With a run of three playoff appearances in four years, the Minnesota Twins were expected to at least compete in the lowly AL Central last season. Instead, they finished 16 games under .500 and went from first in 2019 and 2020 to worst in 2021. They don’t look like a legitimate contender in 2022, either.
The Twins haven’t won a playoff series since 2002 and it appears that drought will continue for a 20th season. The pitching staff allowed more than 800 runs for just the second full season since 2012. The offense scored 210 fewer runs than it did in 2019 and the fewest in a full season since 2016. After trading Nelson Cruz and Jose Berrios, the Twins will at least be interesting with a lot of new faces for a sharp and savvy front office.
My hope is teams start to sign more deals like the Twins did with Carlos Correa (three years, $105.3 million, $35.1 million per year). Long-term contracts are a tough sell. You need to get all of the surplus value at the front because the back of the deal tends to look really bad. It’s not my money, but I’d rather overpay for a player’s prime than spread out the cost and be hamstrung down the line.
Correa’s deal includes an opt-out after Year 1, which is a wrinkle that could negatively impact the Twins if he has a big season and leaves or if he doesn’t and stays. I think it’s actually a worthwhile deal for both sides. Given the cost per win in free agency, it takes roughly 4.0 fWAR for Correa to balance out this year’s salary. If he does better, as he did in 2021 with 5.8 fWAR, he could explore the market. He might also like it in the Twin Cities and stick around.
He also might regress, as the 2021 season was his first in three years with a K% under 22%. He did have his best defensive season ever, an area where I would expect some regression. It’s a good gamble for the Twins, especially with a lot of question marks in the lineup.
Byron Buxton is a dynamic player when healthy but he can’t stay on the field. He was again limited last season (61 games), but he was tracking as a legitimate MVP candidate when he was out there with far and away his best offensive season and his usual value on defense and the basepaths. Buxton hasn’t had more than 300 plate appearances since 2017. I have no idea whether or not the offensive gains are sustainable (his contact quality was off the charts in both 2020 and 2021), but I do know the Twins are better with him on the field.
The supporting cast will define the offensive for the Twins. Luis Arraez fell short of expectations last season with a 103 wRC+ . Max Kepler had a tough year with a 95 wRC+ after hitting 36 homers in his last full season. Miguel Sano hit 30 homers but struck out more than 34% of the time and almost carried negative value because of how bad he was defensively. Alex Kirilloff posted just a 93 wRC+ .
Seven of the Twins’ top 11 in plate appearances were above average by wRC+ , but Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz and Mitch Garver were three of them and they are all gone. Correa’s production will help. So, too, will better sequencing luck. The Twins were 11th in wOBA overall but 22nd in wOBA with runners in scoring position. They were one of the worst situational hitting teams in baseball.
Gary Sanchez will add some pop, but he’s also a bad defensive catcher. He allowed 60 wild pitches last season and only threw out 10 of 60 attempted base stealers. Yankees pitchers didn’t hold runners on well, so it wasn’t all his fault, but he better produce offensively to offset his defensive shortcomings. He didn’t last season with a 99 wRC+ . The Twins also got Gio Urshela in the Sanchez deal and he needs a bounce-back performance on offense.
It’s possible the Twins offense gets better. Last year’s huge drop in production across the board was stunning. Given that Minnesota got a 56 wRC+ and a .223/.283/.274 slash from Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, Correa might be the biggest free-agent upgrade of them all.
This is where it truly fell apart for the Twins. The pitching staff was deplorable in 2021, with the cherry on top coming in the form of Kenta Maeda’s blown-out UCL that required Tommy John surgery in September. The Twins’ top four pitchers by fWAR were Berrios (now with the Blue Jays), Maeda (IL), Taylor Rogers (closer) and Michael Pineda (now with the Tigers). Bailey Ober was fifth and he only pitched 92.1 innings over 20 starts.
The Twins were 26th in ERA and 24th in FIP. Sixteen different pitchers made a start and only three finished the season with an ERA and FIP under 4.00. On the plus side, they can really only go up. Nineteen awful starts with a 6.77 ERA from J.A. Happ have been replaced. Griffin Jax made 14 starts and four relief appearances and posted a 6.37 ERA. Matt Shoemaker had an ERA north of 8.
The rotation will be in a state of flux as the season goes along, but it shouldn’t be nearly as bad as it was. Sonny Gray came over during the Reds’ fire sale and vaulted to the top of the rotation as a guy with a lot of strikeout upside who induces a lot of ground balls. Gray had a 4.19 ERA last season but posted his third straight season with a FIP under 4. It would help if Gray’s strikeout bumps from his three years in Cincinnati stick.
The other noteworthy additions are Chris Archer and Dylan Bundy. Archer was signed late in spring training, but is reported to be pretty close to game shape. His medical file is thicker than a stack of phone books, but he’s found a soft landing spot where he can possibly add velocity and get back on track. He hasn’t been an effective starter since 2018, though, so I’m skeptical. I’m pretty sure he’s not really an upgrade over what was there.
Bundy has more bust than boom potential. After 11 strong starts in 2020, Bundy lost all semblance of command last season and posted a 6.06 ERA. Maybe the Twins can fix him and develop some more velocity, as they have in recent seasons with other pitchers. I’m skeptical to say the least.
Some interesting guys are in line for rotation spots. Joe Ryan, who was in the Cruz trade with the Rays, had exquisite minor league numbers before working 26.2 quality innings at the MLB level to finish out the season. He had a 4.05 ERA but his peripherals painted a much prettier picture with a 3.43 FIP and 30 strikeouts against five walks.
Ober was one of last season’s most interesting pitchers. The betting markets loved him, as a lot of lines moved in his favor when he started, but after allowing just 11 home runs in four minor league seasons, he allowed 20 homers in 92.1 MLB innings. He struck out 96 and walked 19, so the 6-foot-9 righty flashed a lot of potential, but he gave up a ton of hard-hit balls.
The fifth spot could go a few different ways. Lewis Thorpe, Randy Dobnak, Jax and maybe even Jharel Cotton are contenders. The Twins could also go with one of their projected Triple-A starters, including Josh Winder, Jordan Balazovic or Jhoan Duran, all of whom are top-10 prospects in the organization per FanGraphs.
Rogers is an elite relief weapon, though he was limited to 40 games last season. He posted a 3.35 ERA with a 2.13 FIP in 40.1 innings. Tyler Duffey, Caleb Thielbar and Jorge Alcala are all solid relievers. The bullpen was quite a bit better than the starters last season and could be the case again, though the Twins have shown a preference to look at young guys with upside over major league castoffs.
Player to Watch
SP Bailey Ober: Ober is a really important lever for the Twins this season. He gave up 16 runs in his first 24.2 innings, including seven home runs, with a 5.84 ERA and a 5.60 FIP. In his last 14 starts, he allowed 27 earned runs in 67.2 innings with a 3.59 ERA and a 4.17 FIP. He still gave up too many home runs but settled in more. In four minor league seasons covering 197.2 innings, Ober posted a 2.41 ERA and struck out 244 against just 26 walks. At 6-foot-9, adjustments can be hard to make because others can’t see from your perspective. It took a lot of one-on-one time between Tyler Glasnow (6-foot-8) and pitching coach Kyle Snyder (6-foot-7) to figure things out in Tampa Bay. With time to evaluate Ober and make fixes, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him live up to his potential this season.
The Twins look like a high-variance team. Guys such as Ober and Ryan may not work out, putting the rotation in a bad spot. On the other hand, maybe they do work out and Gray maintains the renaissance he’s experienced in the strikeout department. The lineup’s ceiling is defined by Buxton’s ability to stay healthy, but if he somehow gets 500 plate appearances, this team looks different offensively. There are still a lot of good hitters on the roster that are capable of bouncing back from bad seasons. I usually like to bet win totals and/or futures with high-variance teams, but the Twins won’t be one of them. They could challenge the White Sox or they could finish last. The reality lies somewhere in between, but I truly don’t know which end of the spectrum is most likely.
Win Total Lean: Under 81.5