Alas, MLB baseball is back. The start of the 2018 season brings great optimism for many clubs across the league – the Minnesota Twins included. After a surprising 85-77 season last year, Derek Falvey and Thad Lavine had themselves quite an offseason. They maneuvered through a shockingly slow market and took advantage of the rebuilding Tampa Bay Rays en route to adding six players expected to make an impact on this year’s club (SP Lance Lynn, SP Jake Odorizzi, RP Fernando Rodney, RP Addison Reed, RP Zach Duke, DH Logan Morrison), as well signing rehabbing starter Michael Pineda to an intriguing deal with an eye towards 2019. While they missed out on adding an ace via free agency in Yu Darvish, who signed a 6-year deal with the Cubs, they repurposed the funds offered to Darvish and added a bundle of admittedly less valuable pieces while maintaining great financial flexibility looking forward. Of the newly acquired players, only Reed and Pineda are signed beyond this season, while Morrison and Rodney have team options for 2019.

           So, now that the offseason dust has settled, whereabouts do they stand in the landscape of the American League? Baseball Prospectus has the Twins playoff odds at 34% to open the year, up from 20% on Opening Day last year. Most analysts anticipate the Twins to jockey with the Angels and Blue Jays for the final AL Wild Card spot, as the first Wild Card is almost guaranteed to belong to the AL East runner-up. Despite losing Jorge Polanco to an 80 game PED suspension, it’s safe to pencil in the Twins’ lineup as one of the better offenses in the AL. Brian Dozier posted a 5.0 fWAR season last year, continuing to prove he’s among the best all-around second basemen and most underrated players in the entire league. Miguel Sano’s thunderous bat (and “generous carriage”) can anchor a lineup when healthy. Byron Buxton took a huge step forward offensively in the second half of last season and looked the part of a former #1 overall prospect. Eddie Rosario posted career highs across the board, thanks to a more selective approach at the plate. Logan Morrison jacked 38 home runs, the byproduct of lifting the ball in the air more. Turning 35 in a few weeks, Joe Mauer eclipsed the .300 mark last year for the first time since 2013 and continues to reach base at a high clip. While Max Kepler can’t figure out how to hit left-handed pitching for the life of him, he is an extraordinary athlete who certainly possesses some untapped potential. Eduardo Escobar hit 21 home runs as a super utility guy last year, and figures to fill in at shortstop for much of Polanco’s suspension. Jason Castro offers much more value with his glove than he does with his bat, but his bat hovers around league average for backstops. Again, plenty to be optimistic about in the Twins lineup.

           Much of the Twins’ 2018 outlook lies within the improved stability of their starting rotation. Since 2011, the Twins pitching staff’s ranked has ranked 13th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 10th, 15th, and 9th in ERA among AL teams according to BaseballReference.com. Spoiler alert: that’s bad. However, this year’s rotation looks like the best staff the Twins’ have fielded in years (again, not saying a whole lot, but an improvement nonetheless). They plan to open the season sporting a four-man rotation as Ervin Santana remains sidelined after undergoing surgery on his right middle finger in early February. Jake Odorizzi will take the bump on Opening Day, with the Twins most likely wanting to align Jose Berrios’ throwing schedule so he could start a game in their upcoming April 17-18 series in his native Puerto Rico. Odorizzi posted a 4.14 ERA over 143.1 innings in 2017 as a member of the Rays, but his underlying metrics (5.43 FIP, 5.10 xFIP) indicate that his performance could’ve been much worse. As I touched on back when Odorizzi was acquired in February, he battled through his fair share of health issues and positive regression this season is not out of the question with a new team and a clean bill of health.

           Following Odorizzi in the rotation is Kyle Gibson. Gibson has been a frustrating pitcher for much of his career, flashing potential to be a solid mid-rotation starter yet never putting all the pieces together for an extended period of time – until last August. Over his last eight starts of 2017, Gibson cruised to the tune of a 6-0 record, 2.92 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 8.4 K/9. Dan Hayes of the Athletic wrote a great piece detailing the adjustments Gibson made as well as how the Twins front office went about implementing them that I would highly recommend checking out. For you non-subscribers out there, Gibson shifted his approach from relying on a two-seam fastball to a four-seam fastball, throwing it more often and attacking hitters early in the count and the top of the strike zone. He’ll look to build on this run of extended success in 2018.

           Jose Berrios will take the mound after Gibson’s starts. The 23-year-old Berrios possesses far and away the best stuff among Twins starters. His fastball sits in the mid-90s with great movement on his two-seamer, and he supplements his fastball with a devastating curveball and a changeup that’s still a work in progress. He’s among the most electric young starting pitchers in the game, as evidenced in this start from last May when he fanned 11 batters in 7.2 scoreless innings.

He grew less sharp as the 2017 season progressed, posting a 3.53 ERA before the All-Star break and a 4.24 after. This could be chalked up to fatigue as his 185.1 innings pitched between AAA and the majors represent a career high. He’s not without flaws: he struggled with command at times, he’s the owner of a surprisingly low 9.0 career SwSt%, and he could greatly benefit from developing a plus third pitch. However, the sky remains the limit for Berrios, and the Twins will call upon their future ace to take a big step forward in just his second full big league season.  

           Rounding out the four-man rotation is the recently signed innings-eater Lance Lynn. Lynn brings much-needed experience to the Twins staff – the 30-year-old right-hander is a three-time 15 game winner and won a World Series ring with St. Louis back in 2011. After missing the entire 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery, Lynn posted a 3.43 ERA in 186.1 innings for the Cardinals in 2017. Lynn’s 2017 peripherals paint a similar picture to Odorizzi’s: 4.82 FIP, 4.75 xFIP (are the Twins on to something here? Your guess is as good as mine). While he experienced some success and most importantly managed to stay healthy in 2017, Lynn posted a K/9 1.07 less than his career average and saw his HR/9 spike to 1.3 while walking more batters. Thankfully, he seemed to regain his pre-surgery velocity and will benefit from being another year removed from his operation. Most pitchers require a longer period of time to regain their command after going under the knife, and Lynn’s command has been his calling card throughout his career. Here’s hoping Lynn can pick his spots better this year and buck the discouraging increase in home runs surrendered.

   Sixteen (!!!) different pitchers started games for the Twins in 2017. While they most likely won’t reach that same mark this year, most teams rely on 10-12 starters to get through a given season. Beyond Berrios, Lynn, Santana, Odorizzi and Gibson, the Twins now boast an underrated amount of starting pitching depth. Adalberto Mejia and Phil Hughes are likely the two that were bumped from the rotation with the acquisitions of Lynn and Odorizzi and are serviceable options to fill in when injuries occur. Trevor May is recovering from Tommy John surgery last year and is expected to be healthy by the end of, you guessed it, May. Tyler Duffey will pitch out of the bullpen in long relief and could be stretched out to start if needed. Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero are two prized prospects that will be up with the big league club by the September roster expansion, if not sooner. Other arms who could make a start in a pinch include Aaron Slegers, Felix Jorge, Zack Littell and Dietrich Enns.

   So there you have it, folks. The Twins powerful offense will be supported by their most stable rotation in years (along with what should be an improved bullpen, which I won’t be discussing here). There’s still a fair gap between the Twins and Indians at the top of the AL Central, but it’s decreased in size this offseason. Both teams will benefit from playing in the worst division in baseball, taking on the rebuilding Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, and Detroit Tigers nineteen times apiece. My prediction for the year? 88-74, securing that coveted second Wild Card spot. Get ready for more September baseball, Twins fans.

 

feature image obtained via Fansided, stats obtained via Fangraphs unless otherwise mentioned

 

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