulder weakness, and Alex Kirilloff can swing without pain.
These things either will happen or they won't, and if they don't, it's not necessarily anyone's fault. The human body is fickle.
Today I'm going to look at five critical points of uncertainty for the Twins that have nothing to do with injuries. (Well, almost nothing.) Instead, it's about these players proving they can deliver in areas where the club really needs them if they're to achieve their goals.
1. Can Joe Ryan excel against good teams?
Hidden in Ryan's very good overall numbers last year (13-8, 3.55 ERA in 147 innings over 27 starts) is the fact that his success was largely buoyed by beating up on horrible AL Central opponents.
In eight starts against the Royals and Tigers, the two teams he faced more than any other, Ryan went 8-0 with a 0.94 ERA. He won every start, allowing just five earned runs on 26 hits (one homer) in 48 innings.
Look: that's an absurd level of dominance against any major-league lineup. Ryan certainly deserves a ton of credit for being absolutely automatic in those match-ups. But the flip side is that against all other opponents, he went 5-8 with a 4.80 ERA.
The 26-year-old has already established himself as a solid mid-rotation starter who can take care of business against lesser lineups. But with so many question marks elsewhere in the rotation, the Twins are really leaning on him to be more.
Showing he can up his game against better offenses than Detroit and KC will be key, both because he'll face less of each in the rebalanced schedule, and because the Twins will (hopefully) need starters they can count on in the postseason.
2. Can Jorge Polanco fill Luis Arraez's OBP void?
There's no question that Arraez's ability to get on base will be deeply missed, and his departure raises questions about how a power-driven lineup will fare without his penchant for creating opportunities. There's reason to hope Polanco can make up for some of what the top of the order just lost.
You might look at Polanco's career .334 OBP and say, eh, nothing special. Even his .346 mark last year was quite ordinary. But here's the thing: he posted it while batting a career-low .235, thanks to DOUBLING his walk rate from 2021. Polanco's 14.4% BB rate last year would've ranked fifth-best in baseball if his at-bats qualified.
If the newfound patience sticks and Polanco is able to sustain a similar walk rate while his batting average rebounds to somewhere in the range of his .270 career benchmark, you've got the recipe for an Arraez-like OBP, or better.
To wit: if Polanco walked at same rate in 2021 – when he batted .269 with a .323 OBP – as he did in 2022, he would've had 92 walks and a .395 on-base percentage.
3. Can Nick Gordon make himself essential?
Gordon is coming off a breakthrough season that earned him Most Improved Twin honors and saw him accrue nearly 450 plate appearances. In many cases, a campaign like that for a former first-round draft pick would open the door for a big opportunity, if not a starting role. But the circumstances of the offseason leave him in a spot where he'll be scrapping for playing time from the start, and potentially buried on the depth chart.
He's not their top backup center fielder (that's Michael A. Taylor). He's not their best lefty-swinging backup corner OF or DH option (that's Trevor Larnach). He's not their top backup anywhere in the infield, and in fact, I'd be somewhat surprised if the Twins view him as anything more than an emergency option on the dirt.
Injuries can of course change the equation here, but as things stand, Gordon will have a hard time finding his way off the bench with any regularity. That is, unless he can force the issue. At times last year the former light-hitting shortstop looked like a game-changing offensive force, like in August when he slashed .321/.360/.531 with three steals and 17 RBIs in 26 games. Gordon was electric.
Bring more of that to the table, and Rocco Baldelli will find a way to get Gordon into the lineup as much as he can.
4. Can José Miranda play third base effectively?
The viability of Miranda's bat is not in question after a convincing rookie campaign that saw him handle everything MLB pitchers could throw at him, thanks to high-contact swing that generated power to all fields.
Now he needs to define his defensive future.
If he's able to hold on as a capable third baseman, at least for a few years, as opposed to switching to 1B/DH duty, it'd be a boon for the team's planning and lineup-building. An early slide down the defensive spectrum diminished Arraez's value in the front office's eyes, but Miranda can still avoid that route.
Thus far, I would say the signs are less than encouraging. His defense at third base checked out pretty poorly last year, by almost any measure or metric, and scouting reports were hardly glowing in the minors.
But plenty of third basemen who looked rough as rookies went on to establish themselves at the hot corner (calling Corey Koskie), and Miranda's still only 24. His offseason efforts to slim down have also notably resulted in a body that, per Carlos Correa, "looks sexy." We'll see if the defense can follow suit.
5. Can Jorge Alcalá get lefties out?
Coming off a season where he made only two appearances due to an elbow injury that ultimately required debridement surgery, Alcalá is obviously a health question mark. Can his arm hold up, much less get back to pumping the upper-90s heat that led to big results in 2020/21?
The Twins seem to be counting on it, because they have yet to make any significant additions to their bullpen this offseason. Unless that changes, they're banking largely on Alcalá's return to provide depth in the mid-to-late innings, setting the table for Jhoan Durán and Jorge López at the back end.
Even assuming he's healthy, Alcalá needs to turn one more corner to be the kind of weapon the Twins need him to be. He needs to overcome his susceptibility against left-handed pitchers, who have pummeled him to the tune of .275/.358/.508 in his MLB career. That .866 OPS is 354 points higher than his mark against righties.
Baldelli will have the ability to strategically deploy Alcalá in favorable match-ups to an extent, but if the righty wants to truly be relied upon as a key late-inning weapon, he'll need to show he can handle the lefty sluggers and pinch-hitters that come his way.
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