Where They Are
During Tuesday’s trade deadline the Minnesota Twins quietly managed to overcome an organizational obstacle: they significantly improved their roster by way of midseason trades. The team added starting pitcher Tyler Mahle from Cincinnati, as well as relief pitchers Jorge López from Baltimore and Michael Fulmer from Detroit, and backup catcher Sandy León from Cleveland, doing so without selling the farm. Although it’s a modest haul relative to other teams, this year’s trade deadline was certainly one of the best in recent years. Perhaps the best in team history.
Headlining acquisition Tyler Mahle was added to the Twins rotation in exchange for infielders Spencer Steer and Christian Encarnacion-Strand, and pitcher Steve Hajjar. None of the prospects shipped to Cincinnati were ranked in the Twins’ top 30 by MLB Pipeline, but all are having good years on the farm. Coming to the Twins, Mahle has modest stats at first glance, but his home and away splits paint a compelling picture. Away from Great American Ballpark, Mahle has a better ERA (3.83 vs. 4.76), Opponent OPS (.561 vs. .766), and Opponent xWOBA (.248 vs. .333). Calling a more pitcher friendly Target Field home for the remainder of this season and next should help Mahle find consistency, something the Twins desperately need.
The back end of the bullpen was heavily reinforced by adding closer Jorge López in exchange for prospect pitchers Cade Povich, Juan Nunez, and Juan Rojas, and rookie reliever Yennier Canó. The Twins also traded for Michael Fulmer, sending another prospect pitcher Sawyer Gipson-Long back to Motown. López strikes out more than a quarter of batters faced, and is pitching to a 1.64 ERA. Fulmer has seen his walks jump a bit, but has allowed only a single home run in 40.1 innings this season, sitting at a 3.12 ERA. Both relievers should be expected to share some of the higher-leverage innings, taking pressure off rookie phenom Jhoan Durán.
The Twins have 14 players from the 40-man roster currently on the Injured List, but as a team 28 players have missed 1,354 days due to injury. That’s MLB’s second most players injured this season, and fourth most days on the Injured List, but there are a few notable players set to return who could also upgrade the roster. Kenta Maeda should be back from Tommy John surgery either in late August or September, but likely in a limited reliever role similar to how the Dodgers used him in the playoffs in 2017, 2018, and 2019. During those runs Maeda made 21 relief appearances, pitched 22.0 innings, and allowed only 4 runs. Trevor Larnach is recovering from surgery to repair a core muscle strain, and should be expected to begin a rehab assignment soon. His 105 OPS+ accompanied by above average defense will improve the lineup come October. And Ryan Jeffers had surgery on his right thumb, but got his cast off Monday, though a return isn’t exactly imminent. His offense might be underwhelming, but with Jeffers behind the dish, the pitching staff owns a 3.58 ERA, a whole run better than the 4.60 ERA when Sánchez catches.
Though some may have been surprised to see the Twins aggressively target frontline starters and shutdown relievers, especially given their lackluster history at the deadline, the moves filled the most glaring holes on a roster that is still being expected to compete. With offseason addition Carlos Correa almost certainly planning to opt out of his contract at the end of the 2022 season, and the current roster bitten by the injury bug at a rate barely sustainable, the front office had a duty to add playoff-caliber pieces for the final stretch.
Where They’re Going
Heading into play Friday, the Twins with their 55-50 record lead Cleveland (54-51) in the American League Central division by only one game, and lead Chicago (53-52) by two. Neither the Guardians nor the White Sox made any significant upgrades at the trade deadline, but Fangraphs still favors Chicago to win the division (39.3% odds), though it’s close (36.9% for Minnesota). Baseball Reference on the other hand favors the Twins (36.8% odds), but suggests the race between all three teams should go down to the wire (32.7% for Cleveland and 30.5% for Chicago). If the Twins plan to test this roster in October, they’ll almost certainly have to fend off the White Sox and Guardians for the division crown to get there, as the Wild Card race appears to be the most challenging path forward for any team in the division. Neither site currently gives any of the AL Central teams better than 13.7% odds of clinching a Wild Card berth, instead favoring the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Rays to lock up those three spots.
With improved pitching and the return of key contributors, the Minnesota Twins have a real shot at winning their division and seeing another opportunity in the playoffs. However, the next organizational obstacle to overcome would be to end the unbelievable 18-game postseason losing streak that started in 2004, and beyond that, actually winning a playoff series for the first time since 2002.
Where They’ve Been
Over the past 20 years the Minnesota Twins have made the playoffs nine times. Six of those nine playoff appearances began with a matchup against the New York Yankees, and in all six series the Yankees abruptly ended the Twins’ playoff runs. Most recently the Twins were swept out of the 2020 Wild Card round by the Houston Astros as well, which extended MLB’s (and all of North American sports’) longest playoff losing streak ever to 18 games.
This season the New York Yankees and Houston Astros have dominated the American League, and are both on pace to win 100 games or more. To this point in the season the Twins are 1-2 against the Yankees with four games left in early September, and 0-3 against the Astros with three games left in late August. If the Twins manage to crack the postseason bracket, they’ll more than likely avoid a matchup with either team due to the new playoff format giving the top two division winners a first round bye. But if the Twins can miraculously open with a series win, they’d have to face one of the two teams anyway. So knowing what we know about these Twins, why would their fans (or baseball fans in general for that matter) be excited?
Where They Hope to End Up
Exactly one year ago, the Atlanta Braves had a 55-55 record, were in third place in the National League East, and had only a 26.6% chance of even making the playoffs, and a meager 1.9% chance to win the World Series. Despite the odds, the Braves finished their season strong and won their division with 88 wins and 73 losses. Although they had the weakest record among all ten playoff qualifiers, they locked up the three seed in the National League, avoiding the one-game Wild Card series. They went on quite a run, beating the 95-win Brewers in the NLDS, stunning the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS, and outplaying the 95-win Houston Astros to win the World Series. A team that endured rocky stretches throughout the regular season but ultimately conquered an abnormally weak division, the Braves offer not only a glimmer of hope, but a recent example of unpredictable success for the Twins.
At this point it may seem impossible, but the fact is the Minnesota Twins will win another playoff game, possibly sooner than later. The past is full of Cinderella stories, many of which have been regarded as the best narratives in history, sports or otherwise. While no one is saying the 2022 Twins will attain the level of glory or significance the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team had, sports fans love to root for an underdog. And at some point the MLB record 18-game playoff losing streak is going to have to come to an end. Why not now?
As the season winds down and the playoff race heats up, the American League Central appears primed to be one of the more exciting finishes. If the Minnesota Twins can win the division, it should be worth keeping an eye on them in October. It would be easy—almost expected—for baseball fans to predict another quick sweep, but it would be good for not only the Minnesota faithful, but for baseball fans everywhere to see another underdog story play out in the fall. The hardest part is always going to be getting there, but as we already know, in the postseason anything is possible.
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