Can Young Twins Overtake Tribe Again in the Standings?
Bob Toth | On 02, Apr 2016
Compared to the rest of the teams in the American League Central, the Minnesota Twins were extremely quiet this offseason, even though they were coming off of a surprising (to most) second place finish in the division last season.
Powered by a young lineup joined by a handful of veterans, a balanced offensive attack with eight different players amassing at least ten homers and eight guys with at least 50 RBI helped a team that was not aggressive on the base paths and that managed to get outscored by its opposition by four runs on the year.
Instead of hitting the Brinks truck and spending bags and bags of money on free agents, the organization opted to allow manager Paul Molitor to move forward with nearly the same lineup for the 2016 season.
The Indians, meanwhile, could not figure out the Twins pitching staff, but when they did, they did it with some authority. When scoring four runs or less against Minnesota pitching in 2015, the Tribe was 1-11. When scoring more than that, they were 6-1 and averaged 8.43 runs per game, including a blowout 17-4 win on August 8 and a 10-2 final on September 30. They were also 0-8 in games that they committed an error against the Twins, who seemed to take advantage of those opportunities throughout the year, while the Twins were 5-2 in games in which they erred against the Tribe.
Subtractions: IF Doug Bernier (Rangers), RP Blaine Boyer (Brewers), P Brian Duensing (Royals), C Chris Herrmann (Diamondbacks), OF Aaron Hicks (Yankees), OF Torii Hunter (retirement), SP Mike Pelfrey (Tigers), OF Shane Robinson (Indians)
Last season: 83-79 (second place in AL Central)
Last season vs. CLE: 12-7 (but were outscored 89-81 by the Indians)
The Twins return a very similar looking lineup compared to 2015 and will be looking for the growth and maturity of several young players on their roster who benefited from an opportunity at regular playing time at the Major League level.
That youth movement is prevalent in the outfield, where three second-year players will begin their sophomore efforts in Minnesota. Eddie Rosario appeared in 122 games, hitting .267 with 18 doubles, 15 triples, 13 homers, and 50 RBI while stealing eleven bases. His triples total was the top mark in baseball. Former top prospect Byron Buxton was limited to 46 games and a .209 average, but missed time as the injury bug bit him again and sidelined him with a left thumb sprain. Miguel Sano started the season at Double-A, but jumped to the Bigs at the beginning of July. He dealt with some injuries while playing third base and DH, but hit .269 with a .385 on-base percentage, adding 17 doubles, 18 homers, and 52 RBI in just 80 games while finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Around the horn, everyone will be the same except Park, the 29-year-old from Korea who will see time at first base and designated hitter. The infield was stable for the Twins last season, with Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, and Trevor Plouffe each playing in 152 games or more while shortstop Eduardo Escobar played in 127. Kurt Suzuki, 32, played in 131 games as the team’s regular catcher, making 123 starts, so the acquisition of Murphy may have been looked at to help lighten the load on the backstop.
Park was easily their loudest acquisition of the offseason and he comes to the states in the prime of his professional career. He had played nine years in the Korean Baseball Organization and had spent parts of his last five seasons as a member of the Nexen Heroes in Seoul. After an unremarkable beginning to that career, he has blossomed into a dangerous power hitter at the plate, hitting 31 homers or more in each of the last four years, with 52 in 2014 and 53 last season while hitting a career-best .343. He also established a new career-high with his 146 RBI in 2015.
Much of the power type numbers came from the hot corners and Dozier. Mauer hit .265 with 34 doubles, ten homers, and 66 RBI. Plouffe was the team’s leader in RBI with 86, backed by 35 doubles and 22 homers. Dozier led both of them with his 39 doubles and 28 homers and finished third on the team with 77 RBI while making his first All-Star team.
A lot of offense and leadership hung up the cleats when Hunter retired. His 22 homers, 22 doubles, and 81 RBI were not so much replaced in the offseason, so in a manner very similar to that of the Indians in recent memory, the Twins will be looking to replace his efforts as Rosario, Sano, Buxton, Park, and others develop.
The rotation will be nearly the exact same staff, with the exception of Pelfrey, who signed with Detroit. Ervin Santana (7-5, 4.00 ERA, 1.30 WHIP in 17 starts) will have a full season at the top of their rotation after missing the first 80 games of last season due to a PED suspension. Kyle Gibson (11-11, 3.84 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) was tied for the team’s lead in wins and losses while making the most starts on the club. Phil Hughes (11-9, 4.40 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) missed a little time and returned a very good walk rate. Unfortunately for him and for his Twins teammates, he led the league with 29 homers and saw his hits per nine and homers per nine rates jump nearly one each while his strikeout rate per nine innings dropped more than two and a half batters per complete game. Lefty Tommy Milone and righty Ricky Nolasco will round out the rotation.
While the rotation does not necessarily strike fear in opposing players, the inconsistency of the bats at the plate has to be a legitimate concern for the Twins as they enter 2016. They were one of the worst in the game last season, hitting .247 as a team (second worst in the AL) with a league-worst .305 on-base percentage. They added the fifth-highest strikeout total and sixth-lowest walk total by an AL offense, which all led to the eighth-most runs scored in the league.
The Twins pitching staff as a whole struck out the fewest batters in all of baseball and allowed the highest batting average against of any AL staff. Their battery allowed the most stolen bases in the AL and the worst percentage of runners caught stealing in the MLB. Yet despite that, they managed to put together some efforts when they were needed and completed a dozen shutouts over the course of the year. They were supported by an efficient defense and minimized mistakes, making just 86 errors over the course of the season.
It is tough to compare the Twins to the other teams in the Central and think that they could be a competitor for the top spot in the division, but after 2015’s surprising second place finish, they made it clear that they were not a team to be overlooked.
Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky