Twins 2017 Preview
Although it may seem foolish in retrospect, there was optimism in Minneapolis entering the 2016 season. The Twins were coming off of an 83-79 season, one in which they were in the wild-card hunt until the final weekend of the season with a surprisingly competitive young team. Most notably, top prospect Miguel Sano broke onto the scene with a fantastic 80-game debut season, in which he hit .269/.385/.530, good enough for a 150 wRC+ that made him 50% better than the average major-league hitter. Although there were some statistical red flags (their -4 run differential, for instance, indicated that the team may have overachieved slightly), continued growth from their young players could realistically have been expected to keep the Twins in the AL playoff hunt in 2016, particularly when considering that they had 3 more top prospects on the doorstep of the majors in Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, and Max Kepler.
[the_ad id=”693″]Nearly all of the hope for the Twins in 2016 had evaporated by the middle of the April, with the team sitting at 0-9 on April 15. They were never able to climb above .500, and they finished with a worst-in-baseball 59-103 record. Buxton and Berrios, in particular, sputtered, and an unfortunate offseason decision to move Sano from third base to right field was predictably disastrous defensively and may have impacted his offense performance, which plummeted to about average. Despite this, though, many of the reasons for optimism entering 2016 remain this time around, with the Twins arguably possessing more upside than any other seeming non-contender in baseball. The young position player talent in Minnesota makes them intriguing, if nothing else, for the 2017 season.
Just as with last season, the Twins’ optimism begins with Byron Buxton, although there may now be more reason for hope than ever before. Buxton got his first extended taste of major-league action last season, and although altogether underwhelming, left many reasons for encouragement. First and foremost, his stellar defensive reputation was supported by Statcast’s recently-released catch probability data, which could be invaluable for the Twins’ pitch-to-contact team approach. Second, and potentially more importantly, he returned from a three-week demotion to AAA on September 1 of last season and slashed .262/.325/.570 from that point on with a notable increase in his hard-contact and walk rates. Strikeouts remain a primary concern, and he certainly needs to improve his plate discipline to tap into his upside as a hitter, but at just 23 years old, Buxton’s rare combination of power and defense give him a ceiling matched by few players in baseball.
While Buxton is the most extreme example, he is far from the only young player on Minnesota’s roster worth monitoring this season. While his plate discipline limits his upside as a hitter, left fielder Eddie Rosario has the makings of a solid-average regular. Kepler brings a combination of plate discipline and power that profiles well in right field, and his contact quality and speed should allow him to easily best his .235 average from last season. Sano will be back at third base, and although he will likely never be a defensive asset, has more than enough power to profile as an above-average everyday player at the position. 23-year-old shortstop Jorge Polanco is coming off of a season in which he hit .282/.332/.424, albeit with questionable defense. Although it would be unrealistic to expect all of these players to cement themselves as capable everyday players next year, it is certainly not unreasonable for Twins’ fans to be excited about the potential for a young position player core to develop shortly.
[the_ad id=”567″]Although unlikely to be a part of the next great Twins team due to his two remaining years of contractual control, the team’s best player is also returning, having solidified himself as one of the best second baseman in baseball at a time when the keystone is loaded with talent. After having settled in from 2013-2015 as a solid player with a “do-everything well, but nothing spectacularly” profile that made him slightly underrated nation-wide, Brian Dozier exploded to become one of the best hitters in baseball last year, hitting 42 home runs to accompany a .340 on-base percentage and his typically solid defense. While much of the offseason revolved around when, rather than if Dozier would be traded to the Dodgers, he returns as a measure of on-field and clubhouse stability amid the high-variance core. Franchise mainstay Joe Mauer returns as well, although his offensive production has fallen significantly from his prime years, and he appears difficult to rely on as an underpowered first baseman.
The pitching side of things, however, is not nearly as rosy. As noted above, the Twins’ staff features a collection of contact pitchers with seemingly mediocre stuff. Ervin Santana has proven to be a reliable, middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, but at 34 years old coming off of a season where he outperformed his peripheral statistics, seems like a better bet to post an ERA closer to 4.00 than the 3.38 figure that he ran last year.