As the 2019 MLB season approaches, there seems to be a common outlook on the Minnesota Twins throughout Twins Territory: cautious optimism. The past few seasons for the Twins have been somewhat of a rollercoaster. In 2016 the Twins not only finished last in the American League Central but in all of MLB, posting a 59-103 record. The next year they made a surprising turn-around and finished at 85-77. This was good enough to clinch the second spot in the 2017 AL Wild Card game in which they fell to the Yankees (a frustratingly familiar sight to Twins fans). The Twins took a dip in 2018 and finished at 78-84. This caused them to fire Paul Molitor and bring in Rocco Baldelli as the new manager
Last year’s record would not seem to elicit much excitement, but after several additions to the lineup and anticipated growth for younger players, the Twins have become a trendy “dark horse” pick – an oxymoron, I suppose – &amp;nbsp;to win the AL Central. A quiet offseason in Cleveland helps contribute to these picks as well, and at the very least the Twins will be expected to push the Indians in 2019. New additions Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, and Jonathan Schoop and potential breakouts from Jose Berrios and Max Kepler are a few of the reasons to be optimistic about 2019 for Twins fans. However, looming injury/production concerns surrounding Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton coupled with the lack of improving the pitching staff contribute to the “cautious” part of the cautious optimism surrounding the Twins this season.
PECOTA projects the Twins to finish second behind Cleveland in the AL Central at 82-80. VegasInsider.com is a bit higher on Minnesota and currently has their Over/Under win total at 84 after opening at 83.5. I’ll offer my prediction at the end of the article, but first, we’ll take a look at the roster in four separate parts: lineup, bench, rotation, bullpen.
Projected Opening Day Lineup
- RF – Max Kepler (L)
- SS – Jorge Polanco (S)
- DH – Nelson Cruz (R)
- LF – Eddie Rosario (L)
- 3B – Marwin Gonzalez (S)
- 1B – C.J. Cron (R)
- 2B – Jonathan Schoop (R)
- C – Jason Castro (L)
- CF – Byron Buxton (R)
Perhaps the main things that stands out from the this lineup are two names that are absent. The most notable absence is Twins legend Joe Mauer. Mauer was in the Opening Day lineup every year from 2004-2018 with the lone exception being 2009, his best season in which he was named the MVP of the American League. New addition C.J. Cron, coming off his best season, will be taking over at first base for the retired Twins legend. One certainty is that Mauer’s presence in the clubhouse will be missed.
Another missing name is third-baseman Miguel Sano who will begin the season on the injured list after having a procedure on a laceration to his right leg. He suffered this injury in the Dominican Republic after playing winter ball. Sano should be back some time in May. Replacing him for the time-being will be new signing Marwin Gonzalez, the Swiss-Army Knife of the roster. Once Sano gets back, Gonzalez will be serving his true purpose as a super-utility player likely to see time in the corner outfield spots as well as all four infield spots.
The newly-extended Max Kepler has yet to be officially announced as the leadoff hitter to start the year, but he has been hitting there consistently this spring. This is somewhat surprising considering his career .313 OBP, but with a .236 BABIP last year, there is reason to believe that his luck will turn around this season. There’s plenty of reason to believe that Kepler will finally break out this season. Expect him to have a big year. The also-newly-extended Jorge Polanco could see some time in the leadoff spot as well. Following first-half PED suspension, Polanco slashed .288/.345/.427 in 77 games in 2018. While his defense at shortstop is still suspect at best, he has proven himself as a very solid hitter over his career.
In 2018, Minnesota ranked 23rd in the league in team home runs with 166. One of the main objectives of their offseason was to inject some more power into the lineup. They acquired DH Nelson Cruz, second-baseman Jonathan Schoop, and the aforementioned C.J. Cron who combined for 88 round-trippers last year. However, these hitters do not come without questions. Nelson Cruz will turn 39 years old on July 1st and although he has remained productive, his fWAR dropped from 3.9 to 2.6 from 2017 to 2018. Schoop is only two years removed from his career-best 2017 season in which he had a wRC+ of 122 and a 3.8 fWAR. Last year, he struggled immensely, putting together an 80 wRC+ and a measly 0.5 fWAR. Hopefully, the Twins are getting something closer to 2017 Schoop. Cron is coming off somewhat of an outlier season for the Rays in which he posted career-bests in nearly every major offensive category. The Twins are hoping 2018 was more than a flash in the pan.
Elsewhere in the lineup, Eddie Rosario will look to build on a stellar 2018 campaign in which he slashed .288/.323/.479 with 24 HR and 3.4 fWAR. Catcher Jason Castro missed most of 2018 with a torn meniscus and will likely be part of a three-man platoon for the season behind the plate along with Mitch Garver and the man, the myth, the Tortuga, Willians Astudillo. Byron Buxton will look to finally take the next step and cement himself as a player worth building around for the Twins after an injury-laden 2018.
This lineup expects to be a decent upgrade from last season. The new additions should be able to be contribute to the power numbers while holdovers like Rosario, Kepler, and Polanco will presumably take steps forward and continue to be solid contributors. The lineup will most likely be the biggest strength of the roster – although that may be more of an indictment of the pitching staff.
Opening Day Bench
- Mitch Garver – C/1B
- Willians Astudillo – C/IF/OF
- Tyler Austin – 1B/OF
- Ehire Adrianza – IF/OF
- Jake Cave – OF
Because of the way the schedule is set up to start the year, the Twins will go heavy on bench players. These circumstances will give the powers that be a longer look at some of their options. Garver is probably the only sure thing to make the roster after the first few weeks because of his backup catcher status. Astudillo looks like a strong bet as well after he somewhat unsurprisingly did not record a single walk or strike out throughout the entirety of Spring Training. His ability to catch, play infield, and even some outfield will bring him more value than the other players. Tyler Austin and Ehire Adrianza are both out of options which will pose some tough decisions for the Twins. Each of them had strong springs and could prove useful to the roster. Cave can provide a lot of value as a fourth outfielder, but still has a couple of minor league options left. It will be interesting to see who gets the ax once the season gets going.
Opening Day Starting Rotation
- Jose Berrios – RHP
- Kyle Gibson – RHP
- Jake Odorizzi – RHP
- Michael Pineda – RHP
Jose Berrios will be starting on Opening Day for the first time in his young career. The 24-year-old right hander will look to take the next step on his way to realizing his ace-like potential. His very GIF-able curveball will need to be less erratic this season and he’ll need to improve the changeup. If he can put these together and limit his home runs over a six-month stint, we’ll be looking at a much more polished pitcher. Kyle Gibson will be good for around 190 quality innings, coming off a season in which he posted a career-best 3.62 and a 8.19 K/9. Jake Odorizzi had a decent season last year, but he’s a fly ball pitcher that walks too many people and gives up 1.1 HR/9. Unless he improves some of his secondary and tertiary pitches, it’s hard to see much case for improvement.
The two question marks of this rotation are Michael Pineda and – when he eventually makes his way out of the bullpen – Martin Perez. Pineda is coming off both Tommy John surgery rehabilitation and a torn meniscus. Pineda’s injury history is quite troublesome but there are plenty of reasons to be intrigued by the 30-year-old pitcher. His high strikeout rates and decent WHIP in the seasons he has been healthy for provide just enough optimism for this Twins rotation. Pérez will start the season in the bullpen and eventually settle in as the fifth starter. He is coming off an awful year in which he posted a 6.22 ERA in 85.1 IP. Hopefully new pitching coach Wes Johnson will be able to get the best out of both of these pitchers.
- Trevor May (Closer) – RHP
- Martin Perez – LHP
- Blake Parker – RHP
- Trevor Hildenberger – RHP
- Taylor Rogers – LHP
- Adalberto Mejia – LHP
- Ryne Harper – RHP
This Twins bullpen is, in a (hyphenated) word, top-heavy. Trevor May looks to be the closer for the start of the season. After having Tommy John surgery in March of 2017, the starter-turned-reliever had 3 saves, a 1.85 ERA, and 12.79 K/9 in just 25.1 innings of work. New addition Blake Parker also has some experience closing games, accumulating 14 saves for the Angels last season. He lost some velocity on his fastball last year around midseason but should still be a solid late-innings contributor. Trevor Hildenberger dropped a bit in production from 2017 to 2018, but looks to be a solid contributor here as well.
The man to watch here is Taylor Rogers. Rogers’ break-out season went somewhat under the radar, but his second half was incredible as he didn’t give up a run in his last 26 trips to the mound. He only gave up ten hits in this span as well. Look for Rogers to be used as a the Twins’ “relief ace” that is becoming more prevalent in today’s MLB. Martín Pérez will be used in a long-relief/spot-starter role at the beginning of the year while the Twins can afford to use a four-man rotation.
With Gabriel Moya and Addison Reed probably beginning the season on the injured list, Ryne Harper gets the final bullpen spot. Harper has bounced around in the minors and will be a 29-year-old rookie if/when he makes his debut in 2019. Overall, this bullpen will go as far as the top performers can take them. A mid-season addition will likely need to be made if the Twins are in contention.
The Twins should be able to push Cleveland in the Central. If all breaks well, the Twins could perhaps have a chance to win the division for the first time since 2010. The concerns lie with the younger players in the lineup, the fourth and fifth starting pitchers, and the bullpen in its entirety. At the very least, the Twins should be in contention for the second wild card spot for the majority of the year.
Record Prediction: 86-76
Featured Image: Rick Burtzel/Flickr