2019 AL Central Preview: Minnesota Twins
Bob Toth | On 28, Mar 2019
The Minnesota Twins finished the 2018 season right in the middle of the American League standings with a 78-84 record, but with a seven-game drop off from 2017 and 13 games off of the pace set by the Cleveland Indians, manager Paul Molitor got the boot. First-time skipper Rocco Baldelli takes over at the helm at Target Field and will see those same Indians (well, sort of…) standing in between him and his first managerial win.
The Twins had one of the better and more productive offseasons around the game as they looked to close some ground on a pesky Indians club that has taken up residence atop the American League Central in each of the last three years. While the Twins had a surprise run, earlier than expected, to a Wild Card berth in 2017, they were knocked out by the New York Yankees and finished 2018 with a losing record, a setback in their own rebuilding process. Now, with the rest of the division in full blown renovation, Minnesota will hope its busy winter will equate to enough wins to close the gap in the Central, or to at least get back into Wild Card contention.
The Twins did well to address several areas of weakness, with the biggest addition being the big right-handed “Boom Stick” of Cruz, who heads to the Mississippi after spending the last four years in Seattle.
Schoop fills the vacancy at second base created when the club dealt Brian Dozier last summer in the months ahead of the end of his contract. Schoop was similarly moved by Baltimore ahead of the trade deadline and landed in Milwaukee for the third playoff experience of his career. The 30-year-old was coming off of a career year in 2017, when he slashed .293/.338/.503 with 35 doubles, 32 homers, and 105 RBI, but he scuffled some in the first half with the Orioles, hitting .244 with a .273 on-base percentage with 18 doubles, 17 homers, and 40 RBI in 85 games. Playing in a new home at Miller Park, he hit just .202 down the stretch for the Brewers with four doubles, four homers, and 21 RBI over his final 46 games. His numbers were reportedly affected all year by an oblique injury suffered in mid-April.
The addition of the versatile Gonzalez will pay immediate dividends for the Twins, who were able to add the productive former Houston Astro on a two-year, $21 million contract late in February after his agent had held out hopes for “Ben Zobrist“-type of utility player money. The 30-year-old had spent his first seven big league seasons in Houston and was a heavily-utilized name all over Astros manager AJ Hinch’s lineup card. He played every position outside of the battery in 2018 over a career-high 145 games while slashing .247/.324/.409 with 25 doubles, 16 homers, and 68 RBI. Gonzalez’s numbers had taken a step back from his previous season, when he hit .303 with a .377 on-base percentage, a .530 slugging, and added 34 doubles, 23 homers, and 90 RBI (all career bests).
KEY SUBTRACTIONS: RP Matt Belisle, P Alan Busenitz, RP Oliver Drake, OF Johnny Field, 2B Logan Forsythe, C Chris Gimenez, OF Zack Granite, OF Robbie Grossman, OF Jeremy Hazelbaker, 1B Joe Mauer (retired), 1B Logan Morrison, IF Gregorio Petit, OF Michael Reed, SP Ervin Santana, P Aaron Slegers, 1B Kennys Vargas
While there were plenty of pieces moving off of the Minnesota roster following the 2018 season, none will have the impact that the retirement of Joe Mauer will have on the club.
Mauer finished his career with a .306 average, a .388 on-base percentage, and a .455 slugging mark. His production had fallen off in recent years, but he was for many years the face of the franchise. He played the sixth-most games and finished with the second-most doubles (trailing former Indian Sam Rice), tenth-best batting average, and sixth-best on-base percentage in Senators/Twins history.
The local product out of neighboring St. Paul, he was a first round draft pick in 2001 by the Twins and spent 18 total years with the organization, including 15 at the Major League level. A six-time American League All-Star, a five-time Silver Slugger, a three-time Gold Glover, a three-time AL batting title winner, and the 2009 AL MVP, Mauer had plenty of accolades, but he also ended his big league career with a 0-10 record in postseason play (the Twins were swept by Oakland in the ALDS in 2006 and New York in the ALDS in both 2009 and 2010 before losing the one-game AL Wild Card game in 2017).
WHO TO WATCH: The addition of Cruz, even at an advancing age, should still be a significant boost to the Twins lineup. A player who seemed to be a logical fit at the time for the Indians after opening up the DH spot with the trade of Edwin Encarnacion, Cruz gives the Twins some serious thump from the right side.
The 38-year-old inked a one-year deal for $14.3 million with a team option for $12 million in 2020. While he has been a long ball threat for much of the last decade, he has actually gotten better with age, hitting at least his age’s worth of homers in each of the last five years. Last season, he hit 37 for the Mariners at Safeco Field. He hit 39 in 2017 while leading the league with 119 runs batted in. In his first season in the Emerald City, he hit a career-high 44 homers and made his fourth All-Star team and first of three trips while representing the M’s.
Cruz’s numbers will undeniably fall off soon, but he has been a legitimate threat in the American League since bursting onto the scene in his fifth big league season in 2009 while with the Rangers. He has been one of the top home run hitters in the game over the last five years, during which time he has hit 203 of his 360 career moonshots.
2019 SEASON OUTLOOK:
The Twins will start the season without the services of Miguel Sano at third base. The club hopes to see him in action at the minor league level in the middle of April as he looks to return from a right foot laceration that was suffered during the parade for his winter league club, the Estrellas Orientales, after winning the Dominican Winter League championship. The cut on the foot was more severe than the team initially expected and has not healed as quickly as hoped. Gonzalez will likely slot in at the hot corner until he is back to game speed.
The pitching depth has already taken a hit as three different relievers will start the season on the 10-day injured list. Closer Addison Reed, right-hander Matt Magill, and left-hander Gabriel Moya were all still dealing with issues at the end of camp, leaving the bullpen a bit light and underwhelming. Parker is the most successful of the new names on the staff, with other returning options from last season plugging the holes.
The starting rotation will see two new faces to the returning trio of Jose Berrios (the club’s Opening Day starter this year and a first time All-Star in 2018), veteran Jake Odorizzi, and longtime Twin Kyle Gibson (who found his way on the mound last season and led the staff in innings and ERA). Minnesota signed the left-hander Perez, who comes over from Texas, but he will serve the squad out of the bullpen to start the season as the Twins will not need to utilize a five-man rotation during the first three weeks of the season due to off days. Michael Pineda, the 30-year-old right-hander who missed half of 2017 and all of 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, will make his Twins debut this year. The club signed him in the 2017 offseason after his contract ended with the Yankees and he will look to work his way back into his once imposing presence on the mound, as he was one of the league’s top strikeout men in 2016 prior to his injury.
Behind the plate, the Twins will have a healthy Jason Castro back as their primary game caller, with Mitch Garver and Willians Astudillo backing up. Astudillo could press his way into Baldelli’s lineup if he is able to channel his success from a season ago, when he played six different positions (including pitcher) in 29 games while hitting an intriguing .355. This spring, he kept up the hot hitting with a .314 mark in camp while drawing just one walk and failing to strike out over 54 plate appearances.
The infield will have a new look on the right side, with Schoop joined by first baseman and waiver claim Cron, who hit 30 homers and drove in 74 for the Tampa Bay Rays last season. Schoop’s keystone mate up the middle will be Jorge Polanco, who got a big contract extension last month (five years for $25 million guaranteed with two additional option seasons). The 25-year-old shortstop, with his 80-game PED suspension last season in the rearview mirror, hit .288 with a .345 OBP and a .427 slugging in 77 games in the back half of the schedule with 18 doubles, three triples, six homers, and 42 RBI.
The outfield returns all three primary pieces from a season ago in Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler. Rosario has turned into a complete player and the regular left fielder while winning the club’s Triple Crown in hitting (.288), homers (24), and RBI (77) a year ago. The numbers were nearly identical to his production the previous year. Buxton has routinely failed to meet expectations while dealing with health issues, but he came to spring training bulked up and was tied for the club lead in homers with four while driving in a team-high 15 runs behind a .410 average over 16 games. Like Rosario, Kepler got a five-year extension for $35 million with a $10 million club option for a sixth year.
An improved Twins roster will be the biggest Central threat to the Indians this season, but it is tough to believe that it will be enough to overcome the divide between the two clubs. While the Twins took a step forward and the Indians’ cost-cutting ventures leaves many believing the Tribe took a step or two backwards, the two should be the cream rising to the top of the division once again. The Minnesota lineup is formidable, especially if Cruz continues to produce and Schoop returns to something resembling his old form, but the pitching staff is not on the same playing field as that in Cleveland. That half of the roster construction may be what spoils things in the Twin Cities in 2019.
Photo: Jon Durr/Getty Images