Today kicks off our team preview series for 2017. Over the next few weeks, we will take a deep dive into each of the Detroit Tigers’ AL Central rivals, starting with a general overview of their offseason and expectations for the upcoming season. Previews of the lineup and pitching staff will follow, along with a close look at one or two of the X factors on their roster. This week’s focus? The Minnesota Twins.
Rebuilding is the newest fad in Major League Baseball. The Houston Astros made waves when they made a surprise run to the postseason in 2015, and the Chicago Cubs’ well-publicized teardown became baseball’s newest gospel when they won the 2016 World Series. The Braves, Phillies, Reds, and Brewers are all in various stages of their own Burn the Boats rebuilds, while the Chicago White Sox are teetering on the edge of taking a similar plunge.
Not all rebuilds go so smoothly, though. The Minnesota Twins seemed to be on the up-and-up in 2015, when they surprised everyone by winning 83 games. However, they came crashing back to earth in 2016, losing an MLB-high 103 games. Instead of taking their lumps and staying the course, they fired general manager Terry Ryan in July. Most of their offseason centered around whether they would trade second baseman Brian Dozier, further pushing back their timeline of competitiveness.
With a new front office in charge, the Twins are hoping to salvage their current rebuild. They still have plenty of young talent to build around, but are still dealing with a few bad contracts that haven’t hampered the more successful rebuilds of recent years.
Team at a Glance
2016 record: 59-103 | 2016 payroll: $105.3 million | 2016 pythag: 66-96
Key additions: C Jason Castro, RHP Matt Belisle, IF Ehire Adrianza
Key departures: C Kurt Suzuki, 3B Trevor Plouffe
The Twins had a relatively quiet offseason in terms of roster turnover, but their biggest additions – new Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine – might have a larger impact than any on-field move in the American League. Both Falvey and Levine come with impressive resumes, and have already taken steps to bring the Twins’ front office into the data-driven 21st century. They installed Trackman systems in each of their minor league parks, and signed pitch framer extraordinaire Jason Castro to a three-year deal to lead an otherwise lackluster pitching staff.
Aside from Castro, this is largely the same Twins team that lost 103 games last season. They stumbled out of the gate, winning just 15 games before June 1, and whimpered to the finish with 39 losses in August and September. They finished the season with the highest ERA in the American League, at 5.05. Their peripherals were better – both FIP and xFIP had the Twins a half run better than their overall ERA – but they still finished among the worst teams in the league in both categories.
One might say these Twins were a bit unlucky, though. Their Pythagorean expected win-loss record was 66-96, seven wins better than their MLB-worst finish. They did not fare well in one-run games either, losing 29 of the 44 they played. The offense did its part, finishing ninth in the AL with 722 runs scored, and they were one of eight AL teams to hit 200 home runs.
Fortunately for the Twins, the front office turnover doesn’t signal that a rebuild is ahead. That rebuild has been underway for several years now, and has resulted in a young core of talented players like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios. Outfielder Max Kepler, and infielders Byung-ho Park, Jorge Polanco, and Kennys Vargas are intriguing role players. The farm system, spearheaded by shortstop Nick Gordon, is still among the better systems in baseball. They will add to their reserves with the No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s MLB draft, as well.
Even better than just having those young players is the knowledge that they have performed at a high level before. The Twins’ offensive numbers were fairly pedestrian in 2016, but they finished with 696 runs scored in 2015, eighth in the American League. They were one of the better baserunning teams in the American League last year as well, at +8.5 runs. Plodders like Trevor Plouffe (-3.1 BsR) and Kurt Suzuki (-4.3 BsR) are now gone, though Jason Castro (-3.3 BsR) and Miguel Sano (-1.4 BsR) aren’t much better. If Byron Buxton (+5.8 BsR) can maintain his late season production and Eddie Rosario (+4.1 BsR) returns to 2015 form at the plate, the Twins could be one of the more dangerous offenses in the AL.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for these Twins is that the new front office will supplement that young talent with additions driven by data analysis. Below average catcher Kurt Suzuki has been replaced by pitch framing savant Jason Castro, and they seem committed to revamping the rest of the organization in the same manner. They still don’t have the spending power of most AL teams, but that hasn’t stopped them in the past. Plus, they are just two years away from being rid of Joe Mauer’s massive contract, which will free up $23 million per season.
You may have noticed that a lot of the positives outlined above focus on the offensive side of the ball. This is because the Twins’ pitching has been… well, offensive. They had the worst pitching staff in the AL by a wide margin in 2016, and have been scraping the bottom of the barrel for the past few seasons. The Twins’ old focus on pitching to contact has been one reason for the fall from grace, but they finally managed to best someone in strikeout rate (18.9 percent) last season.
For 2017, however, the pitching staff hasn’t changed much. Still around are below average arms like Phil Hughes, Hector Santiago, and Ervin Santana. The 33-year-old Santana did his part last season, allowing a 3.38 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 30 starts. His FIP was nearly a half run higher, however, and Deserved Run Average (DRA) was even less impressed, at 4.04. Santiago allowed a 5.58 ERA and 5.82 FIP in 11 starts after arriving via trade last summer, and Hughes allowed a 5.95 ERA and 11.6 hits per nine innings in 59 injury-riddled frames last season.
Just about everyone realized that the Twins over-peformed expectations when they won 83 games in 2015. Their 81-81 pythagorean expected win-loss record hinted that regression would come, but not to the extent it did last season. Fewer people have pointed at the Twins’ 2016 pythag as a reason for some optimism heading into 2017, but it’s surely worth a mention. The Twins won’t be quite that bad again this season, nor will they be as good as they were in 2015. They have the offense to give some teams fits over a three or four-game series, but don’t have the pitching to compete for the AL Central title or even a Wild Card spot.