Minnesota Twins v Tampa Bay Rays

‘Member when the Minnesota Twins were good? Many years have gone by but holy shit Rod Carew is 71 years old, Kirby Puckett is dead, Johan Santana’s arm fell off years ago, Justin Morneau is a shell of his former self and now a free agent and Joe Mauer doesn’t even do shampoo commercials anymore! What kind of world do we live in?! In all seriousness though the Twins do lack star power but have a dose of young talent ready to explode. The Twins aren’t yet contenders but have the potential to take a big step forward in 2017.

The Players

Miguel Sano became well known back in 2012 when a documentary called Ballplayer: Pelotero was released on Netflix. The documentary followed a then 16 year old Sano as well as another young ball player named Juan Carlos Batista as they try to get signed to a major league baseball team. I won’t spoil the documentary for anyone who hasn’t seen it but it’s a must watch if you want to better understand the cut throat baseball prospect industry that has emerged in the Dominican and how some prospects, agents and MLB scouts will do anything to gain an edge. Obviously Sano had some staying power since we are talking about him in 2017 but he has yet to put together all his raw talents.

Without a doubt Sano has a ton of raw power as he hits the ball as hard as some of the best players in baseball. According to hard hit rates from the 2016 season, Sano had the 16th hardest contact rate at 40.1% which put him 0.2% below all-stars Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant and Chris Davis. He might have the tools to be one if not the best pure power hitter in baseball someday but he strikes out way too much as evidenced by his league leading 36% strike out rate. Unless he can improve his contact rate and cut down on the K’s his batting average will be below average and his production will greatly suffer. Defensively he really doesn’t have a permanent home after failing miserably as a right fielder. Sano also graded poorly at third base but it’s likely that he sees some time at the hot corner and is also the team’s DH. Sano will turn 24 this season so it’s not like he doesn’t have time to figure this out and hopefully the Twins remember that they cut bait on another defensively deficient slugger named David Ortiz back in the day…

With Eduardo Nunez leaving Minnesota last trade deadline, Jorge Polanco will continue to get the majority of shortstop duties. Similar to Sano he’s pretty raw and requires refinement defensively. In just 47 games at shortstop last year he was responsible for -8 defensive runs saved which is very poor. His raw talent dictates that he shouldn’t be this bad at d, but if he doesn’t improve on even routine plays, the Twins will have a hard time giving him regular playing time. He doesn’t have the arm to play shortstop so eventually he will likely be shifted to second base. His bat hasn’t produced a lot of production yet, but he did post a 30.3% line drive in 2016 which is elite. Even with some regression he should be candidate to hit .280. I’m not sure where he will hit in the order but if he gets to hit in the top couple of spots he could be a sneaky candidate to post 80 runs, a dozen steals and an above average batting average.

At second base, Brian Dozier will be coming off a monster campaign that saw him crush 42 home runs. The Twins were rumoured to be shopping the soon to be 30 year old this off-season, but their asking price was not met. Dozier went on a ridiculous tear in the 2016 campaign’s second half where he hit 23 home runs from August onward. This spike in power was explained by a career high 34.7% hard hit ratio that increased from 29.2% in 2015. His best two seasons of his career have now come back to back so the power is likely legit and here to stay. He’s an extreme pull and fly ball hitter so his average will likely never be any better than the .280 mark he posted in 2016, but I also don’t see it plummeting back to his pre-breakout numbers which were as low as .234. Dozier should repeat as one of the best power hitting second basemen in baseball in 2017 but his home run totals will likely take a step back. What makes Dozier an intriguing option as well is that he has the ability to steal 15 to 18 stolen bases. He’s in the prime of his career so the Twins should enjoy what they’ve got before he is dealt or leaves as a free agent after 2018.

First base will belong to former catcher and Head & Shoulders spokesman, Joe Mauer. While Joe Mauer is no longer an elite catcher, he is now a very overpaid and below average first basemen. At one point from in 2014, Madison Bumgarner had more home runs than Mauer for fucks sake! During Mauer’s prime he was a perennial batting champion candidate and he would hit for averages well above .300. By the age of 30 he had won AL MVP, three batting titles, three Gold Glove awards, five Silver Slugger awards, and six trips to the All-Star game. During his most dominant stretch from 2006 to 2010 he posted a combined WAR of 27.4 and hit the ball really hard.

Since a major concussion in 2011 he really fell off. Brain injuries are a very serious matter and the science that studies concussion impacts is still only scratching the surface of the serious impacts one can have from a concussion. Through a combination of age and health, Mauer simply doesn’t hit the ball as hard anymore. He never had a lot of home run power as he’s been an extreme ground ball and line drive hitter. But over the past three seasons he has hovered around a 30% hard hit rate whereas in his prime he was regularly around 37%. That drop in hard hits explains a drop off from the days of .320 averages to an average of .265. In addition he now strikes out in the 17% range whereas in his prime he hovered below 10%. It’s a shame to see what was once a hall of fame destined player fall off this hard but such is life in professional baseball. Mauer is on the books for 46 million dollars through end of 2018 and at that point it’s almost a guarantee he will be a Twin no more.

Splitting time at DH and 1B will likely be switch hitting slugger, Kenny Vargas. Last off-season the Twins signed former Korean slugger Byung-ho-Park but he could not adapt at the plate in the big leagues. Eventually Kenny Vargas became the team’s primary DH and he flashed some impressive power with a .270 ISO, and 10 home runs in 47 games. Vargas has been up and down between the Twins AAA team and the main squad but hasn’t quite stuck yet. He’s potentially a Quad A player but the minor breakout in 2016 gives hope that he will become and remain a serviceable middle of the order slugger. He will strike out a lot (albeit not as much as Sano) but if he maintains his hard hit rates could contend for over 20 home runs with regular playing time.

Catching duties will belong to Jason Castro who was signed to a three year deal this off-season. In his earlier seasons with the Astros he showed some decent pop and hit 18 home runs in 2013. The power has dropped a bit since, but he’s a realistic bet for 12 home runs with regular plate appearances. His strike out rate is amongst the worst in the league (32.7% last year) so he’s a true boom or bust player. He’s an adequate catcher defensively and really has no real competition behind him at this point.

In the outfield the Twins have a couple promising young players in Byron Buxton and Max Kepler as well as Eddie Rosario and Robbie Grossman who will share left field duties. Byron Buxton has been a top prospect from the day he was drafted at number two overall by the Twins in 2012. At one point he was being compared to Mike Trout… seems funny now. After an up and down and injury filled minor league ascent, Buxton finally saw his first taste of major league action in 2015 but was greatly over matched at the plate. In 2016 he made the club out of Spring Training but was twice demoted back to the minors during the season and spent a short stint on the DL. During his final September call up, Buxton out of nowhere was red hot. He hit 9 homers, scored 24 runs, and hit for a .287 average. He still struck out a ridiculous amount through it all but we all got to see a glimpse of what the young outfielder has to offer. I doubt he will strike out a ludicrous 35.6% agai,n but I also doubt he will hit 9 home runs a month. His final stat line for 2016 was .225/.284/.430 which is likely a tick below what you’ll see from Buxton in 2017. The average will improve, he should steal some bags with the speed he possesses, but the power could stagnate. Defensively he has the tools to be an above average centre fielder so I think he finally sticks as a big leaguer for the duration of 2017.

Right fielder, Max Kepler is also only 24 years old and showed a bit of promise during his first full major league season. Like Buxton he made the Twins out of camp but was sent back to AAA for just over a month. After he got back to the bigs he played pretty well and hit 17 home runs when everything was said and done. Unlike the other young prospects on the Twins, Kepler doesn’t strike out any more than league average. His power over his past two professional seasons looks legit and with regular playing team should crack about 20 home runs over the fences. Defensively he’s also above average and has decent plate patience as he has walked in 9.3% of his MLB at bats and even higher in the AAA and AA levels. His line drive rate is below average but if he can get that to creep up even a couple of percent his batting average will greatly benefit.

Left field will likely be shared by Eddie Rosario and Robbie Grossman. Rosario has better defensive acumen then Grossman but his offense is very average. He doesn’t walk enough (3.4% and strikes out too much (25%) to warrant everyday playing time. He’s still only 25 so growing pains are expected but the upside isn’t very high with Rosario. With Grossman, the Twins will get a bit better batting average and elite plate discipline (12% career walk rate). He can’t play defense that well so some time at DH or pinch hitter is a possibility depending on where Sano and Vargas play on a given day.

The Pitchers

Ervin Santana will be the Twins opening day starter and is coming off one his better MLB seasons where he posted a 3.38 ERA. Santana has never been a huge strike out guy and got by on a bit of positive batted balls in play luck last year. A regression closer to an ERA of 4.2 is likely as his slightly elevated strike out rate from 2016 isn’t likely to be repeated. He’s an unexciting option but will likely pitch close to 200 innings if healthy. He’s been a relatively consistent pitcher for most of his career, but at 34 years old his ceiling is very limited.

Former Angels starter Hector Santiago will be with the Twins for a full campaign after being acquired from the Angels last year. He’s been pitching in the majors full time since midway through the 2012 season but to date has only posted a combined 3.2 WAR. Mediocre lefties always seem to get second and third chances hence why he’s with the Twins. Santiago is an extreme fly ball pitcher who also gives up way too many walks as his career rate is around 4 BB/9 and he allows too many home runs. This might be his last chance as a starter so unless he can finally limit walks and keep the ball in the park I foresee him becoming a bullpen arm for another team in 2018.

Kyle Gibson will be the Twins third starte,r but has very little upside. He’s a pitch to contact groundball pitcher and only strikes out about 6 batters per 9 innings. In 2016 he regressed after two respectable seasons. Gibsons’s walk rate and home rate were back to their below average levels that he showed during his 2013 MLB debut. Given how poor the Twins infielders are, Gibson is bound to post an ERA worse than he deserves. I think he can improve on 2016’s poor season if the walk and home run rates can fall or else he will have a lot of short outings in 2017.

Phil Hughes is now two years removed from his dominant 2014 debut with the Twins. The Former Yankee had found new life in Minnesota that year and received a handful of 4th and 5th place Cy Young votes. Since that season his fastball has fallen about 1.5 Mph and his mediocre strike out rate dropped into a dreadful 5.3 K/9 range over 2015 to 2016. After posting an elite walk rate of 0.69 BB/9 his walks increased to a very good 0.93 BB/9 in 2015 to an average rate of 1.98 BB/9 in limited action in 2016. His home run problems that once haunted him in Yankee Stadium also came back as his 2014 home run suppression (0.69 HR/9) now sticks out as a major outlier compared to his 2.17 HR/9 career rate. In June of 2016 he was shut down for the remainder of the season with season-ending shoulder surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome. The all-star Phil Hughes of 2014 will likely not return and I wouldn’t be surprised if his shoulder barks again and he misses time in 2017. His strike out rate will likely never rebound back fully but he’s on the books for 13.2 million per season until 2019 so the Twins and Hughes have to hope he can regain some his previous form and reinvent himself to be a servable arm.

Former first round pick, Jose Berrios will compete for the 5th rotation spot in the Twins rotation. He was drafted out of high school back in 2012 but is only 22 years old as he is set to become an MLB regular. During his major league ascent, Berrios showed that he has above average strike out ability as he has struck out over 9 K/9 from 2015 to present in the minors. Like most young pitchers his command could use refinement but in the minor it wasn’t all that bad. His 2016 MLB debut was a train wreck as he posted an 8.02 ERA, 5.4 BB/9 and 1.85 HR/9 but it is not indicative of his talent level or potential. Some rough starts will be present in 2017 but I suspect he increases his strike out rate, lowers the walk and home rate and will have a 4.4 ERA.

Bullpen

The Twins closer to start 2017 will likely be Brandon Kintzler, which is far from ideal. Kintzler only has a 7% Swinging strike rate and only struck out 5.8 batters/9 innings last year. He’s an extreme groundball pitcher with a career 58.6% groundball rate which is fine if you’re a starter but in high leverage bullpen situations this is dangerous. With Glen Perkins still trying to get back to health this is likely a temporary situation.

Glen Perkins was the Twins closer for from 2012 through 2015 but only pitched in two games last season before being shut down with a shoulder injury. Perkins saw his fastball go as low as 91.4 Mph in his limited game time, but that is almost 4 Mph slower than what it was during his prime. It is unlikely he gets back to full health and will likely start the year on the DL. If he ever gets back to being healthy and makes the team it’s unlikely the lefty will be a dominant force again. He’s due for a pricy team option in 2018 but it’s more likely the Twins buy him out. Perkins is likely to be a setup man once he returns to the team from injury.

Trevor May and Ryan Pressly are the next best arms in the Twins pen. Both respectively have 13.2% and 11.7% swing and miss rates and could be around or above 9 strike outs per 9 innings. May has potential to be the Twins closer if and when Kintzler falters. Outside of the above names the rest of the Twins pen is full of replacement level players and none whom are worth noting.

Outlook

Outside of Brian Dozier the Twins lack star talent. What the Twins do have is upside at many positions on their roster. Between Sano, Buxton, Kepler, Vargas and Berrios is a nice young core to build a team around. However, each of those players has flaws in their game and is unlikely to simultaneously catch fire. There will likely be games where the Twins get blown out and just as likely the next night they will put up 10 runs in a win of their own. The pitching isn’t great but will be good enough to keep the team competitive. What will hurt the Twins is the high strike out rate across the team’s batting order and the poor left infield defense. I am rather bullish on several of the Twins young players so I believe they surprise a lot of people and improve from 59 wins to 78 wins this year.

Fantasy Stud

Brian Dozier – The creep can mash and will likely be one of the best second basemen in fantasy baseball for the third year in a row. Expect the power surge to continue in 2017 as he puts up 32 home runs, 95 runs, 80 RBI’s, 15 stolen bases with a slash of .254/.324/.495.

Fantasy Dud

Brandon Kintzler – I don’t care how many relief pitchers your league says you need to roster because Kintzler is only good for speculative saves and I’d guess he won’t even be a closer by mid-May. His strike out rate is one of the lowest in the league for any reliever and his ratios won’t even help your fantasy squad. You’d be better off sitting on Trevor May as a last pick in the draft or just pick up a better/hot reliever off waivers then waste a pick here.

Sleeper

Max Kepler – All the prospect hype/love goes towards Sano and Buxton but Kepler has the potential to be a good fantasy outfielder. I expect him to slash .262/.333/.435 and contribute 19 home runs, 78 RBIS, 70 runs and 10 SB. His draft day price isn’t very high either so take advantage of this.