Playing Pepper 2019: Minnesota Twins

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Minnesota Twins
78-84, second in AL Central
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

While the Twins might have finished the year under water, they still managed to outdo the rest of the division and finish runner-up to the Indians.  They were solidly in second as well–13 games behind Cleveland, 14 games ahead of Detroit.  So which gap will the Twins cut into this season?  We’ve got five solid bloggers to fill you in on that.

Writer Site Twitter
Maija Varda Twinkie Town KirbysLeftEye
Cody Christie Twins Daily NoDakTwinsFan
Thrylos Tenth Inning Stretch thrylos98
Seth Stohs Twins Daily SethTweets
Collin Kottke CollinKottke

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Maija: Well, it was exciting when the Twins signed Nelson Cruz! That was unexpected and great. Outside of that… I don’t know.

Cody: Most of Twins Territory is disappointed in the team’s lack of spending this off-season. Adding Nelson Cruz could significantly help the offense and his leadership will be a welcome addition to the clubhouse. Other than that, there were a lot of cast-offs from other teams. It felt like the club was dumpster diving. Minnesota has a young core so the payroll is going to naturally be lower but there still feels like the team could have done more. The starting rotation and bullpen both could use another piece. If I was picking one thing to add, it would have been a veteran starting pitcher. 

Thrylos: I think that they did well this offseason. They really fortified the position player lineup that was supposed to be stronger by the de facto additions of healthy Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton and a full season of Jorge Polanco. They could have done more regarding pitching, but the duo of Michael Pineda and Martin Perez in the rotation with the hope of an improved Jake Odorizzi and non regressing Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios might be ok. Same thing in the pen. A full season of Trevor May as the closer and Fernando Romero as a versatile righty with the addition of Blake Parker might solidify the pen. I also believe that the team will be surprised by at least one of the minor league FA signees. All in all this is a team that will wait and see how much growth of its young players occurred and will be willing to add in the trading deadline big time. Extending Polanco and Max Kepler helped a lot, too. Getting rid or a low energy senior citizen as a manager and replacing him with one of the most energetic and outgoing guys out there, plus improving the coaching staff will definitely help (that’s about 5 wins by itself) as well.

Seth: I think the most obvious thing that they did was added right-handed power. To get bats like Nelson Cruz, CJ Cron and Jonathan Schoop really will help the lineup. Getting Marwin Gonzalez early in spring training was nice too, especially with the injury to Miguel Sano. It would have been nice for them to add a bit more pitching. They added only Martin Perez and Blake Parker. Parker is a solid reliever who may be used in the late innings. No one understood the Perez signing, but he is certainly throwing hard in spring training, so there is hope.

I think it was a good offseason, especially for the offense. They have some solid arms but will need a few guys to really step up.

Collin: I think it was a good offseason, it was interesting for sure. There were moments where it kinda seemed like the Twins might make a really big splash, but that never came to fruition. Nelson Cruz was a nice surprise and I think the addition of Marwin Gonzalez will be huge especially with Miguel Sano being out for an extended amount of time to start the season. I wish, as I’m sure fans of every other team across the league wishes for their team, that the Twins would have added a little more pitching depth.

C70: Michael Pineda missed all last year with Tommy John surgery. Will he be ready by Opening Day and what are your expectations for him?

Maija: I expect Michael Pineda to be ready to go opening day and I’m excited! Obviously I don’t expect him to be the actual opening day starter (Jose Berrios, my friends), but I am excited to have that help in the rotation on the relative cheap.

Cody: All indications are Pineda should be good to go for Opening Day. There was talk of him getting some playing time at the end of last season but Minnesota held off. I don’t have huge expectations for him, especially in his first year back from the surgery. I think he will fit nicely into the back of the rotation, but the club is going to have to watch his innings throughout the year. Pineda doesn’t have a contract after this season so he has plenty to prove. 

Thrylos: Pineda looks ready for the opening day. That said, I wrote this when the Twins signed Pineda and still stand by it. I do not have many expectations from him. He has been either snake-bitten or made bad decisions since he was traded by the Mariners. I hope that this season is better, but everything they get will be a plus. 

Seth: Pineda would have been ready to return from Tommy John surgery in September, but he then hurt his knee and needed to have surgery on that. But he is back and ready to go. He is throwing hard and now starting to mix in his pitches. He’s got the power arm, so he should really help the team as their #3 or #4 starter. 

Collin: I believe he will be ready and in the starting rotation come Opening Day. This is a tough question. We all know the ceiling for Pineda is decently high, but, that being said, there’s always concern after Tommy John surgery. The Twins locked down Pineda on such a nice team deal that as long as he is a serviceable mid-to-end rotation guy, I think that will be a success for him in Minnesota. He doesn’t need to be the ace, that’s Jose Berrios’ job.

C70: Is there a young player that you are looking forward to perhaps breaking out this season?

Maija: It would be fun to see Nick Gordon step up but I’m not sure.

Cody: Can I say every young player? Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano want to forget most of what happened in 2018. Both of them need to prove they can be part of the solution in Minnesota. Jose Berrios was an All-Star last season but he could continue to find some more consistency. Max Kepler destroyed the ball in the minor leagues and he has yet to put it all together at the big league level. To me, the key is Byron Buxton. They need him to be a superstar. He can impact every facet of the game. 

Thrylos: One? I think that this will be a breakout season for both Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco who are pretty much unknown so far outside the Twin Cities. Byron Buxton came to Spring Training with a chip on his shoulder and would have been the guy to watch this season if not for the guy who I think will have the best season with the Twins. Even though it will not be a breakout season (that was his Rookie age 22, 149 wRC+, All Star season,) Miguel Sano finally healthy is primed to have a monster season even though will start the season in the DL for a month. About to become a superstar.

Seth: With the Twins, there are several guys. In 2018, both Eddie Rosario and Jose Berrios (and Taylor Rogers) took big strides in their career. In 2019, obviously the Twins want Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano to get back to form. But for me the guy watch is Max Kepler. He got a nice contract extension to buy out his four arbitration years and one-to-three free agent years. While his batting average was low in 2018, he improved against lefties. He improved his walk rate. He’s got a low BABIP. Combine all that with the fact that he has shown power and plays great defense. His ceiling is still quite high. I think the other Twins long-term extension guy, Jorge Polanco, is another candidate to make a big jump in 2019. 

Collin: Do we still consider Byron Buxton a young player, because if we do I truly think it’s going to be a dynamite year for Buxton. We have all seen what Buxton can do in the field for multiple seasons now, but he has never fully put it together at the plate at the Major League level. He is batting very well in Spring Training right now and it would be a great thing for the Twins if Buxton could finally bring that with him into the regular season.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Maija: Honestly? I am not feeling as confident for the Twins in 2019 as I have felt in past years. I’ll be happy if they finish in 3rd place in the AL Central.

Cody: Minnesota will likely hover around the .500 mark, unless their young core can figure it all out. The AL Central is as wide open as it has been in some time. Cleveland’s reign could come to an end. However, I don’t see that happening this season. I think Minnesota finishes in second place in the division for the second consecutive year. 

Thrylos: Cleveland was trapped this offseason into believing that the division has their name all over it and weakened themselves. I think that the Twins will take that hubris by the horns and ride it to first place in Central with several fortifications in the pitching department by the deadline.

Seth: I still think that the Cleveland starting rotation is terrific, and I think that (along with Lindor and Ramirez, of course) give them the edge in the division, but I do think that the Twins have closed the gap. So I think the Twins can win 85 games over more, and if they are competing at the trade deadline, they have prospects that could either supplement the lineup or be used as trade bait to acquire players to help down the stretch. 

Collin: I am incredibly optimistic about this season. I am so optimistic that I am trying to ignore how excited I am deep down about what this Twins team could possibly do this year. If everything comes together well, this team could be scary good. The safe bet for a finish in the division would be second behind Cleveland with a likely shot at one of the Wild Card berths. That being said, I would not be shocked if the Twins come out of 2019 as the American League Central Champions.

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Maija: Who is going to take over as the leader of the team after losing Joe Mauer? My answer: no one.  Unless it is Nelson Cruz.

Cody: Q: Following Joe Mauer’s retirement, who takes over the role of face of the franchise? A: Byron Buxton

Thrylos: The pen. Maybe a full season of Trevor May and Fernando Romero and seeing less of pitchers like Trevor Hildenberger (who had the worst WPA in the majors last season), along with fortifications at the deadline might be the answer. The new pitching coaching staff will definitely help as well.

Seth: I think that the biggest question mark right now for the Twins is the bullpen. They don’t have a closer as the season approaches. They have a few really strong arms that could be used at any point in the late innings, but it will be interesting to see how Rocco Baldelli and Wes John choose to approach the late innings. 

Collin: How will the team respond to new manager Rocco Baldelli? I think Baldelli will have no issues with this team. I liked Paul Molitor, but Baldelli seems to be more in-step with the more modern ways of both the players and the front office executives of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. I feel like everyone will be on the same page more this season and that will result in the beginning of a beautiful tenure for Baldelli with the Minnesota Twins.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Maija: Willians Astudillo.

Cody: Jose Berrios can be absolutely electric on the mound. His stuff can be down-right nasty. I expect him to continue to evolve as a starting pitcher and to fully embrace his role as the staff ace. Each one of his starts is something Twins fans shouldn’t miss. 

Thrylos: Beating Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, and the White Sux, for sure. And hopefully that team with the pinstripes in the postseason.

Seth: Jose Berrios became an All Star for the first time in 2018. If he can continue to grow, he gives the Twins a true ace, a guy at the top of their rotation that they can really rely on. I also think that if fans like home runs, this team has a chance to make them happy very often. 

Collin: After the harsh winter we’ve had in Minnesota, simply the fact of green grass and warmth sounds amazing right now. As I mentioned prior, if Byron Buxton can find his footing offensively, we could be looking at the blossoming of a perennial All-Star. He’s got that kind of potential. Plus, he’s simply a human highlight reel between his speed on the bases and in the field. I am also excited to see how Jose Berrios does because he as well could blossom into one of the best players in the American League. There is so much potential on this Twins team that just watching it all, hopefully, finally blossom is exciting and will be quite joyful.

Thanks to everyone for taking a little time to chat about the Minnesota club.  It sounds like this could be a team to perhaps keep an eye on if you like surprise stories!

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