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  • Searching for a Spark

    Hans Birkeland

    The Twins need some intervention from the Baseball Gods. What might it look like?

    Image courtesy of © Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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    The Twins are at a crossroads right now. They continue to churn out good pitching performances but alternate between having their offense completely shut down, or shut down just enough that their bullpen is pressed into needing perfection to seal wins. Can you remember the last time the team got blown out? It was arguably Kenta Maeda’s last start against the Yankees. A month ago.

    The pythagorean record sits at 31-20, which would be the mark of a truly contending, put-together team. Their run differential would be second best in the vaunted AL East. The easiest explanation for their 26-25 record is that they aren’t playing well. They aren’t executing and are losing the game-within-a-game battles pretty consistently. The lineup is struggling, but outside some recent minor IL visits, they aren’t missing much due to injury.

    So how does a team full of decent hitters start to hit? To quote your grandpa’s favorite random sportswriter, they just need a spark. Sparks are ephemeral things, and the more analytically inclined of us who follow baseball don’t really buy into the notion that they exist. But watch the games; the opposition is getting all sorts of sparks against the Twins.

    What does a spark look like? The best example in my mind occurred in the 2020 NLCS between the Dodgers and Braves. The Braves were up 3-1 in the series and out to an early lead in game five, with the Dodgers starter, Dustin May, already out of the game. With runners on second and third and one out, Dansby Swanson blooped a ball to right field. Mookie Betts, in his first season as a Dodger and struggling in the series, came in and made an incredible catch, stayed on his feet and fired a strike to home plate which Marcell Ozuna appeared to beat.

    But Ozuna had left early and was called out on review. The play was overturned and instead of being 3-0 Braves with a runner in scoring position, the inning was over, with the deficit still two runs. Corey Seager then led off the next inning with a home run and the Dodgers were back in it. They never looked back and steamrolled through the rest of the postseason.

    Now, you can regard this play as a baserunning error on Ozuna’s part (would he have scored if he tagged up properly, though?), or that a swing in fortunes like that shouldn’t constitute a spark, but the energy in the park shifted considerably in that moment, and from that point on the more talented team had control of the series.

    Willi Castro has done his level best to provide a spark to the Twins offense, dropping clutch bunts, making key defensive plays, hitting go-ahead home runs and even stealing home. But Willi Castro can’t play much better than this. The team’s identity can’t hinge on Willi Castro. The straw that stirs the drink can’t be the 26th man on the roster who only made the roster in the first place due to spring training injuries. 

    This team needs a big moment from one of its up-and-coming/core players. So let's wishcase are a few scenarios that could get the team going:

    Ed Julien gets red hot
    This feels possible, depending on how long Jorge Polanco is sidelined. If Julien gets a few weeks of run and gets some big, game-swinging hits, his ascension could spark the rest of the offense.

    Byron Buxton plays center and makes a game-saving catch
    The win-loss record disparity of when Buxton plays and when he doesn’t has been cited for years. The team plays better when their best player is involved. But right now they are only getting half of Buxton, and maybe that has something to do with their stagnation as an offense. Having Jorge López out there in the eighth, protecting a one run lead and seeing Buxton save multiple runs with a diving play in the gap, could certainly galvanize the team. It is risky though with his injury history, and it's hard to argue with the sheer volume of offense Buxton is providing playing nearly every day.

    Jorge Polanco walks it off
    Polanco has produced when in the lineup, but he hasn’t been in it much. A walk-off or otherwise game-changing hit might provide a spark that only the most seasoned and reliable hitter on the team can provide.

    Royce Lewis is hot out of the gate
    No one on the team, outside of maybe Buxton, can provide the energy that Lewis can. He has personality and flair, and looked like he was saving the 2022 team from stagnating before his unfortunate injury. If he comes up and immediately contributes, the team will feel it.

    Alex Kirilloff adjusts to pitcher’s adjustments
    I wrote a few weeks ago before he was called up, that we don’t really know how pitchers will attack Kirilloff since we’ve seen so little of him. Well he is now plopped right in the middle of the lineup after his hot start, and pitchers are trying to jam him inside; they don’t want him to extend his arms and drive outside pitches, something he does better than perhaps anyone on the team. If he can find a way to handle pitches inside, that will force pitchers to pick their poison, and the Twins will have their fourth lineup staple alongside Buxton, Correa and Polanco.

    All five of these scenarios have their warts, but if this team doesn’t get it going, they could leave open the possibility that they will become too injured to ever get going. That is precisely what happened to the White Sox last year, when in waiting for a spark for their talented lineup, they lost Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez and Tim Anderson for various stretches and never recovered.

    It is looking feasible that 83 wins could win the AL Central. Maybe this Twins team never gets it going. That can still happen in the playoffs; we’ve seen it with Eddie Rosario and the 2021 Braves, famously a .500 team at the All-Star break. But it would be nice to see this team catch fire, because the sum of its parts are not a mediocre team.

    Sometimes you can want it to happen so bad that you resign yourself to cynicism to protect your ego. Saying “this team is just mediocre like the projections said they would be” is a good way to make sure no one thinks you're naive. But where’s the fun in that?

    Bullpen help can be traded for, or one of Jordan Balazovic, Ronny Henriquez, Kenta Maeda or Josh Winder can emerge. The rotation is incredible, and health-permitting, sustainable. The projections didn’t have that part factored in! The lineup just needs to go, and there are a bunch of ways for that to happen for a team that is both at its rock bottom, and in first place.

    Now it's your turn. In the comments, forecast the spark that will jump start the 2023 Twins lineup.

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    Twins starters have kept the team in the game for the entire season. Pitchers do give up hits and runs, but overall the starters are an improvement over anything the Twins have ahd for seasons.

    A bullpen arm can have one bad game out of three, or six, or 10. Even Duran has given up a couple of leadoff home runs, and Brock o.oo ERA, has allowed inherited runners to score.

    Games have remained close and winnable. Some may call out bad managing. But overall the Twins are free swingers and lookers and need to be a bit more aggressive at the plate, as well as on the basepaths, when they are on base. That, alone, takes the game away from the pitcher with the new speed clock.

    Interesting note: if Royce Lewis returns to the Twins, they could have as many as 9 players on the current roster that had started the season NOT on the 26-man roster. Lewis will involve a 40-man roster move, as well as a regular roster move. With Madea and Thielbar going into rehab, that will be some interesting decisons to make. I want Madea to spend fulltime getting into the groove in the minors. Heaven forbid that one of the Twins starters go down, but knowing Madea may be on the verge allows us to keep Headrick working as a starter, pray that Dobnak might turn things around, and hope Winder and Woods Richardson pitch well enough to remain potential candidates. The real isues start to happen when you need to find roster room for Larnach, Kepler, Polanco. And got fingers crossed that the Twins don't need to add a catcher anytime soon.


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    Lewis seems to have an attitude that elevates the spirit. I feel bad putting that much pressure on him, but he could be the difference-maker. He could spark this team. But that's a lot to ask of any young player. It's insane to ask that of a guy who has barely played baseball for three years, and one who's coming back from two torn ACLs. 

    So, I would fire Popkins immediately, and give Baldelli notice that the team has until the All-Star break to start turning things around. Otherwise, there's going to be a new voice in the dugout. This chronic underperforming is unacceptable. 

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    It's no secret I've moved a bunch over the years and have frankly, become quite proficient at paring my belongings down to that what really matters.  The most recent of these moves was a lengthy one over the summer of 2022 from Sherman, IL to Goddard, KS.  Work obligations and a dynamic housing market led me to continue working in Illinois for 4 additional months after selling and buying a new house.  I'm just now really starting earnest work on setting up the shop and garage.

    This background is only to help visualize how serious the following is.  I generally know what I have and I know where it is.  It's just a thing for me.  For the past several months I have been unable to find my TC logo front license plate.  I've looked several times with a purpose to find this one thing.  It has been very frustrating.   It was not on the truck in Illinois as a front plate required state but was featured in a prominent place on the license plate wall in the garage (again, I've moved a lot).  I'm happy to report that as of Friday, May 26th, the lost is found and restored to its rightful place on the front of the truck.  It was on top of some garage cabinets, in that sunken area where spiders go to die. 

    This may not seem like a big deal but when I consider the timeline for the missing woobie things start to come together for me.  The movers packed it away on June 8th, 2022.

    On June 8th, 2022 the Twins beat the hated Yankees 8-1 at Target field to move to 33-25, 4.0 games clear in first place.  Chris Archer!! was the starting pitcher that day.  Ten days later the Twins were tied for first as the season started to unravel.

    June 10th was the unpacking day at the new house.  On this day, it was announced Royce Lewis did not, in fact, have a bone bruise in his sore knee but rather a partial tear of the repaired ACL.  Twins territory wept. 

    Many pages have been written about the rest of the season so I will not expand upon that here but I will say that in spite of some amazing offseason good fortune and good front office work something is missing.  As the OP states, there have been nothing in the way of ephemeral sparks that could start this massively talented engine.  Let's face it, the team is in first place by default and I would argue, all the time in first place since, oh say June 8th last year has been default only.

    I took a break from garage cleaning to watch the game yesterday.  I was struck by the contrast in quality of at-bats from the start and even posted to that effect in the game thread.  The quality of at bats continued throughout the game for the most part.  When Matt Wallner revealed post game the Jace Tingler may have chewed some ass "rallied" regarding execution, I knew what really happened.

    There is a non-zero chance that when we write the epilogues of the 2023 season we look to this game and see two lucky home runs that the starting center fielder would almost certainly not have allowed and see a turning point.  A home run given by the backup center fielder off his glove, then off the top of the wall after a 3-time gold glove winner had his lower back tighten up could certainly be a spark.  Two pitches later an actual home run was deep in the same glove until the top of the same wall collected it into the bullpen.  That could also be a spark.

    This game could very well be written into Twins lore as the turning point of the 2023 season but I'll know better, and now you will too.  Call me sabrstitious if you like, but check back with me in a month.

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    The spark may be somewhere in this article. Or, it might not be.

    The good news is that it looks almost assured that the ALC will give the Twins a good amount of time to find it. And, if the pitching holds up, even a decently functioning offense gives the club a chance in a playoff series.

    My formula is Buxton in CF (70%), Correa coming around, a good platoon at DH (Buxton vs lefties, Julien righties?) and Lewis being good, a good addition to the bullpen at the deadline…and health. That’s probably too many things to be likely.

    The exact catalyst, I don’t know. We’ll see.

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    I see a handful of glowing embers that could throw off sparks at any moment. One is Eddie Julien, one is Alex Kirilloff, then Royce Lewis, and finally Brooks Lee. Other sparks are possible, but the Twins need to load up on their most promising talent, then stand back and watch the fun. 

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    15 hours ago, Linus said:

    I’m sure Max will light the fire. Sorry Wallner all those hits and power aren’t needed anymore. 

    I was surprised they did not find a way to keep Wallner on the roster since he was doing so well. We need hitters and baserunners. I think he was on base 8 times in a row. It seems that they should have found a way to play him. When a team has a hot batter they should play him until he cools off. The Twins do not have any player that has spark and need to find one to be a winning team. The 2 high paid stars are not providing any spark and if they do not start hitting the Twins will have a hard time keeping a winning record.

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    Until the overpaid and underachieving so- called superstars stop whining about bad fans and bad umpires, this team is going nowhere.  Just like the past two seasons.  This team continues to play boring baseball with no sense of urgency or fire, just like their manager

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