Preseason, I nailed my colours firmly to the mast of the good ship Minnesota, confident that the team from Minneapolis would clinch the AL Central to give them yet another shot at postseason disappointment.
In the preview podcasts, the Bat Flips & Nerds A-team and B-team both tipped the Twins to win the division. I recall the suggestion that the Chicago White Sox All-Stars, despite overwhelming favourites from non-BFN quarters, lacked depth to cope injuries. Unfortunately, this looks to be correct.
During the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Minnesota oozed power, with only the Yankees hitting more home runs (400 to the Twins’ 398), and there was little reason to believe this would not continue. Sure, 40-something Nelson Cruz‘s bat speed might finally slow down, and maybe Alex Kirilloff would not be a like-for-like replacement for non-tendered Eddie Rosario, but the team looked strong.
Yet, as I write this on 16 May, 37 games into the 2021 season, the Twins sit last in the AL Central. And last in the AL Central means they are below the Detroit Tigers.
What as gone right?
Do-Hyoung Park, the excellent young reporter who covers the Twins for MLB, predicted the team MVP would be Byron Buxton. The former top prospect has lived up to the deal with a slash line of .370/.408/.772 with nine home runs and 10 doubles. Park also offered a bold prediction that Buxton would play 140 games. As the 27-year-old outfielder is currently on the IL, this could be a trickier one to materialise.
Rather than slowing down, veteran Cruz’s bat remains one of the most dangerous in the game. He has more homers, runs and RBI than Mike Trout this season.
Having already made his Twins debut in last year’s postseason, Kirilloff made his regular-season debut in 2021. He went 3-for-26 in his first eight games, then as often happens, exploded with four home runs in his next four games before joining Buxton on the IL.
What as gone wrong?
Kirilloff’s tally of four homers is only bettered by Cruz, Buxton and catcher, Mitch Garver. Garver’s production comes with .191 AVG and .261 OBP. Regardless of the long balls, a sub .260 on-base percentage hurts the team. However, he has wrestled the job away from now-optioned Ryan Jeffers who was hitting .147 AVG with .216 OBP.
Also hitting below the Mendoza Line of .200 is burly slugger Miguel Sano, outfielder (and now also on the IL) Jake Cave and my outside pick for MVP Max Kepler. If batting average doesn’t demonstrate the ineffectiveness of these hitters, then look at their wRC+ of 90 Garver, 86 Kepler, 61 Sano, 44 Cave, 15 Jeffers. Remember that 100 is league average.
On the mound, Jose Berrios has been nothing more than average with eight starts of 3.74 ERA (3.52 FIP), but the Twins’ twin attack of Berrios and Kenta Maeda has been hampered by the Japanese ace’s lousy run of seven starts of 5.08 ERA (5.35 ERA).
The bullpen, which looked to offer exceptional arms for all scenario has imploded too many times to lead MLB in losses. Alex Colome is the worst pitcher in baseball according to the Win Probability Added stat. Randy Dobnak, who signed a five-year deal before Opening Day has not been the Twins answer to Freddy Peralta or Tejay Antone – a starter/multi-inning reliever/closer – instead, he has gone 0-3 with 8.16 ERA.
Injuries have severely affected the roster, but that is the same for all 30 teams. Fortunately, not all 30 teams have someone like Andrelton Simmons who announced he would not be getting the jab. Three weeks later he duly contracted COVID-19, along with Kepler and Kyle Garlick. Games against the Athletics and Angels were postponed.
What can Twins’ fans expect?
The good news is that there are still 125 games left in the season. The White Sox have a 9.5 game lead in the division, but as we mentioned preseason, we are not confident they have the depth to stay the course. Chicago also has the highest BABIP among the 30 teams. This is unlikely to continue.
Kepler, with three homers in his last eight games, is looking a bit more like himself since returning from the COVID IL. Sano hit a three-run shot yesterday to remind us that he is still around. Luis Arraez is also back off the IL and offers on-base skills and position flexibility while the Twins wait for Kirilloff and Buxton to return.
Maeda looked back to his best with an eight-strikeout scoreless start against the Rangers on 3 May, but he was rocked by the White Sox the next time he took the mound. There doesn’t appear to be an injury or any glaring problem with Maeda, so maybe just a slight adjustment will get him back to Cy Young-calibre.
The imminent series against the White Sox will be interesting to see whether this is the start of the Twins revival. Then on 24 May, they face the Orioles and Royals, followed by the Orioles and Royals again. The division picture could look very different after the first week of June.
And of course, the Twins still have Willians Astudillo. He is hitting .316 with three home runs while playing catcher, first, second and third. Oh, and he also pitched a clean inning vs. Angels.
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While we have you, why not download the excellent Bat Flips & Nerds podcast of John McGee in conversation with Keith Law. It’s too good to miss. Click on Keith’s smiling face.