The AL East has perennial giants in the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The NL East has been in on everyone this off-season, with four teams seemingly in all-in mode. The NL West and Central divisions have mostly slumbered thus far, but with behemoths like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs lurking, the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks seeking direction, and the St. Louis Cardinals trading for Paul Goldschmidt, there will be action aplenty there.
The Seattle Mariners have enough stoves going that it’s probably a fire hazard, but the rest of the AL West has been fairly quiet so far. However, given the number of arms the Los Angeles Angels, Houston Astros, Oakland A’s, and Texas Rangers need, you just know something splashy will happen soon enough. Then there’s the AL Central, where it’s been Cleveland Indians pitching rumors, a choir of crickets for the Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, and Chicago White Sox . . . and the Minnesota Twins.
2019 Minnesota Twins Strong Rebound Candidates
Quietly, the Twins are having a fascinating off-season. Just recently they signed both Jonathan Schoop and Ronald Torreyes. Prior to that, they picked up C.J. Cron after he was non-tendered by the Tampa Bay Rays, in the hopes that he can replace the retired long-time star Joe Mauer. They also bought out Ervin Santana after an injury-plagued campaign and non-tendered Robbie Grossman – a particularly strange move that will be revisited in a minute.
As it Stands, the Twins Projected Offense for 2019 (2018 OPS+ in Parenthesis):
C: Mitch Garver (103), Willians Astudillo (138)
1B: CJ Cron (123)
2B: Jonathan Schoop (85)
SS: Jorge Polanco (109)
3B: Miguel Sano (82)
RF: Max Kepler (96)
CF: Byron Buxton (4)
LF: Eddie Rosario (115)
DH: Jake Cave? (110) Tyler Austin? (108)
It is certainly a fascinating group, let’s break it down.
First off, it’s significant that they did not tender Robbie Grossman a contract. A quick look here shows the Twins had 32 players take at-bats for them last year. Of that group, exactly ten had an OPS+ of league average (100) or better (though in fairness, Mauer’s was 99). Mauer retired.
Eduardo Escobar, owner of a 127 OPS+ with the Twins last season, is now a Diamondback. Astudillo, Johnny Field (100), and Chris Gimenez (133) had fewer than 100 at-bats and Tyler Austin had fewer than 150 at-bats; all of which scream “small sample size.” That leaves five players from last year who were league average or better with the bat over any amount of plate appearances. One of those was Grossman.
The Twins enter 2019 with only five players who produced at an average rate over significant playing time. Mitch Garver did, in his first extended playing time. Cron did, but he hit 30 home runs last year after never topping 16 before and doesn’t draw as many walks as his power-centric profile would suggest. (His 37 walks last year represent a career-high, paired with 145 k’s, also a career-high.) Eddie Rosario did, and he has been a nice bat for a couple of years now. Jake Cave did, also in his first extended playing time. Jorge Polanco did as well – and he’s has been slightly better than average for most of his young career.
With the exception of Rosario, there’s not a lot to bank on among those players. Cron’s power uptick may or may not last. Given that his increase in hard contact (from 35% to 39%) did not have a correlating decrease in soft contact (20% to 21%) it’s hard to tell. It’s not a profile that tells you he’s suddenly learned how to do something. It’s a profile that says he’s always hit certain things pretty well, and suddenly last year he hit those same things very well.
Garver and Cave were rookies so as the league adjusts to them and it will be incumbent upon them to make adjustments of their own. That’s especially the case with Astudillo, Austin and Johnny Field (who struggled mightily during his time with the Rays). Polanco seems a decent regular, but nothing spectacular.
All of which brings us back to the title of the article: Can the Twins bounce back? It’s literally a double-edged sword. The Twins aren’t trying to rebound with the same group of players. They’ve lost 3 of their steadier bats and replaced them with guys coming off down years. They are banking their ability to bounce back into the playoffs on a bunch of different individual rebound performances.
Jonathan Schoop has been up and down every year of his career thus far. He’s still young, but he’s never strung together back to back seasons of above league average production. He’s bounced back every other time, so given his age, there’s plenty of reason he can do it again. However, at some point, the repeated declines is a problem. Maybe it’s now, maybe it’s the next one. I don’t know. What I do know is there are only so many leaks you can patch before the whole thing becomes unsalvageable.
Schoop succeeds, the league adjusts. He then fails, and adjusts as a result, then succeeds again. The league then finds a new hole in Schoop’s adjustments, and he fails again. And so on and so on the story goes. At some point, he’ll either put it all together or slide into oblivion. The Twins are banking on the former.
Byron Buxton has one good half season of baseball at the major league level. I hope he figures it out. The talent is certainly there. All the same, the Twins should have a backup plan.
Miguel Sano. What to say about Sano. Joe Posnanski has a fascinating read about Jason Heyward‘s struggles in 2016 (http://joeposnanski.com/what-happened-to-heyward/). Heyward was 26 in ’16, Sano was 25 last year. It truly is hard to find comparables for such precipitous decline at such an early age. That said, while Heyward has rebounded some, he’s never returned to what he once was. Neither did Melvin Upton Jr.after his tenure with the Braves. Both found their way out of the abyss, but never reclaimed the gifts they once possessed. It’s only 2 players, far too small a sample to draw any meaningful conclusions from.
That said, history is not on Sano’s side. On the other hand, baseball is full of wonderful stories of guys like Ryan Ludwick or Jose Bautista or even Josh Donaldson blooming late and having amazing seasons and careers. Sano’s certainly not too old to have a breakthrough. The same could be said for Schoop and Buxton for that matter.
Kepler’s also 25 and has yet to have a true breakout season. Unlike Schoop, Buxton or Sano however, he wasn’t bad in 2018. If he keeps doing what he has, the Twins are fine there. If he improves, that’s money in the bank.
Can the Twins bounce back? Yes. They’ve made a lot of gambles this offseason, but gambles do sometimes pay off. Better yet, with the exception of Buxton, none of these gambles are particular longshots. If they hit on just a couple, they’ll be better than they were. If more than that go right, who knows what could happen. But kudos to them for seeing an opportunity and taking it. It may blow up in their faces, or in 10 years we might be watching Moneyball 2: The Story of the 2019 Minnesota Twins. It probably won’t have Brad Pitt though.