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2019 opponent preview: The Minnesota Twins are actually fun, which is weird

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If anyone is to challenge the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, it will be the Twins.

MLB: Minnesota Twins-Media Day Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often we write nice things about the Minnesota Twins around here. They ruined Detroit’s chances at a second World Series title in four seasons back in 1987. They stormed back to take the AL Central in 2006, delaying the Tigers’ inevitable rise to divisional dominance for five more years. They beat the Tigers in The Game That Shall Not Be Mentioned in 2009 (only to be swept in the postseason yet again).

But after remodeling their front office, shedding some bad contracts from last year’s payroll, and adding some new key pieces, the Twins are... fun?

The Twins aren’t the Twitter darlings of baseball in the same way that the San Diego Padres are after they signed Manny Machado in February, or the Cincinnati Reds for employing Joey Votto and Yasiel Puig, but — I can’t believe I am saying this — there might not be a more likable team in the American League.

The low-hanging fruit here is Willians Astudillo, of course. La Tortuga burst onto the scene in 2018, pairing an impressive stat line with a career’s worth of GIFable moments into just 97 plate appearances. He alone makes the Twins worth watching on most nights — and legitimately makes their roster better thanks to his amazing versatility — but there are several other reasons to stay tuned in 2019. Tigers fans aren’t hug fans of Nelson Cruz after he almost singlehandedly crushed their dreams in the 2011 ALCS, but Cruz, now in Minnesota through 2020 if they so choose, has become one of the more relatable (and charitable) personalities around the game. There’s also Byron Buxton’s potential, Jose Berrios’ fastball, and Rocco Baldelli’s millennial-ness (shh, it’s a word) to enjoy.

But more than anything, we should enjoy that the Twins are not resting on their laurels. Sure, they have a much lower payroll than last year — that will happen when roughly $70 million in salary comes off your books — and they didn’t go after Bryce Harper, but the Twins front office took advantage of a slow market, inking a few upgrades like Cruz and Marwin Gonzalez that will help their team win games. They also committed to their future, signing Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco to long-term extensions.

Will this be enough to push them past the Indians? The projections say no, as there are several question marks in key places on their roster. Will Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano live up to their potential? Can Jose Berrios step up to become a true staff ace? Will the pitching staff get any better?

Given how loaded the top of the American League is, Minnesota may need a “yes” to all of the above questions, and more. But with Cleveland taking a step back after already teetering a bit in 2018, the opportunity is there.

And if it doesn’t happen? It should still be fun to watch.

Team at a glance

2018 record: 78-84 | 2018 pythag: 77-85 | 2019 farm system rank: 7
Manager: Rocco Baldelli (1st year)
First series vs. Tigers: April 12-14
Key additions: DH Nelson Cruz, 1B C.J. Cron, 2B Jonathan Schoop, IF Marwin Gonzalez, RHP Blake Parker
Key subtractions: C Joe Mauer, OF Robbie Grossman, RHP Ervin Santana, 2B Logan Forsythe

What will the Twins get out of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano?

This might be the question of the season for Minnesota. They have a deeper supporting cast than before, and a crop of solid, homegrown role players to fill out their roster. But if they are to return to the postseason after falling short in 2018, the Twins will need improvement — even just a modest bump — from both Buxton and Sano.

The duo has certainly showed flashes of stardom in the past. Sano already has 84 career home runs to his name, with 28 of them coming in 2017 (a 2.5 rWAR season). Buxton came on strong later that season, and finished the year with a whopping 5.2 rWAR after a red-hot second half. The two combined to finish nearly a win below replacement level in 2018, once again showing that not all development is linear.

Expectations are muted for both entering 2019, even as the two are headed in opposite directions. Sano will be out until at least May following right ankle surgery, a rather optimistic timetable considering he’s still in a walking boot. He has never gotten his strikeout rate under control, and will now be playing catch-up for most of 2019. Buxton, on the other hand, has been one of the hottest players in baseball this spring. While he would hardly be the first player to fail to deliver on the promise of a hot March, we (and Twins fans) should wait before anointing the 25-year-old as the team’s savior once again.

Will the pitching staff hold up?

One of the major reasons for the Twins’ downfall last season was an inconsistent pitching staff, particularly the starting rotation. Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson were both fine, posting well above-average numbers in 190-plus innings. Righthander Jake Odorizzi also made 32 starts, but averaged just over five innings per start and allowed a 4.49 ERA. Only one other pitcher (righthander Lance Lynn) made more than 11 starts, and they weren’t very good ones at that. The Twins experimented with an opener at times and... well, let’s just say there’s a reason the Rays are the ones mentioned when people bring up that strategy. We could go further, but you get the idea. Both their rotation and bullpen were roughly league average in the end, with few standout performances.

This year, the Twins might run into the same problem. Berrios still has ace potential, and took steps toward that goal in 2018. Gibson posted a career-best 21.7 percent strikeout rate, an improvement projection systems doubt he will sustain in 2019. Odorizzi is a capable third or fourth starter, having made 28 starts or more in each of the past five seasons. Michael Pineda showed flashes of dominance at times in New York, but is coming off Tommy John surgery. And newcomer Martin Perez is apparently throwing 97 miles per hour now?

Huh, ok.

Beyond those five, the options aren’t great. Players like Adalberto Mejia and Stephen Gonsalves are decent spot starter options, but relying on them for long stretches is not ideal. Former first round pick Kohl Stewart could also be a sixth starter of sorts, but he will have to take a big step forward after an iffy 2018 season. Long story short: if the Twins’ starting five doesn’t stay healthy, they could be in trouble.

Down on the farm

The Twins have been all over the organizational rankings map in recent years. They had a consensus top-five system just few years ago when Buxton, Sano, Berrios, and Max Kepler were on the rise, then dipped down into the 20s when all four graduated to the majors. But in just two years, the Twins’ system has returned to the top 10 thanks to some savvy drafting under both the new braintrust.

Of course, it helps when you have a No. 1 overall pick in the mix. The Twins did not miss on that one, it seems, with Royce Lewis firmly planted at the top of their system. The 19-year-old shortstop had a monster 2018 season, hitting .292/.352/.451 across two minor league levels, and is now one of the top 10 prospects in baseball. He may not make his MLB debut this year, but could be in the mix for a job in 2020 if he continues on this trajectory. Ditto Alex Kirilloff, a well-rounded outfielder who showed no ill-effects from missing the 2017 season (Tommy John surgery), producing a .970 OPS in A-ball last year. Brusdar Graterol is a wonderfully-named righthander who projects as the best arm in the system, and ESPN’s Keith Law was quick to single out righty Jordan Balazovic when he ranked the Twins system in his top five.

Hell, even the names here are fun. Graterol, Wander Javier, Jhoan Duran, Akil Baddoo, Yunior Severino, Griffin Jax, and Dashawn Keirsey all play baseball in the same farm system, and all of them rank on MLB Pipeline’s top 30 list.

Player to watch: Willians Astudillo

Duh.

Start him on Opening Day, Twins.

Projected record: 83-79

The Twins have some question marks, and could stand to get in bed with another free agent — haaaaave you met Craig? — but still enter the season with the sixth-best odds of any AL team of making the postseason this year. One might even argue that, given the state of the AL Central, they might have better odds than the Tampa Bay Rays, who sit above them on PECOTA’s projections. Though their fans might have liked to see them make a bigger splash on the free agent market, the players they did pick up should provide a reasonable floor for a club that has been as volatile as any in baseball over the past few years.

They will need some production from their homegrown players, though, and that’s where this could fall apart. Kepler, Polanco, and Rosario are a solid supporting cast who have put up consistent numbers when healthy, but Buxton and Sano have not. Thanks to their added depth, the Twins don’t need the absolute best out of those two to contend this season like they have in recent years. But they will need something from them, not to mention a solid year out of a pitching staff full of fragile arms.

And if it doesn’t happen this year? That’s okay. These Twins are well set for 2019 and beyond.