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2017 team preview: The Minnesota Twins need their young talent to take a step forward

Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton disappointed in 2016, but are still young and promising enough to improve this season.

Seattle Mariners v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Last season, the Detroit Tigers had one of the best offenses in the American League. They ranked second in batting average (.267), second in on-base percentage (.331), and third in slugging average (.438). Yet somehow, despite all this traffic on the basepaths, the Tigers finished just sixth in runs scored, at 750.

The Minnesota Twins, on the other hand, were not so prolific. Their .251 batting average and .316 on-base percentage both ranked 11th in the league, and they only managed a 95 wRC+. However, thanks to some above average baserunning, they climbed to ninth in runs scored, just 28 runs behind the Tigers.

Though they were rather efficient in plating runs, the Twins are hoping to be better overall in 2017. They received breakout performances from Kennys Vargas and Robbie Grossman last year – not to mention Brian Dozier’s excellent season – but young studs like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton did not take the leap that Twins fans were hoping for. Both are still very young, though, and could up their production as they get more settled this season.

Offense at a glance

2016 runs scored: 722 | 2016 team wOBA: .317 | 2016 team fWAR: 12.9
2017 runs projected (PECOTA): 733 | 2017 projected WAR (FanGraphs): 16.6
Note: Numbers below are based on Steamer projections

Catcher: Jason Castro

2016 numbers: .210/.307/.377, 88 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR
2017 projections: .224/.303/.373, 81 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR

Not all numbers are created equal when it comes to catchers like Jason Castro. The former Houston Astros backstop has proven himself a solid platoon hitter in his six-year major league career, hitting .247/.328/.424 in 1,718 career plate appearances against right-handed pitchers. He managed a .757 OPS against righties last year, which included 10 of his 11 home runs.

Castro’s real value, however, shows up in pitch framing. He was worth +17.0 framing runs last year, according to Baseball Prospectus. It was his third consecutive season at 10 runs or better, and he has been worth roughly 3.5 wins on defense alone during that span. That difference gets even larger when you compare him to former Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki, who was a staggering 35.4 framing runs below average in his three years in Minnesota.

First base: Joe Mauer

2016 numbers: .261/.363/.389, 102 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR
2017 projections: .273/.361/.403, 104 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR

Joe Mauer’s sudden decline has been hard to watch. Once on a no-doubt Hall of Fame career path – he still might get there, don’t at me – Mauer has not been the same since suffering a concussion in 2013. Baseball Prospectus noted that Mauer has hit just .267/.353/.380 since that injury in their Annual, and his position change has sapped nearly all of his value. Mauer’s power ticked up slightly in 2016, but his .128 ISO still put him below the likes of backup catcher Juan Centeno on the Twins’ 2016 leaderboard. Manager Paul Molitor has vowed to give Mauer more time off in 2017, and his newfound difficulties against left-handed pitching might force him into a platoon role.

Second base: Brian Dozier

2016 numbers: .268/.340/.546, 132 wRC+, 5.9 fWAR
2017 projections: .247/.330/.449, 107 wRC+, 3.1 fWAR

Detroit Tigers fans have known about Brian Dozier’s breakout much longer than the rest of baseball. You see, it was Dozier that hit a walkoff home run off then-Tigers reliever Joakim Soria in 2015, capping a seven-run comeback that many believe was the unofficial end of the Tigers’ four-year run atop the AL Central. Dozier doubled down on the power last year, hitting a whopping 42 home runs while upping his batting average by 34 points. He probably won’t match that total this year, but is still the biggest threat in this Twins lineup.

Shortstop: Jorge Polanco

2016 numbers: .282/.332/.424, 101 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR
2017 projections: .269/.319/.399, 91 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR

Proclaiming Jorge Polanco the Twins’ starting shortstop is a bit of a reach, as their fans still don’t know who will be the starter in 2017. Eduardo Escobar led the team with 71 games played at short in 2016, but Polanco out-performed him offensively, hitting .282/.332/.424 in 270 plate appearances. Between that batting line and his lack of minor league options, the 23-year-old Polanco is presumably the favorite to man the position on Opening Day. Also somewhat telling: he started at short and batted second in the team’s first game of spring training.

Polanco will be challenged for playing time by Escobar and the slick-fielding Ehire Adrianza, but has the skill set to man the position for the time being. Scouts see Polanco as a better long-term fit at second base, and his -8 DRS and -10.8 Ultimate Zone Rating in 2016 would agree. Until Dozier is traded, Polanco will have to fake it at short.

Third base: Miguel Sano

2016 numbers: .236/.319/.462, 107 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR
2017 projections: .241/.333/.473, 114 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR

The Twins’ decision to put Miguel Sano in right field last season was easily one of the most puzzling in all of baseball. He was predictably awful, managing -8 Defensive Runs Saved in just 312 2/3 outfield innings. Defensive metrics should not be trusted in such a small sample, but the eye test helps confirm this conclusion.

Offensively, Sano took a major step back from his breakout 2015 season. Opposing pitchers were happy to challenge him with high fastballs, which he swung through far too often for anyone’s liking. His walk rate and isolated power both took major dips, a bad sign for a hitter heavily reliant on doing maximum damage when he makes contact. He didn’t do a lot of that in 2015 or 2016, and already has more strikeout (297) than franchise legend Sam Rice had in 20 major league seasons (275).

Left field: Eddie Rosario

2016 numbers: .269/.295/.421, 86 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR
2017 projections: .259/.292/.412, 83 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR

After a solid rookie season that saw him compile 2.2 fWAR with 13 home runs and 11 stolen bases, Rosario took a step back in 2016. He continued to swing at everything – his 56.9 percent swing percentage was sixth among MLB hitters with at least 300 plate appearances last season -- and walked in just 3.4 percent of plate appearances. His plus defense also regressed to league average, and base runners took note of his above-average arm strength in the outfield. He will be challenged by Robbie Grossman, who broke out with a .163 ISO and 127 wRC+ in 389 plate appearances last year, but Rosario’s superior defense should be the deciding factor early on.

Center field: Byron Buxton

2016 numbers: .225/.284/.430, 86 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
2017 projections: .243/.298/.410, 87 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR

Being the next Mike Trout isn’t easy, and Byron Buxton’s numbers can attest to that. In 469 career plate appearances, Buxton has hit just .220/.274/.398, leaving some to question whether he was truly deserving of all the hype he has received since being drafted in 2012.

However, a hot September seems to have reminded everyone why they were so excited in the first plate. Buxton hit .287/.357/.653 with nine home runs and 22 RBI in 113 plate appearances last September, all the while playing excellent defense in center field. Buxton is a true five-tool talent that will, at worst, be one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. If the swing changes he made last season take permanent hold, he could ultimately be so, so much more.

Right field: Max Kepler

2016 numbers: .235/.309/.424, 93 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR
2017 projections: .262/.333/.436, 104 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR

Part of the reason the Miguel Sano experiment in right field was so short-lived was the emergence of Max Kepler. The German-born outfielder shot up prospect rankings last spring after a monster 2015 season at Double-A Chattanooga. Kepler continued his hot hitting at the major league level in 2016, mashing his way to an .802 OPS in the first half. He cooled off after the All-Star break, but still looked the part of a big league regular with 17 home runs and a 9.4 percent walk rate in his rookie season. Defensive metrics disagreed a bit on his performance, but even the most pessimistic measures still thought he was a league average defender in right field. Assuming he can start to barrel the ball a little more – he managed just a 16.3 percent line drive rate last year – his batting average should improve this season.

Designated hitter: Kennys Vargas

2016 numbers: .230/.333/.500, 120 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR
2017 projections: .247/.332/.441, 106 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR

Vargas will be pushed by Byung-ho Park for at-bats, but the 26-year-old switch hitter currently has a leg up on the competition after a productive 2016 season. Vargas mashed his way to a 128 wRC+ and .191 ISO in 402 minor league plate appearances despite batting just .233. His average dropped by three points in his 177 major league plate appearances, but he upped his power considerably to finish with a 120 wRC+ in 47 games. A three true outcomes hitter, Vargas combined for 25 home runs, 90 walks, and 146 strikeouts in 579 plate appearances last season. He doesn’t have any defensive upside, but should do enough damage at the plate to support the heart of the Twins’ batting order.