Playing Pepper 2017: Minnesota Twins

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Minnesota Twins
59-103, fifth in AL Central
Last year’s Pepper

Well, that was a bit of a turnaround, wasn’t it?  In 2015 the Twins finished second in the division, albeit 12 games out.  Looking through the Pepper answers last year, I can tell our contributors didn’t necessarily expect things to improve, but they didn’t think the bottom would fall out either.  It did, though, which means it’s time to sort through the rubble and start building back up toward contention.

The rough year didn’t run off the Twins bloggers and I’m very glad to have them return (or, in the case of Maija, make their debut) to talk about this club 30 years after our teams met in the Fall Classic.  (Please note, all entries were submitted before this weekend’s news about Trevor May, which may color some things.)

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

TIS: Not really. It looks like Falvey and Levine are looking at 2017 as an assessment season vs. as a rebuilding season. They kept pretty much all of the front office, minor league managers, coaches and player development personnel, as well as most of the MLB-team intact, including the manager and coaches. I wish they were more aggressive, but I can see why they want to see more of what they have and whether the old dogs can learn new tricks. Good luck. On the other hand, as far as players go, not selling high on Dozier, E. Santana, and a bunch of the veterans makes zero sense for a rebuilding team.

NDTF: I don’t think you are going to find many Twins fans that are overly excited with the team’s offseason. Minnesota made a big switch to their baseball operations department by hiring Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to try and turn around the organization. Jason Castro was the only major free agent addition for the club and not many fans are going to be bouncing off the walls for a defensive minded catcher. Pitching was the team’s biggest weakness a year ago and the team only made minimal bullpen additions. Many Twins fans were disappointed that the team couldn’t work out a trade that included Brian Dozier. There were plenty of rumors swirling about a potential Dodgers deal but the Twins were never going to send Dozier away for one player.

TD: The Twins offseason started off fast, but it was probably slower overall than most Twins fans would have anticipated. Obviously it started with the announcement of Derek Falvey taking over as the Twins Chief Baseball Officer. Soon after, they announced that Thad Levine was the new General Manager. and then they went out and improved their catcher position very quickly by signing Jason Castro before the end of November. And then things got quiet.

It appears that the new leadership has decided to use the same strategy for players that they are for much of the front office. They are going to take their time and evaluate the current options. The Twins have a lot of young talent that they need to let play, so I don’t think I expected them to do a ton. Late they signed reliever Matt Belisle (MLB contract) and Craig Breslow (MILB contract) to help out in the bullpen. Not exciting names but guys that could certainly help.

TT: It wasn’t a terrible off-season for the Twins, but it wasn’t great either. I think the team was obviously hindered by the bad free agent market, and lack of trading partners for Brian Dozier. Dozier was the Twins’ biggest trade chip, and they tried to trade him, but there weren’t many second baseman suitors out there with young pitching to give in return. It was basically only the Dodgers, who only wanted to trade Jose De Leon for Brian Dozier in a one-on-one deal, and I’m glad the Twins didn’t do that.

The Twins did go out and get catcher Jason Castro, pitch framer extraordinaire, in a creative attempt to help pitching in a thin market. That was cool, I guess. We’ll see how it works.

It was also a weird off-season because the entire front office was transitioning power. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on that I’m sure took a lot of the new Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey’s time, and new GM Thad Levine’s time. The fact Falvey’s previous team–the Indians–made a deep, deep playoff run also delayed the reorganization of the front office, because he couldn’t officially accept the job until after the Indians’ season was over.

10KT: It was an interesting offseason to say the least. The Twins began a new era by bringing in Derek Falvey as President of Baseball Operations and Thad Levine as General Manager replacing longtime GM Terry Ryan. The working theory for most is that the Falvey-Levine combo are sitting back and seeing what they have before making any major moves. The big move of the offseason was bringing in catcher Jason Castro, at least that’s how everyone has been framing it. It would’ve been nice if the Twins could’ve added some more pitching before the season, but I understand the waiting and seeing game that Falvey and Levine are playing.

C70: What’s the feeling on Byron Buxton? Is the fanbase still patient with him or a little disappointed about how his career has started?

TIS: Yes to all of the above 🙂 Unfortunately Terry Ryan rushed Buxton who has had a serious problem with breaking pitches all his minor league career. It seems that he turned the corner after his mid-season demotion and his September call up. Still very young and still tons of potential. Not part of the problem.

NDTF: There have been some frustrations with Buxton but he began to show marketable improvements near the end of last season. During the season’s final month, he hit .287/.357/.653 with nine home runs, six doubles, and three triples. Add these numbers to his tremendous defensive ability and fans should be excited about what the future could hold. Unfortunately, many fans weren’t paying attention to a 100-loss team in September so Buxton will need to prove himself again this season.  

TD: It’s a mixed bag, I’m sure, for Twins fans on what to expect from Byron Buxton. there would be a lot more concern if not for his remarkable September when he showed off not only his incredible defensive ability, but also hit and showed off the type of power that he possesses. That month gives people a lot of hope that he can continue it and start 2017 strong. I think most Twins fans know that he can be a Gold Glover at worst, but if he can be a guy who gets on 34% of the time and hit 15-20 homers and a bunch of doubles and triples, he has All Star ability.

TT: Most Twins fans are excited about Buxton and think he’ll have a good year. I would not be surprised at all if he is the best player for the Twins in 2017. He took a big step forward in September of last year, and we’re all hoping it carries over. There are some parts of the casual/less informed/complain-y fan base that likes to call him “BUST-on”, but basically everyone who actually watches and is more informed is pretty excited. He literally just turned 23 years old in late December, and most fans are aware of his youth. Plus, his incredible speed is undeniable.

10KT: I believe that people are still excited for Byron Buxton. On Wednesday night, the Twins played Team USA and Buxton made another remarkable catch in centerfield. Buxton started playing quite well in the last month of the season so there have been flashes of what his potential could be. Twins folks are peddling a good idea about being patient on Buxton. Both Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter didn’t breakout into being a very legitimate MLB player until their age 25 season, 2017 will be Buxton’s age 23 season. There’s plenty of time for Buxton to live up to the hype.

C70: How long before the Twins contend for the AL Central title?

TIS: Contend is a scary word, because it means so many things to so many people 🙂 I suspect they “contended” in 2015, but they did not really contended. I think that they are a couple of top of the rotation pitchers away from contending and if everything works out well for them, it will be 2019 or so. They have the bats for sure. For me contending means building a team that year in and year out will be in the top 2 positions of the division and has the potential to go deep in the post-season. The Twins have not done that since 1991…

NDTF: Cleveland seems to have a hold on the division at this point. The Royals are not that far removed from a World Series title. Chicago is rebuilding. With a young core, the Twins will need to get back in contention over the next two-three years before Buxton and Sano reach free agency. There’s a small window and the new front office needs to attack it. 

TD: l don’t think the Twins are as far off as a lot of people do. However, Cleveland is going to (or at least should) run away with the division in 2017, and they should be strong again in 2018 and maybe even longer. I think the Twins can jump from 59 wins to 75-78 wins in 2017. So I think that they could contend for a playoff spot as early as 2018. 

TT: They will win the division in two years.

10KT: The Twins are much closer to the 2015 team that barely missed the playoffs than the 100-plus loss team of 2016. Nothing would really surprise me for when this team would contend, but that just might be my Twins-colored glasses talking. I’d say the Twins could start contending in 2017, after Falvey and Levine make some moves, and might really, really start contending in 2018. I think they are close. 

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

TIS: Jorge Polanco. Pretty much written off as a shortstop, I expect him to turn into an two way All-Star caliber player, and 2017 will be his season.

NDTF: The Twins front office is very high on Max Kepler. He showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie campaign but the team is looking for him to take a big step in 2017. There are some that think more highly of him than Buxton and that is putting him in some elite company. 

TD: Everyone knows (and talks about) Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Jose Berrios, but one young player that doesn’t get talked about as much is Jorge Polanco. A year ago, he was near the bottom of some Top 100 lists. He has the ability to take quality plate appearances most times up. The question with him will be if he can improve (dramatically) and become just an average defensive shortstop. If he can do that, it would be huge for the Twins. 

TT: Most of the Twins players are either bad or super young, so it’s hard to say. Not that I expect them to be good, but the most curious cases to me are starting pitcher Phil Hughes, who is coming back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery (the rib removal thing), and Korean Slugger Byung Ho Park, who was removed from the 40-man roster but could very well still make the club. Park started off well last year, but suffered multiple wrist injuries that I think contributed to his decline. He’s looked pretty good so far in spring training and has been working hard. Everyone seems to love him.

10KT: I feel like Max Kepler isn’t as heralded as he should be. Kepler has been overshadowed by the coming of Buxton, Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios. There’s a good chance that Kepler will be an American League All-Star and a fighting chance that he might make it there before the other three. I’d keep my eye on Kepler.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

TIS: I do not make my prediction of record before I see them play every Spring Training and the roster is close to being set, so my official prediction will come at the end of March. As far as finish goes, they better finish ahead of the White Sox, winning 75+ games. They might even challenge the Royals. Too early to tell.

NDTF: 77-85, third place in the AL Central

TD: I think that the Twins will go 77-85, and if they do, Twins fans should be happy and excited for 2018. I would think that would be good for third in the AL Central. 

TT: I would be happy with 76 wins.

10KT: Every year I say the Twins finish around .500 and I think that’ll be the case again this year. It’s not going to be another 100-loss season, I know that much. The Twins will be right around .500, maybe a little above or below, and will finish third in the division. I’m drinking the Twins Kool-Aid.

C7o: Who is your all-time favorite Twin and why?

TIS: Kirby Puckett. If one has seen him play, the why is obvious. Gave it 100% every day and carried the team to two World Championships (and a few more if La Russa and his cheating A’s were not around.)

NDTF: Kirby Puckett will always be my all-time favorite Twin. From his small demeanor to the championships he brought to the Twin Cities, he is a legend in Twins lore. Other famous Twins like Killebrew, Olivia, and Carew were before my time so Puckett gets the nod. 

TD: Easy choice. I was 8 years old in April of 1984 when Kirby Puckett was called up. I think it was mainly just his name. But as I grew up and got to actually know more and more about baseball, and more games were on TV, my appreciation for Kirby Puckett grew. I always wanted to wear #34. Obviously going through 1987 and 1991 furthered that admiration. I liked the stocky build. I liked the leg kick. I loved that he was smiling all the time. Game 6 of 1991. When he retired, I was devastated, and when he died, I had to leave work. I went to Cooperstown in 2001 to see him inducted into the Hall of Fame. Despite his off field issues that came out starting in 2002, Puckett was my childhood hero. 

TT: Kirby Puckett. Hans down. He made me love baseball.

10KT: It’s hard to pick just one, because the Twins have had so many fun players throughout the history of the franchise. If I had to pick one, I’d have to go with Doug Mientkiewicz. The first Twins game I ever attended, I got a promotional Mientkiewicz jersey and that hooked me. He had a weird name and he had an amazing glove. He’s the reason I wanted to play first base and was one of the main reasons I got hooked on baseball. The potential future manager of the Minnesota Twins is my favorite Twin.

My appreciation to all that brought the knowledge today.  It’ll be interesting to see how the Twins respond to a rough 2016!

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