It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Twins during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
73-89, fifth in the AL Central
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Jose Berrios (1.8)
Top hitter by bWAR: Jorge Polanco (4.9)
After two straight first place finishes and three out of the last four years in the playoffs, becoming a seller at the trade deadline was a bit of a shock to the system. It would seem unlikely that the Twins are going to spend a lot of time in the wilderness but baseball can be a funny game at times. We’ve got a few folks here that have some thoughts about what Minnesota is doing, so let’s get to it!
|Nash Walker||Locked On Twins||LockedOnTwins|
|Otto Johnson||Puckett's Pond||THEOttoJohnson|
|Ben Jones||Twinkie Town||BenJones_5|
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Minnesota’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Nash: Oh man. The Twins came into this offseason needing two frontline starters, a starting shortstop, and a high-leverage right-handed reliever. It’s not a great spot to be, but we’ve seen this front office get creative with roster openings before. The Twins kicked things off by extending their star center fielder, Byron Buxton, for 7-years and $100 million. It was a great move, and one that was extremely popular among a fanbase that thought Buxton was as good as gone. The Twins had about $35-40 million to spend in what was a loaded free agent starting pitching class. They spent a total of $4 million, and on Dylan Bundy, who’s coming off a season with a 6+ ERA. Many Twins fans were rightly upset going into the lockout. I plead throughout the stoppage that they needed to get aggressive to supplement this team, that a “punt” was actually just a failure. It’s safe to say they’ve been aggressive. The Twins immediately traded starting catcher Mitch Garver to the Rangers for Isiah Kiner-Falefa and pitching prospects Ronny Henriquez. They got their shortstop in IFK, right? Wrong! They flipped him less than 24 hours in a blockbuster with the Yankees. The Twins traded Josh Donaldson and the $50 million remaining on his contract, along with IFK, for Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela. In the middle of that, the Twins traded their first round pick from 2021, hard-throwing righty Chase Petty, to Cincinnati for frontline starter Sonny Gray. Check. Twins fans thought the payroll flexibility from dumping Donaldson would lead to a Trevor Story signing. Wrong, again! Early Saturday morning, reports emerged that the Twins were signing the top free agent on the market in Carlos Correa. The Twins, yes, the Minnesota Twins(!) made Correa the highest-paid infielder in MLB history with a 3-year, $105.3 million deal. Incredible move. It’s likely Correa opts out after his first season, but the Twins further signaled that they are planning to compete this summer. So, what now? Well, the Twins’ lineup looks special, but they still lack a frontline starter to pair with Gray, Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober, and Bundy. I LOVED both the Gray trade and the Correa signing, but they only matter if the Twins continue to push in more chips.
Otto: This offseason was easily the wildest Twins offseason in recent memory. Coming off of last year’s disappointing finish, the front office was looking to shake things up big time. Sending out Mitch Garver, Josh Donaldson, and Chase Petty (our first round pick from last year) for Sonny Gray, Gary Sanchez, and Gio Urshela made the team a lot younger, cheaper, and worse, but it also seemed like a move that was setting up something else, which obviously lead to to the Carlos Correa deal.
The Correa deal was a stunner, and even though I’ll be surprised if he returns in 2023, it was easily the best move that they made. The Sonny Gray trade was also good, but the Twins still need another top starter, so that’s what Twins fans are looking for right now. If the team pulls off the rumored deal for Frankie Montas, then the offseason was excellent and there aren’t many major negatives.
Ben: The Twins offseason revolved around two moves: Byron Buxton’s extension and signing Carlos Correa. After dealing Jose Berrios at the 2021 trade deadline, many Twins fans (myself included) were worried that we were once again about to undergo a lengthy rebuilding process. Signing Buxton for 7 years and $100 million quelled any concerns that I had before.
Of course, Carlos Correa choosing Minnesota might have been the shocker of the offseason. For all intents and purposes, the deal is a one year contract. However, Correa seems to be bought into what Minnesota is building and I believe that there is potential for a long term extension later this year, provided everything goes well this season.
As for what didn’t happen: The Twins are still a starting pitcher or two short. There’s four locks to start in the 2022 rotation: Sonny Gray, Dylan Bundy, Bailey Ober, and Joe Ryan. Of that group, Bundy is a reclamation project after a down year with LAA, Gray is a solid second or third starter, and Ober and Ryan are young guys who are projected at the back end of the rotation. I am higher on Ryan than most, but even so, the Twins need an ace to back up a formidable lineup and outstanding defense. If they make a deal for Frankie Montas or Luis Castillo, I give the offseason an A+.
C70: Is there anything Miguel Sano can do to have the club pick up his 2023 option?
Nash: Miguel Sanó is one of the most divisive players in Minnesota sports history. His streaky nature and high-strikeout rates understandably turn away many fans. On top of that, Sanó has faced questions about his character throughout his major league career. It’s been a rocky road for the former top prospect, but there’s been plenty of success at the plate. Sanó was awesome in the second half of 2019, hitting .254 with a .939 OPS and 21 homers in 65 games. The Twins don’t win the division without him, and he basically clinched it with a dramatic grand slam to put the Twins ahead of Cleveland in a late-season showdown. The Twins rewarded him with a contract extension, and all-of-sudden, he’s in his final guaranteed year. In typical Sanó fashion, a brutal start in 2021 led to a strong second half, where he earned his job back with a .250/.343/.504 line. Of course at that point, the Twins were basically eliminated and many had tuned out. If Sanó can find a way to improve his first half performance trend, there’s no question the Twins could pick up his $14.25M option for 2023. In fact, they’d love to pick up that option, because it’d mean Sanó put together a full, productive season. Consistency is key.
Otto: Probably not. Alex Kirilloff is expected to move to first base soon, so unless Sanó would have to slash something like .240/.340/.560 with another step forward on defense (kind of like what he produced in 2019) in order to get the option picked up. If he does that, the Twins probably bring him back, but a return to those numbers seems unlikely. With that being said, I like Sanó and he’s has been a big part of this franchise for seven years, so I hope he proves me wrong.
Ben: Miguel Sano has been one of the most frustrating players to watch over his Twins tenure. He has looked anywhere from a legitimate All-Star to downright unplayable at various times year to year, but he’s also an integral part of the clubhouse. Everybody in Minnesota loves Miggy, and that goes a long way. Sano has been a slow starter every year, and last year was no different. After a rough .196/.279/.426 line over the first half, he rebounded to hit .250/343/.504 after the All-Star break, good for 27% above league average. If Sano can hit like that over the course of a season, I believe the Twins will pick up his 2023 option. The Twins like to watch their spending closely, but Sano has bought enough good will with the franchise at this point that he’ll get every shot to earn that salary.
C70: What’s the strongest part of this team?
Nash: After adding Correa, the Twins boast two of the most talented players in all of baseball. Drafted one pick after Correa in 2012, Byron Buxton is the heart and soul of the Twins. He’s the face of the club and has become an all-around excellent player, with jaw-dropping defense in centerfield and incredible power. Buxton produced 4.5 Wins Above Replacement in 61 games in 2021. As amazing as that is, it also shows Buxton once again missed a large portion of the season. His health is key, but the Correa-Buxton tandem is undoubtedly one of the best in the game. Add those two to a lineup with Jorge Polanco, the team’s MVP in 2021, Sanó, former top prospect Alex Kirilloff, Luis Arraez, and Max Kepler, and you can see why this offense has massive upside. Defensively, the Twins have the world’s best centerfielder and a terrific defensive shortstop. Correa saved 21 runs last season, winning the Gold Glove in the American League. Buxton, an unbelievable defender, won the Platinum Glove in 2017. Additionally, Kepler perennially ranks among the best defensive right-fielders in the game, and Ryan Jeffers is a strong pitch-framer behind the dish. The position player group is potentially outstanding.
Otto: The lineup for sure. If Buxton plays 130 games and Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach become key hitters in the lineup, this lineup is good enough to carry the team to 80 wins regardless of pitching and will be anchored by Carlos Correa and Jorge Polanco. It has the chance to be a Top 10 group in baseball this year.
Ben: The lineup, and it’s not close. You currently have Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa, and Jorge Polanco at the top of the lineup, who are each three of the best hitters at their respective positions. We already talked about how good Miguel Sano can be. Max Kepler is a prime rebound candidate and could hit 40 home runs this year. Gary Sanchez and Ryan Jeffers are streaky hitters, but are big weapons when they’re rolling. Gio Urshela is solid. Alex Kirilloff will be starting everyday and I expect him to break out majorly this year. You also have contact machine/utility man Luis Arraez who could legitimately hit .380 in 2022. That’s not even mentioning the top end prospects that could see time at the majors this year such as Trevor Larnach, Jose Miranda, Royce Lewis, and Austin Martin. I’ll also give a shout out to the bullpen which is chock full of solid relievers, and backed up by two stars in Taylor Rogers and Jorge Alcala, who was unhittable in the second half of 2021.
C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?
Nash: While the Twins sputtered through perhaps the most disappointing season in franchise history, José Miranda mashed. A second round pick in 2016, Miranda had produced just a .671 OPS in the minors in 2019. He had great bat-to-ball skills, but often swung too often and failed to make strong contact. The Twins chose not to add Miranda to the 40-man roster last offseason, and no team selected him in the Rule 5 Draft. Miranda took that chip and turned in the best minor league season from a Twin in almost 20 years. He hit .344/.401/.572 with 30 homers and 94 RBI in 127 games between Double and Triple A. Miranda led the minors in total bases and struck out in 12.5% of his plate appearances. Miranda combined his contact skills with a more patient and power approach. He’s emerged as a top-100 prospect at many prominent sites, and his progression is a major storyline for 2022. His best defensive position is likely third base, and the Twins have plenty of options there with Arraez and Urshela. Could Miranda make the Opening Day roster? Could he be part of a trade that brings in Athletics’ starter Frankie Montas?
Otto: There are a lot of questions about Austin Martin and Royce Lewis right now, so I’ll go with Jordan Balazovic. He may not have true ace potential, but he has the stuff and control to be a Top-2 starter. If things break right in Triple-AAA to start the year, we could see him before the end of 2022.
Ben: The correct answer here is probably either Royce Lewis or Jose Miranda, but I’m going to go with Austin Martin. Martin was one of the key prospects who was acquired from the Blue Jays in exchange for Jose Berrios last year, and the dude can flat out hit. He’s fast, makes great contact, and has a knack for flashy plays. His power hasn’t quite developed yet, but he’s shown some progress on that front this spring already. I think he’s ready for big league pitching, but due to his lack of a position on defense and that he’s not on the 40-man roster, I would expect him on the Twins in 2023. Also, just check out his hair. Magnificent.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Nash: This season is going to be entertaining, if nothing else. By signing Correa, a prominent and infamous star, many eyes will follow the team all summer. My expectation, as the current roster stands, is a competitive team. I think they win 85-88 games and find themselves in the thick of the race down the stretch. That was my hope at the beginning of the offseason, but now my hope is they add enough before Opening Day to project for closer to 90 wins. You already added Correa and Gray, it’s time to push more chips.
Otto: I’m a big believer in the young arms that the Twins have like Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan and the starters at the top of the minors, but they need one more legitimate starter to pitch the day after Sonny Gray. If the team adds Frankie Montas, they win 90 games and finish with the second Wild Card berth. If they don’t and add Johnny Cueto (another rumored starter), I think they win 85 and are right around that third wild card spot. I’d be a little surprised if this team misses the playoffs.
Ben: Without another top-end starter, it’s hard to see the Twins overtaking the White Sox to win the division. However, if they are able to swing a trade for an ace or multiple of the young starters break out (Ober, Ryan, Jordan Balazovic, Josh Winder, Jhoan Duran), I think it’s possible. The White Sox have exciting players, but they really fell off in the second half of 2021, going just 39-34 after the All-Star break. They’re vulnerable and have distinct weaknesses, I’m just not sure the Twins have enough to overtake them right now. If everyone stays healthy, which is a big question given the track record of guys like Buxton, Correa, Sano, and Kirilloff, the Twins should easily grab one of the Wild Card playoff berths and push the White Sox for the division. They will almost assuredly pick up another starter at some point as well, whether it’s before the season or in a midseason trade, which will greatly improve their chances.
That being said, THE TWINS SIGNED CARLOS CORREA!!!! I’ll be telling stories to my grandkids about the time the best shortstop in baseball chose Minnesota. If that can happen, anything can. Minnesota Twins World Series Champs, baby!
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Twins Twitter accounts to follow.
Nash: Oh man! Only three?! @SethTweets is great, as is @NickNelsonMN, and @TFTwins. I’m missing so many and you can’t go wrong with these three.
Otto: The first account is Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark), the Twins’ reporter for MLB.com. He’s always in the know on the most up-to-date news, and has some great perspective on the team’s best prospects as well. The second is Tom Froemming (@TFTwins), one of the best non-mainstream Twins twitter accounts to follow for videos on the team and some strong in-depth analysis on the team. The last account is Brandon Warne (@brandon_warne). Hilarious tweets and very strong analysis of the organization through his site Access Twins.
Ben: I’ll give you three but one is technically a group. I’m breaking the rules because there’s so many good follows on Twins Twitter.
First, shout out to the Twins fantastic group of beat writers. Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark), Dan Hayes (@DanHayesMLB), Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman), and Betsy Helfand (@betsyhelfand) in particular. They’re an incredible group of writers that ask good questions, find interesting stories, and are always having fun with each other on the timeline.
Second, Brace Hemmelgarn (@bracehemmelgarn). He is the Twins team photographer and captures absolutely stunning pictures that tell you more about the Twins than any article could. Target Field is one of the most picturesque venues in baseball, and Brace shows you that better than anyone.
Finally, Tom Froemming (@TFTwins). A great guy who just loves the Twins and makes good, entertaining content. He loves to engage with his followers and start interesting conversations, and he makes the Twins more accessible to those who can’t follow things as closely as they would like.