For the past several years, the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs drew plenty of publicity for their no-holds-barred approach to rebuilding. Sports Illustrated famously predicted the two would meet in the 2017 World Series, signifying the start of respective dynasties in each league. SI has now revised their prediction after the two clubs made surprising runs to the postseason in 2015.
Naturally, the Minnesota Twins fell under the radar. However, the Twins were busy stockpiling their own young talent, building a farm system on par with the Astros and Cubs. Like those two clubs, the Twins also jumped into contention earlier than expected, winning 83 games in a shocking second-place finish in 2015. They fell short of the postseason, however, finishing three games behind the Astros in the AL Wild Card race.
Though the Twins are in position to be among the AL's best teams for years to come, they may again fall short in 2016. They splurged a bit during the offseason, signing Korean slugger Byung-ho Park to a four-year deal, but did little to address a pitching staff that finished in the bottom half of the league with a 4.07 ERA last season. There are reinforcements on the way, to be sure, but unless they can develop a top-flight starter -- something Houston and Chicago both did, though somewhat fortunately -- they might again be on the outside looking in at the end of the year.
Team in a box
Key additions: 1B Byung-ho Park, C John Ryan Murphy, RP Fernando Abad
Key departures: OF Torii Hunter, OF Aaron Hicks, SP Mike Pelfrey, RP Neal Cotts, RP Brian Duensing, RP Blaine Boyer
What to know about the offense
Miguel Sano is flippin' scary. The end.
Okay, not really, but Sano is a man-child who looked awfully similar to another Miguel we're familiar with in 2015. Miggy the Younger hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 home runs in 335 plate appearances last season, a 36-homer pace over 162 games. His 35.5 percent strikeout rate is a bit of a concern, but not if he continues to obliterate everything he makes contact with. Sano's counterpart is center fielder Byron Buxton, one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Buxton struggled in 2015, hitting just .209/.250/.326 in 46 games. Scouts have lavishly compared him to Mike Trout, so it's worth noting that Trout hit .220/.281/.390 in his first call-up. I'd bet the under on an MVP-caliber sophomore season, though.
Sano and Buxton will man two-thirds of the outfield, leaving the unheralded Eddie Rosario as the everyday left fielder. Rosario's numbers in the high minor leagues were not impressive, but he was rushed through the system and posted a .748 OPS in 474 MLB plate appearances as a 23-year-old in 2015. The power numbers were boosted by an MLB-leading 15 (!) triples, so expect some regression in 2016. If Rosario falters, players like Oswaldo Arcia, Danny Santana, and prospect Max Kepler could step in.
After a surprising All-Star bid in 2014, catcher Kurt Suzuki fell back to earth last season, hitting just .240/.296/.314 in 479 plate appearances. The 32-year-old backstop will likely see the majority of playing time again in 2016, but former Yankees farmhand John Ryan Murphy will get his fair share of at-bats. Murphy had a stronger offensive showing in 2015, batting .277/.327/.406 in 172 plate appearances. He is also the better framer of the two, though that's not saying much; Suzuki has ranked among the MLB's worst pitch framers over the past couple seasons.
After an offseason of wondering how exactly the Twins would configure their defense, it appears that new free agent signee Byung-ho Park will slot in as the team's primary designated hitter. Park, a first baseman by trade, hit .343/.436/.714 in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) last season, a very hitter-friendly league. By comparison, Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang posted similar numbers in his final season in the KBO. First baseman Joe Mauer was largely a shell of his former self in 2015, hitting just .265/.338/.380 in 158 games. Combined with below average fielding and baserunning, Mauer was worth a career-worst 0.3 WAR.
Second baseman Brian Dozier provided arguably the most agonizing moment of the Tigers' 2015 season, a walk-off home run that cemented a "this isn't our year" feeling in most fans' minds. Dozier went on to make his first career All-Star appearance, hitting a career-high 28 home runs in 157 games. Eduardo Escobar supplanted Danny Santana as their "where did that guy come from?" breakout candidate at shortstop, hitting .262/.309/.445 with 47 extra base hits in 446 plate appearances. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe seems like a weird reason to force Miguel Sano into the outfield, but has been worth 6.1 WAR over the past two seasons and still has a couple years of club control remaining.
What to know about the pitching staff
The Twins were able to stay in contention for the entire 2015 season despite a lackluster pitching staff, one that ranked ninth in the American League with a 4.07 ERA. Their paltry 17 percent strikeout rate ranked dead last in the league -- it's worth noting the second-worst team in the AL made the playoffs -- and they also had below average peripherals (FIP, xFIP).
Their starting rotation was slightly better, ranking seventh with 12.0 fWAR. Tops among Twins starters was Kyle Gibson, who led the club with 194 2/3 innings pitched. Gibson's 3.84 ERA and 3.96 FIP were also solid, but make for more of a mid-rotation starter than a frontline pitcher. He makes his bread as a ground ball artist, inducing a team-high 53.4 percent ground ball rate in 2015. Coming off a breakout season in 2014, Phil Hughes struggled somewhat in 2015, allowing a 4.43 ERA and 4.66 FIP in 152 1/3 innings. He undid all of the goodwill from a relatively homer-free season in '14, allowing 1.68 dingers per nine innings. His strikeout rate also dropped off precipitously, so expect some regression (to the positive) in 2016.
After missing half of the 2015 season due to a drug suspension, Ervin Santana was a solid contributor down the stretch, adding 1.3 WAR in 108 innings. He was the innings eater they so desperately needed, logging at least seven innings in eight of his last nine starts. He posted a 1.62 ERA in his final seven outings and is off to a similar start this spring, allowing just two earned runs in 16 innings. Lefty Tommy Milone should fill into the fourth starter spot after a successful transition to the Twin Cities last year. He posted a 3.92 ERA and 4.30 FIP in 2015, and upped his ground ball rate to a career-high 41.6 percent.
Veteran Ricky Nolasco beat out 25-year-old righty Tyler Duffey for the fifth starter spot this spring, but his victory may be short-lived. Uber-prospect Jose Berrios has wowed in the minor leagues, including a 2.62 ERA in 75 2/3 innings at Triple-A Rochester last year. Berrios also posted a 5.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio during that stretch, and will join the team whenever the Twins are satisified with how they have manipulated his service time clock. Nolasco's contract, which pays him another $24 million over the next two seasons, could complicate matters.
As iffy as the rotation may sound, Twins fans are even more worried about their bullpen. Closer Glen Perkins is searching for his fourth-consecutive All-Star appearance, but there are question marks after him. Gone are Blaine Boyer and Brian Duensing, who combined for 113 2/3 innings in 2015. In their place are righthanders Kevin Jepsen and Casey Fien. Jepsen was one of the few Twins pitchers not afraid to strike out an opposing hitter last season, and he posted an excellent 1.61 ERA and 2.56 FIP in 28 innings after a mid-season trade. Fien led the relief corps with 0.8 fWAR last year, but his strikeout rate fell off by nearly 20 percent.
Do they have prospects?
The Twins graduated Sano to the major leagues last season, but their farm system still ranks among the very best in baseball. Byron Buxton is still technically considered a prospect, while Jose Berrios is the de facto jewel of the system. Berrios has front-line potential, though don't be surprised if the team babies the 21-year-old Puerto Rican for the time being. Outfielder Max Kepler could also work his way into the mix if the odd defensive pairings fail. Shortstop Nick Gordon is very promising -- Baseball Prospectus nonchalantly dropped a Francisco Lindor comparison on him -- but a ways off from the major leagues.
Statistically speaking, the Twins didn't play that far over their heads in 2015. Their run differential was -4, giving them a pythagorean expected win-loss record of 81-81. However, thanks to a few key departures (particularly on the pitching side of things), the Twins may not be able to maintain last year's good fortune for another 162 games. Their offense should continue to churn out runs, but unless they find a way to replace the innings they lost from Mike Pelfrey and the bullpen, they could struggle to prevent other teams from scoring even more runs than before. Give Berrios and company a year to get their feet underneath them, and look out in 2017.