It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning. For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper! We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat. This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal. It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.
83-79, second in the AL Central
Last year’s Pepper
We sometimes take the Twins for granted in the AL Central. Obviously, Cardinal fans know about the Royals, in good times or bad. We have a common enemy with the White Sox. It seemed like every year when interleague play started up St. Louis would match up with Detroit. John Mozeliak seems to make a trade with Cleveland about every deadline. Yet, save for the 1987 Series which we will not talk about here, Minnesota kinda flies under the radar. Yet it was the Twins, not the Tigers or anyone else, that came the closest to the Royals in the AL Central. (Granted, 12 games back, but still closest.)
To take a look at this mid-America marvel we’ve got a good number of folks for you today. Seth Stohs was one of the first bloggers I wrangled into the Baseball Bloggers Alliance lo these many years ago. Now, you’ll find him at Twins Daily and Tweeting @SethTweets. This is his fourth regular Pepper (though the first since 2012) and he also participated in a postseason version in 2009. Following him is Thrylos from The Tenth Inning Stretch. This is his fourth straight time playing Pepper with us, so you may already be following him on Twitter @thrylos98. Batting third today and making his fifth overall appearance (third consecutive) is Cody Christie, who can be found writing North Dakota Twins Fan and Tweeting @NoDakTwinsFan. Cleaning up is Twins Trivia writer John Swol. John’s done this three years in a row now and is still one of the only people participating in this whole series that doesn’t have a Twitter account. Wrapping it all up is Collin Kottke, formerly from Puckett’s Pond and now has his writing CollinKottke.com. This is year #3 for Collin, who can be found on Twitter @CollinKottke.
C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?
TD: It started out with a bang in November. They had a stretch of three straight days with an announcement. First, it was winning the bid on Byung Ho Park. Next, it was trading C Chris Herrmann to Arizona for Daniel Palka. Then it was trading OF Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for C John Ryan Murphy. However since then, there have hardly even been any rumors to go with a couple of minor league signings. That said, the Twins went into the offseason with few needs. They have plenty of depth and a lot of young guys who need an opportunity, but it would have been nice to see a few complimentary players added.
TIS: This off-season was a tad less than a disaster. They did not address their biggest needs:
– the bullpen
– LH power hitting
– finding a new home for Trevor Plouffe so Miguel Sano can be the starting 3B
– they got another 1B/DH type who may or may not be MLB-caliber and may or may not be better than Kennys Vargas
– they got a whole bunch of retreads in the OF and P
– they are moving their best player to a position he never played before
Basically they are going with a lot of unproven things and that is a mistake they made in the past and bitten them, but they are not twice shy.
NDTF: The Twins brought in Korean slugger Byung Ho Park to help bolster a middle of the line-up that already includes Miguel Sano and Joe Mauer. The Twins also needed to address their catching depth. Kurt Suzuki has taken a beating behind the plate over the last two seasons and most of the Twins catching prospects are still a year or more away from the big leagues. This resulted in the Twins dealing former first round pick Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for catcher John Ryan Murphy. There was talk of the Twins adding some relief pitching but the team seems content to stick with internal options. Over the last two years, there had been some bigger free agent signings like Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana but now the Twins are trying to build from within one of the strongest farm systems in baseball.
TT: Beyond signing free agent Korean first baseman Byung Ho Park and trading for catcher John Ryan Murphy the Twins were relatively quiet this past off season. Oh sure, they signed a bunch of free agent pitchers and position players to minor league deals just like they do every year but none will amount to a hill of beans. The Twins are counting on their prospects like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano to light up the scoreboard at Target Field this summer.
CK: The Twins big splash this offseason was getting Korean slugger Byung Ho Park. Obviously, the jury is still out if that move will pan out or not. If Park can be somewhat of the slugger he was in Korea, this Twins team could finally have some deadly pop with Park, Miguel Sano, Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe.
I would have liked the Twins to add a reliable bullpen arm, but those aren’t exactly growing on trees. It was a little bit of an underwhelming offseason, no doubt, but the pieces are still there to be, at least, a respectable team.
C70: If they stay healthy, this should be the first season that Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton will be in the Twins lineup all year long. How exciting is that to the fanbase?
TD: I mean, Sano and Buxton have been what helped Twins fans get through those four straight losing seasons. Two prospects both considered Top 10 types is pretty exciting. And now we’ve had a taste of what each can do. We saw the monster types of numbers that Sano could put up. Now we’ll see how he adjusts back to the league. Buxton struggled in his debut, but in September, we again saw the types of things he can do. His speed and range in centerfield is something else! His speed makes every ground ball a potential hit, and though he may never his 25 homers in a season, he does have a lot of pop. Along with Jose Berrios, who should debut in 2016, the Twins have some serious young talent!
TIS: To this fanbase that has seen Buxton flailing at breaking stuff left and right, it is not very exciting. Buxton has a fatal flaw (hitting breaking balls) and unless he fixes it, he does not belong to the majors. Which means Danny Santana at Centerfield based on Terry Ryan getting rid of his starting Centerfielder. And Danny Santana cannot hit his shadow.
NDTF: The excitement surrounding these two players has been years in the making. Both have earned cult like status in the Twin Cities before even stepping onto the field. There is a chance that Buxton will begin the year at Triple-A but both players still have bright futures ahead of them. Sano’s rookie campaign was one of the best in Twins history as the local baseball writers named him the team’s MVP even though he played in fewer than half of the team’s games. Buxton had an up and down rookie season but he’s got all of the tools to be an All-Star for years to come. After years of futility at the bottom of the American League, it’s nice to see some of the team’s best prospects making an impact at the big league level.
TT: Twins fans in Twins Territory have been waiting on Sano and Buxton for what seems like an eternity and this year should be their first full season in the land of 10,000 lakes. The Twins last appearance in the playoffs was in 2010 and since then their record stands at 348-462 meaning that they have won less than 43% of their games. The last few years the Twins have marketed their minor league prospects more than they have promoted the Twins themselves so it is time for these prospects to show what they can do.
CK: It’s quite exciting! It’s kind of weird, throughout the minors it seemed that the fans were focused on Byron Buxton and that has seemingly switched after Sano absolutely tore it up on arrival at the big league level last season.
There’s definite excitement, but the pandemonium around Buxton has cooled just a tad. Buxton had the unfair task of debuting after Sano, so basically anything was going to look subdued. Once Buxton starts doing what he is capable of doing at the plate, the Twins fan base is going to be absolutely ecstatic.
C70: What does the starting rotation look like for the Twins?
TD: The Twins starting staff isn’t elite. It’s not terribly exciting. It’s a team that probably will rank 20-22 in MLB in ERA. But after four years of having the worst pitching, being “slightly-below-average” doesn’t feel quite so bad. I think the Givens for the rotation are Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson. None are #1s, but all should be 180 inning, slightly better than league average ERA types. Gibson was the team’s top starter in 2015. Tyler Duffey was the team’s best pitcher the final six weeks. Though he was never an elite prospect, he was always one to put up solid numbers and one to watch. He should have a spot as well. Tommy Milone is the likely favorite for the #5 spot in the rotation. He quietly has had a solid career and is often overlooked because he doesn’t throw very hard. Ricky Nolasco will again compete for a job. Despite being owed $25 million over the next two years, he will not be handed anything. Trevor May will get another shot, though he is likely to remain in the back of the bullpen. Finally, JO Berrios will be up fairly quick. He is the one pitcher with top-of-the-rotation stuff, so it’s just a matter of time before we see him.
TIS: According to Terry Ryan, follow the $. ie:
According to me:
(with Hughes as the closer)
NDTF: The top three spots in the Twins rotation are already cemented after last season. Kyle Gibson was named the team’s best pitcher after having a breakout season. He established himself in 2015 and there is even more hope for him to make bigger strides in 2016. Veteran pitchers Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana will also be in the top of the rotation. Hughes had a tremendous debut for the Twins in 2014 but he came back down to earth in 2015. Santana sat on the sidelines for the first 80 games in 2015 after a drug suspension. When he returned to the rotation, there were some ups and downs but it will be nice to have him for a full season of work. Tyler Duffey and Tommy Milone have the inside track for the final two rotation spots. Both players were terrific down the stretch and they each deserve a shot to start at the beginning of the year. Top pitching prospect Jose Berrios will be knocking on the door to the big leagues this season and one injury to someone in the rotation will likely signal his much anticipated debut. Former starters like Ricky Nolasco and Trevor May will likely be relegated to bullpen roles as the team utilizes their talents in other capacities.
TT: Starting pitching has been a problem for Minnesota since the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961 and became the Minnesota Twins. The last few years the Twins have decided to spend some free agent money on starters, not the top tier guys like Zack Greinke, David Price, or Max Scherzer but pitchers like Ricky Nolasco, Mike Pelfrey, Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana and for a variety of reasons they have not pitched up to their contracts. This season the Twins starting rotation expects to be made up of Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, and the last two spots will be a battle among Tyler Duffey, Ricky Nolasco and Tommy Milone. Of the six pitchers I just mentioned just two (Gibson and Duffey) were drafted by the Twins. The Twins best pitching prospect is Jose Berrios and by season’s end he should be a fixture in the starting five but it is unlikely he will head north with the team come early April.
CK: I think there are three locks for the rotation going into spring: Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson. It’s likely Ricky Nolasco will get another stab at the rotation after being injured for a majority of last season. The fifth spot gets real interesting. Tyler Duffy made his MLB debut last season and despite his first game was lights out down the stretch for the Twins and kept the team in the Wild Card hunt. Trevor May was in the setup man role last season, but could be put in the rotation as a good option. Tommy Milone also has a shot at the last spot out of Spring Training. Personally, I’d like Duffy to get the spot, but I think the Twins will probably give the spot to Milone with keeping May in the bullpen.
The fifth spot shouldn’t be a contest, but the Twins will be pulling a Kris Bryant themselves with pitching prospect Jose Berrios. Berrios might be the best starting pitcher the Twins have overall, but the Twins will keep him at Triple-A for a couple months. If the Twins miss the playoffs by a handful of games, we riot due to this stupidity.
C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?
TD: Well, I think we’d all like the anwer to that question to be Byron Buxton. He struggled in his debut, but at some point, his talent and athleticism and baseball skills will take off. Tyler Duffey’s curveball proved to be one of the best pitches of any pitcher on the team and has to be as good as most anyone in baseball. I’m very excited to see what he can do in a full season with that pitch.
TIS: Negative strides:
Plouffe will be making the greatest amount of strides to the dugout after striking out a number of times or GIDP again
Kennys Vargas. Monster season, if they let him. Unless Ryan treats Baby Papi the way he treated Big Papi.
NDTF: There are a few different players that could be candidates for this role. Joe Mauer is coming off some lack luster years as he’s dealt with concussion issues and a shift from catcher to first base. It would be nice to see him return to the days of fighting for batting titles and helping the team win championships in the AL Central. Eddie Rosario will be looking to build off a strong rookie campaign where he lead all of baseball in triples while also hitting double digits in home runs, doubles, and outfield assists. His hit tool has been advanced all the way through the minor leagues so he should be able to avoid any prolong slumps at the big league level. If he raise his average a few points and still plays strong outfield defense, he’d turn into quite the threat in the Twins line-up. He suffered through some blurred vision at the plate last season and is trying out the idea of wearing sunglasses while batting.
TT: Byron Buxton will finally show the baseball world the kind of player he can be.
CK: I think the safe bet would be Byron Buxton. Buxton wasn’t a world beater when he debuted at the big league level last year, but he should start looking like the dynamo Twins fans have been promised for this year.
If Max Kepler gets some playing time this season, he’d be a good young gun to watch for the Twins, too.
I’d also expect Joe Mauer to have a much better season than last. It’s apparently cool to bash on Mauer in Minnesota, but he’s still one of the best average hitters we’ve ever seen. He recently admitted that he was seeing double of the ball at the plate, yeah, during the daytime and will be trying out sunglasses in the batter’s box during Spring Training. Mauer will never hit a ton of homeruns, but there’s no reason to think he can’t get back to the level of competing for the batting crown.
C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?
TD: The Twins didn’t make a ton of moves, but in some ways, I think that’s OK. With so many young players, they just need to play. They need to work through some things. Consider these guys all have less than two years of experience and are key to the success of the team: Sano, Buxton, Berrios, Duffey, May, Oswaldo Arcia, Danny Santana, Eddie Rosario, Michael Tonkin, Byung Ho Park. We will also see guys like Max Kepler, Nick Burdi, JT Chargois, Jake Reed, Alex Meyer, Mason Melotakis and Taylor Rogers in 2016. That’s my long way of saying that relying on that much youth is equal parts exciting and scary. They will go through lumps, but over time, talent is what wins. So, I think they will have a very similar record as last year, somewhere between 82 and 85 wins.
As far as where they will finish in the division, that’s hard to know. The White Sox made a couple of moves, and they have Chris Sale. The Tigers added Jordan Zimmerman and Justin Upton to go with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and JD Martinez. Cleveland has that strong, young pitching staff. And, of course, the Royals are the World Champions and have a lot of talent. The AL Central is much stronger than I think most nationally seem to give it credit for. I think that the Twins can compete for the division title, but that the five teams will be bunched together in that 77-85 win range. If I had to put money on where they will place in the AL Central, I would probably say third, behind Kansas City and Cleveland.
TIS: I do not projections before I see them in ST. I don’t see them going backwards and I don’t see them winning the World Series either, right now.
NDTF: After surprising most of the baseball world in 2015 by staying in the race until the last weekend of the season, it seems likely for the Twins to regress a little in 2015. The team finished 83-79 last season for their first winning record since 2010. I think they will turn that number around and finish 79-83 this year which will probably have them around fourth place in the AL Central behind the Royals, Indians, and Tigers.
TT: The Twins are in a very tough division, one of the two toughest divisions in MLB. Actually I think the team will be improved but I am concerned that the team might take a step back before they take a huge leap forward in 2017. I would not be surprised if the team finished at .500 this year with an 81-81 record and in fourth place just ahead of the last place Cleveland Indians as the team and its young players learn to win. The division is so tough with the defending world champion Kansas City Royals, the much improved Chicago White Sox and how can you ever count out Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers?
CK: The scary thing about this division is the fact that all five teams could seemingly finish over .500 which really makes the prediction process a crapshoot, even more than usual. I think the Twins will finish in third in the American League Central with a record somewhere close to last year’s. My guess will be at 82-80.
C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?
TD: You know, I’m not one of those guys who just hates certain teams. I’m not a Yankees hater just because they were always good. But for me, it’s always fun when the Twins beat the White Sox. The Twins had Chris Sale’s number last year. It’s hard to think they’ll own him again in 2016 in that way, but I think the Twins should do well against the White Sox, who I would think are the favorite to finish last in the division.
TIS: How about all of them? But if you ask for one, it has to be the Chicago White Sux. Sweep baby, unless Sale is matched up with Milone.
NDTF: I’d say I have pretty equal hatred for the White Sox and the Tigers but my vote will have to go for the White Sox. The Twins seem to play pretty well in Chicago as they went 13-6 against them last year. They might fare a little worse this season but I’d say they can beat the hated Sox at least 10 times.
TT: I enjoy watching the Twins beat the mighty whities from Chicago the most. The Twins have had some epic game 163 battles over the years and with Ozzie Guillen as the White Sox skipper a few years back it was pretty easy to dislike the boys from Chicago. Throw in the White Sox announcers who are the biggest homers in baseball and the guys with the black hats are easy villans. I think the Twins will have their hands full with the White Sox who I think can make a run at the division title this year and it may all come down to how the Twins do facing White Sox ace Chris Sale who they pummeled in 2015. I would love to know what the Twins know about Sale, I bet the White Sox would love to know too.
CK: Historically, for me, it’d be the Chicago White Sox. The Twins and the SouthSiders had a pretty good rivalry going during the Twins division title run last decade which was fun. Recently, it’s been fun playing the Kansas City Royals since it’s always fun to try and play spoiler against the really good teams where you’re not at that level.
This whole division should be quite competitive. I’d expect the Twins to split with nearly everyone in this division including the Sox and the Royals.
My thanks to everyone who chimed in to give us a better picture of the Twins. Should be a fun summer in Minnesota!