Playing Pepper 2023: Minnesota Twins

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Minnesota Twins
78-84, third in the AL Central
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Sonny Gray (2.4)
Top hitter by fWAR: Carlos Correa (4.4)

At the trading deadline, the Twins were in first place and five games over .500.  Things snowballed after that, as they went 24-35 down the stretch to fall out of playoff contention.  There’s still a lot of good things around Minnesota, though, and we’ve got some people lined up to point them out!

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C70: There seemed to be a lot going on in Minnesota this winter, including getting to play the final part in the Carlos Correa saga. What are your thoughts on what the club did this winter and how it looks as we get ready for 2023?

Nash: The Twins have been MLB’s most active team since last year’s lockout ended. They traded Josh Donaldson, Mitch Garver, Taylor Rogers, and Luis Arraez while signing Carlos Correa twice and trading for Tyler Mahle, Chris Paddack, Pablo López, and Sonny Gray, among others. It’s been a whirlwind. The end result is a similar group to the one we watched win only 78 games in 2022. The Twins swapped Arraez for López on the MLB roster, opting for depth in the rotation over stability in the leadoff spot. On paper, those two probably cancel each other out in terms of value but it’s a risk to trade away the American League batting champion who happens to be one of the best players on the team. Retaining Correa was the priority this offseason and no matter how crazy the path was, the Twins made it happen for six years and $200 million with team and vesting options to potentially make it a 10-year, $270 million pact. In an often forgotten move, the Twins also signed Joey Gallo for one year and $11 million, betting on the slugger returning to form as a fearful bat and defensive stalwart. The Twins’ hopes for 2023 are back into respectable territory. There’s reason for optimism with the rotation as Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer depart for Mahle, López, and a (hopefully) healthy Kenta Maeda. The Twins had a solid winter but are still missing a frontline starter and another right-handed bat in the outfield. 

Seth: I think it was a terrific offseason for the Twins, but it was almost a terrible offseason. Let’s be honest. If things had played out differently, and Correa had signed with the Giants or the Mets, it could have been a very different offseason result. That said, the addition of Christian Vazquez was really nice. Taking a flyer on Joey Gallo makes a lot of sense. Sure, he hit .160 last year, but he was an All Star and Gold Glove winner a year earlier. One year deal, and you never know. Could be a steal. The Twins added infielder Kyle Farmer from the Reds early in the offseason. Had they not signed Correa, Farmer likely would have been the Twins starting shortstop while we wait for Royce Lewis to return from his second ACL surgery or 2022 first-round pick Brooks Lee to be ready. Instead, Farmer will likely move around the diamond as a utility guy. And finally, adding Michael A. Taylor isn’t terribly exciting, but as much time as Byron Buxton has missed in center field, it’s nice to have a Gold Glover ready to back him up and play the corners as well. 

Ben: The Twins did exactly what they needed to do this off-season, outside of the bullpen. It took a bit of a roundabout path to get there, but what matters is that it worked out in the end.

Obviously, there’s Carlos Correa. It took not 1 but 2 separate events that are basically unprecedented for the Twins to lock down their star shortstop. Getting him the first time only happened because the lockout put a damper on his free agency prospects and he didn’t find the long-term deal in 2022. This contract only happened because both the Mets and Giants had concerns with his surgically repaired leg that led to them backing out of their commitments. The Twins jumped at the chance to bring him back and got him on one of the most team-friendly superstar contracts in the sport, especially compared to what Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts got from their new teams. 6 years, $200 million, 4 vesting options after that which turn into team options if they don’t vest. Maybe it will come back to bite them, but for now, it’s an absurdly good deal for a top 3 shortstop.

Outside of Correa, the other major move was swapping Luis Arraez for Pablo Lopez and a pair of prospects. Arraez was a fan favorite and won the batting title in 2022, so trading him away rubbed many fans the wrong way, but I think it was the right move. After bouncing around several different positions, the Twins finally admitted that he was nothing more than a first baseman. With his offensive skillset, getting that production out of a second baseman is excellent, but as a first baseman, it leaves a lot to be desired. Additionally, he has had recurring leg issues that have limited him offensively, as evident by his .683 OPS in the second half last year. They sold high on Arraez and got a good starting pitcher who the Twins believe has a little bit more in the tank.

Outside of that, the Twins built a lot of depth, which is exactly what they needed. Picking up veterans like Christian Vazquez, Michael A. Taylor, and Kyle Farmer. When injuries to Byron Buxton and others inevitably come, they’ll be in a much better position than they were in September last year when they lost the division title. 

C70: Sonny Gray had a good first year in Minnesota. Since he’s a free agent at the end of the year, will the club look to extend him? What are your expectations for him this season?

Nash: Sonny Gray pitched as well as the Twins could’ve hoped when they traded their 2021 first round pick Chase Petty for him back in March. Gray posted an ERA that was 25% better than league average and regularly gave the Twins a strong chance to win. Unfortunately, nagging hamstring injuries and a pectoral strain kept Gray to only 119 2/3 innings. The hope is Gray returns with 150+ innings at a similar efficiency in 2023. It seems unlikely the Twins would extend Gray given his age (33) and their history with paying starters. The Twins’ largest commitment to a pitcher under this front office was for Michael Pineda, who they extended for two years and $20 million following the 2019 season. 

Seth: That will be an interesting story to follow this year. I’m certain that the Twins would be happy to keep him around beyond 2023. His injuries in 2022 were more leg-related. However, when healthy, he is just such a solid, professional, veteran starter. I would expect him to be just that again in 2023. Eat some innings. Give the Twins a chance to win games he starts. Put up solid numbers. Lead the rotation.

It’s a difficult question on a number of levels though. Kenta Maeda is coming back after missing 2022 recovering from Tommy John surgery. His last healthy season was 2020 and he finished second in AL Cy Young voting. He is also an impending free agent. So is Tyler Mahle who the Twins gave up Spencer Steer, Christian Encarnacion-Strand and Steven Hajjar to acquire at the deadline last year. He only made four starts for the Twins due to shoulder issues. He seems good to go this spring. So there are three quality veteran starters. Hopefully they all pitch great this season and make the Twins offer them a Qualifying Offer.

The other side of that is that the Twins have some actual starting pitcher depth. Pablo Lopez has another year before he can become a free agent. Chris Paddack missed most of 2022 and will miss most of 2023 after Tommy John surgery. Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober are two younger pitchers who are already in the rotation. In addition, Louie Varland and Simeon Woods Richardson are at Triple-A after debuting last September. They’re just waiting for their opportunities.

Ben: I don’t believe the Twins are looking at extending Sonny Gray at the moment. He’s been very effective when he’s pitched, but health questions have plagued him and he’s 33 years old. He’s a prime candidate to receive the Qualifying Offer next season, and potentially accept it if he can’t find something he likes long-term.

When healthy, he’s likely the best starting pitcher on the Twins’ staff, and they’re banking on him to play just as well this season as he did last. However, if he doesn’t, the Twins starting rotation is in a much better position than they were last year with guys like Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer. Their current rotation consists of him, Pablo Lopez, Joe Ryan, Tyler Mahle, and Kenta Maeda. If Gray (or any of the others) gets injured or struggles, Bailey Ober is maybe the most overqualified starting pitcher that will start the season at Triple A. Behind him, there’s also Josh Winder, Louie Varland, and Simeon Woods Richardson who have looked solid in limited big league action. Chris Paddack should also return toward the end of the season in his recovery from Tommy Johns.

For the first time in a long time, the rotation is a strength for the Minnesota Twins, which also explains why the Twins aren’t urgently trying to extend Sonny Gray.

C70: What are your thoughts about the bullpen? How confident are you in how it is constructed currently?

Nash: The Twins’ bullpen has been one of their biggest weaknesses over the last two seasons. The Twins ranked 2nd in MLB in bullpen fWAR in 2019 and 2020 combined (10.6). Since then, they rank 25th (4.3 fWAR). Jhoan Durán emerged as one of baseball’s best relievers in 2022, offering reprieve in what has otherwise been a rough go for the bullpen. Griffin Jax also had a very nice year in his first taste of the ‘pen, regularly reaching the mid-to-upper 90s and relying on an elite slider. Jax, Caleb Thielbar and Durán are the headliners with wild-cards Jorge López, Jorge Alcala, and Emilio Pagán also set to get time in relief. The Twins have real upside back there with Durán leading the way but it remains to be seen whether López can return to form, Alcala can come back healthy and effective, and Pagán can find himself after multiple poor seasons. I’m hopeful this group can be an asset in 2023. 

Seth: One area that the Twins really didn’t address in the offseason was their bullpen. That said, I like the back end of the Twins bullpen. Jhoan Duran‘s rookie year was amazing, and it’s fun watching him throw 103 mph fastballs regularly. In acquiring Jorge Lopez a year ago, they acquired not only the final months of 2022, but also 2023 and 2024. His first half in 2022 was an impressive, dominant transition to the bullpen. Likewise, Griffin Jax made the move to the bullpen for the Twins in 2022 and became very reliable. Having a full season under their belts should make both better in 2023. Caleb Thielbar continues to not only be a great story, but has been very reliable. Fellow lefty, Jovani Moran, has some incredible, dominant stuff. If he finds any measure of control and/or command, he can be great. Jorge Alcala missed all but the first couple of games in 2022 with elbow issues. He didn’t have surgery, but his arm is back in 2023. He’s been hitting 97-98 mph with his fastball. If he can be back, that is a pretty strong Top 6 of a bullpen. After that, there are question marks. For instance, we all watch Emilio Pagan and see the big fastball and the sharp slider, but we also see him give up a lot of home runs. Can he be solid in a mid-inning role? After that, it is very possible that there is a revolving door that could include the likes of Trevor Megill, Danny Coulombe, Josh Winder, Cole Sands, and if you’re looking for a sleeper, former Reds reliever Jeff Hoffman. Hoffman signed during spring training to a minor-league deal with three opt-out dates. In games, he’s been sitting 96-97 and have a lot of experience. 

Ben: The bullpen is the Twins’ biggest question, as it was for much of last season. Jhoan Duran is electric and is one of the best relievers in baseball, Caleb Thielbar has surprisingly been an elite late-inning option since his return from Indy ball, and Griffin Jax took a big leap last year and looks primed to take another this season. Outside of those three, there are plenty of questions.

The biggest name is Jorge Lopez who earned an All-Star bid with his first half last season. The Twins acquired him at the trade deadline and he immediately imploded. They need him to regain his All-Star form, which goes without saying. Emilio Pagan and Trevor Megill have great stuff but also have given up home runs at historic rates. Jorge Alcala missed almost all of last season. Jovani Moran has an elite changeup, but the rest of his pitches are questionable at best and he struggles to stay in the zone.

They didn’t add a single Major League free agent reliever, and while I think that was the wrong move, you can see their logic. They have a solid reputation for developing relievers (see Duran, Thielbar, Jax, Taylor Rogers, Trevor May), but this group is the exact same one that lost them the division last year with many middle-inning implosions before they could get to Duran. The better starting pitching will help, but it’s right to be skeptical of the bullpen as a whole.

C70: Between rookies or players that haven’t been in MLB long, who do you think will have the most impact this season for the Twins?

Nash: José Miranda started his MLB career going 13-for-77 (.169) with 18 strikeouts and two walks in 2022. The Twins’ 2021 Minor League Hitter of the Year then hit .289/.350/.450 (.800 OPS) with 33 extra-base hits the rest of the season. It was an amazing turnaround for Miranda, who figures to spend much of his time at third base in 2023 following the trade of Gio Urshela. Miranda is an all-around hitter, with contact ability, a low strikeout rate, and legit power. He should be one of the team’s best hitters this season after a special first taste of the majors.

Seth: There are so many that fit into this category. The Twins have a nice group of young players that no longer qualify is “prospects” or “rookies,” but still have yet to prove themselves. That group would include Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Ryan Jeffers, Nick Gordon, Ryan, Ober, and others. They also have several prospects that made their MLB debuts during the 2022 season. The ‘star’ of that group was Royce Lewis who came up and really played well for a dozen games before tearing his ACL again. He will return sometime around July, hopefully. On the mound, Louie Varland (the Twins minor-league pitcher of the year the past two seasons) made a handful of starts. Simeon Woods Richardson ended his season with one start in the big leagues. Both of them could be in line for starts in 2023. Josh Winder looked good in starts until he again had shoulder issues and may wind up in the bullpen. Ronny Henriquez looked really, really good in his September outings in the big leagues and could fill a role.

Finally, there are some very interesting prospects that have yet to debut but could in 2023. The headliner is 2022 first-round draft pick Brooks Lee who finished his debut pro season at Double-A Wichita. He’s also shown well in spring training. With Correa signed long term, Lee and Lewis will likely get opportunities at other positions. Likewise, former top five pick Austin Martin may not be a shortstop, but he can play all over the diamond. Unfortunately, he has been shutdown with a UCL sprain. If healthy, he could debut.

Ben: The Twins are largely a veteran group this year, and that’s intentional. They built out their bench to have backups that are a bit more reliable. So with that being said, I’ll cheat and talk about Alex Kirilloff, who has played about 90 games in the last 2 years with the big league squad.

Kirilloff is a big X-Factor for the Twins this season. The former top-20 prospect will likely start the season on the IL, but he will be a middle-of-the-order bat as soon as he returns, and it’s time for him to prove he can stay healthy. Each of his last 2 seasons have ended with wrist surgery. Last summer, he underwent a new procedure to actually trim down the bone in his balky wrist with the hope that would eliminate the pain.

In the very small stretches where he’s been healthy, Kirilloff has destroyed pitching both in the bigs and Triple-A. His overall numbers look significantly worse due to him trying to play through pain, but don’t let that fool you. If this version of Kirilloff is finally healthy, he’ll be hitting right behind Buxton and Correa driving them in.

You can also take everything I said above, tone it down 20%, and apply it to Trevor Larnach, who should be the Twins’ Opening Day left fielder. Take it and amp it up 15% and then it applies to former number 1 overall pick Royce Lewis who should return sometime in June from an ACL tear.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Nash: Best case: The Twins get 150 games a piece from Correa and Byron Buxton, Alex Kirilloff comes back healthy and raking from another wrist surgery, the rotation stays afloat throughout the season and the team dominates the American League Central. Worst case: Correa and Buxton are hit by the injury bug, the Twins’ low-ceiling rotation is too mediocre, and Kirilloff, Miranda, and Trevor Larnach middle at the plate. The most likely scenario is the Twins win 85 games and are in the hunt for an American League Central title. The Twins will likely win somewhere between 82 and 88 games this year, with every additional victory crucial for their playoff hopes. 

Seth: Best case… the Twins find a way to stay healthy, something they have not been able to do since the 2019 Bomba Squad. Byron Buxton plays 140 games and wins the AL MVP and another Gold Glove. Joey Gallo returns to All Star form. Jose Miranda avoids a sophomore slump. Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach and Royce Lewis all get healthy and contribute. Most important, they need their veteran starters to stay healthy and eating innings. That will also help the bullpen find more consistent, defined roles. If all that happens, the Twins can absolutely compete with Cleveland for the top of the AL Central Division.

Worst Case… They continue to fight injuries, including with the starting rotation, and they would then be competing with the Tigers and White Sox for second and third place.

Most Likely… They aren’t going to be completely healthy, but I do think that they have the talent and the depth that they can compete for the AL Central title. With the schedule changing and the team playing AL Central teams less, it is going to be very interesting to see how the generally weak AL Central division competes and what the top team’s win total is.

Ben: The best case is the World Series. All you have to do to win it all is get in the playoffs, and the Twins should be neck-and-neck with Cleveland right through the end of the season to earn the division title. Their disastrous final month undermined what was a very solid team for the rest of the year. The majority of their lineup they were running out for that final month wasn’t even on the 40-man roster to start the season. They were in first place in the division on September 1st and ended up losing the division by 14 games! Billy Hamilton was taking important at-bats in 2022!

Realistically, the Twins are trying to win their division and break their dreaded, and just flat-out unlucky, 18-game postseason losing streak. The Guardians over-performed last season and the Twins underperformed. Assuming both regress to the mean, it should be a tight race. Also, I am completely discounting the White Sox from this race both because I don’t like them, and because their last 2 years have shown a complete disinterest in playing competitive baseball despite their talent.

I think their worst-case scenario is pretty much what happened last year: The lineup is decimated by injuries, the bullpen isn’t good enough to close out games, and they’re out of the playoff race by September. Maybe Carlos Correa’s ankle turns out to really be infested by termites, for good measure. Even in that scenario, the organizational depth and general competence of the team will still get them 75 wins.

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