Previewing the AL Central: the Minnesota Twins

The Minnesota Twins were one of the surprises of baseball last season, hitting their stride a season or two earlier than expected before providing fans with an entertaining American League Wild Card play-in game against the New York Yankees.

Paul Molitor’s Twins finished with an 85-77 mark in 2017, finishing 17 games in back of the Indians. For a portion of the early season, they sat atop the AL Central, catching the eyes around baseball by leading the division for much of May and June. A 10-15 July knocked them off pace a bit, but a 20-10 August salvaged the season and helped get them a taste of the postseason, albeit a brief one.

The Twins were not quite expected to attain such heights last season, as the team took on the awkward appearance of being both buyers and sellers at the trade deadline. They acquired left-handed starter Jaime Garcia, only to ship him out a few days later, and dealt closer Brandon Kintzler to Washington when their bullpen was already suspect. Players were confused about the direction that the organization was heading in with the mixed messages, but they pulled through to put up a strong second half showing overall after the rocky July.

Odorizzi – Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Key additions: Pitchers Zach Duke, Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda, Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney; First baseman/Designated hitter Logan Morrison; Outfielders Jake Cave, Ryan LaMarre

Pitching was a notable concern for the Twins last season, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen, and it was clearly the focal point for former Indians front office man Derek Falvey (Minnesota’s chief baseball officer) and his staff. The additions of Odorizzi via trade and Lynn on a late one-year, $12 million deal bolsters a staff that has already lost Ervin Santana (right ring finger) and Phil Hughes (left oblique strain) to injuries. Odorizzi has been tabbed as the Opening Day starter and number one man in the rotation and is coming off of a 10-8 season a year ago with Tampa when he made 28 starts and posted a 4.14 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP for the Rays.

The bullpen was similarly a significant issue last season and that was before the club traded closer Kintzler to Washington at the trade deadline. They were able to address the weakness by picking up a pair of established right-handed relievers in Reed and Rodney as well as the well-traveled left-handed Duke. While their track records throughout their careers are hardly spotless, the three bring experience and stability to an otherwise unstable bullpen.

Morrison’s bat should play nicely in the Twins lineup. He will be another left-handed thunderstick primed to pack the Minnesota lineup with some more offensive thump. He is coming off of one of his best full seasons in the Majors a year ago in his second year with Tampa, playing in 149 games while slashing .246/.353/.516 with 22 doubles, 38 homers, and 85 RBI. Formerly a corner outfielder in addition to first baseman, he has not taken his glove to the outfield since 2015 and it seems as though the Twins intend on pair him in a rotation with Joe Mauer at first and DH.

Subtractions: Pitchers Matt Belisle, Buddy Boshers, J.T. Chargois, Bartolo Colon, Dillon Gee, Glen Perkins, Hector Santiago, Michael Tonkin, Nik Turley; Catcher Chris Gimenez;

While there was a lot of movement off of the Twins roster, few could be considered big losses.

Belisle stepped into the closer’s role at season’s end for the club and did a good job. He was a late signing by the Indians in the spring and won a bullpen job on the staff at the end of camp. Gimenez and Colon, both tied to Cleveland during their lengthy careers, found minor league gigs elsewhere. Colon is expected to make his way to the Texas Rangers’ big league club early in April when they need a fifth starter.

Dozier – Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Who to watch:

Brian Dozier has been a consistent face in the Twins lineup, but that could all be coming to an end. The 30-year-old appears to be headed towards free agency when his contract expires after the season. Contract talks revolving around a long-term extension are reportedly dead and Dozier has no intention on discussing the matter during the regular season. It could put him in line for a big deal in the gigantic free agent class following this season, but it will also likely come with a qualifying offer attached to him.

Dozier has been the face of the Twins over the last few years as one of the most productive players in the American League and one of the game’s top offensive second basemen. Last year was no different, as he posted career-best marks in batting average (.271) and on-base percentage (.359) with 30 doubles, 34 homers, and 93 RBI. His contributions were not just limited to his efforts at the plate, as he also took home his first career Gold Glove Award in the field.

Another one of the big right-handed bats in the lineup, Miguel Sano, managed to dodge consequence from MLB from an ugly social media leaked story alleging sexual misconduct by the 24-year-old Dominican. He is coming off of another injury-shortened season, but it was his first All-Star showing of his three-year career. He played in 114 games, hitting 15 doubles and 28 homers while driving in 77 runs, the latter two of which were career-highs. His playing time in the second half was limited to just 32 games after appearing in 82 first half contests while hitting 12 of his doubles, 21 of his homers, and 62 of his RBI. A full season’s worth of contributions from Sano could do wonders for the Twins’ chances, both in the division and in the Wild Card picture.

The offseason 80-game PED suspension handed out to infielder Jorge Polanco thinned out the Twins bench a little bit, as Eduardo Escobar will be forced into action at shortstop instead of being used as needed all around the diamond in a super-utility option. The 24-year-old was coming off of a solid season for the Twins, when he appeared in 133 games at short while hitting 30 doubles, three triples, and 13 homers while driving in 74 runs. Escobar, however, was no slouch at the plate in a breakout season of his own last year. The 29-year-old, in his seventh season in the Bigs, hit 21 homers and drove in 73 in 129 games. Last season, he played second and third bases, shortstop, and left field, and even caught an inning behind the plate. In 2016, he took the mound for a hitless inning of relief work.

Twins’ 2018 outlook:

After their surprise showing in 2017, the Twins now have the attention of fans around the game as a team that can make a serious run for postseason consideration once again. While they may have gotten back to winning ways a season earlier than expected, the rebuilt pitching staff should help put them right back in contention for a spot in 2018. Catching the Indians in the AL Central may be difficult, as the Cleveland lineup is more tested and far more veteran and established while their rotation is arguably one of the best in baseball, but the Twins should still be on pace for a winning record with their eyes on the AL Wild Card at the very least. With the AL East and AL West being heavy in talent, those respective divisions may spend the bulk of their time beating each other up, giving the Twins an opportunity in a weak AL Central to pick off some easy wins from rebuilding teams in Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City.

The Twins have at times been a thorn in the side of the Indians over the last few season. Expect them to be a pest once again, keeping things a little tight at times in the division before the Indians break away from them at the end, much as they did a season ago.

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

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