MINNEAPOLIS – The Twins are cruising along in first place in the American League Central and the 2019 season is not brand new anymore. The more baseball seasons you’ve been through the more you understand that taking stock of the “horse race” in April shouldn’t be taken too seriously. For entertainment purposes only.
But then, there are only so many times in an MLB schedule that fans and observers can say “it’s early.” The more times we’ve said “it’s still early,” the later it’s become. I’m paraphrasing Yogi Berra.
My point is that six weeks into the season the Twins are playing like one of the best teams in baseball, keeping pace with the A.L. teams that we expected to be excellent this season. Isn’t it possible that the Twins might just be one of those teams?
This column presents 5 thoughts on my early impressions of the 2019 Twins.
I began writing this column over the weekend when the Twins appeared to have dodged serious injury with Nelson Cruz and Martin Pérez. Then Mitch Garver got hurt in a play at the plate Tuesday night.
Well, I might be the jinx. To help me sleep at night I’ll stick by the old theory that if you didn’t publish it, it wasn’t written.
We’ll see how much time Garver has to miss. And we should note that the now famous lacerated heel of Miguel Sanó has impacted the Twins’ fortunes. But consider the sweeping injuries that decimated Minnesota’s chances last year.
It started in the winter with a late-offseason finger surgery for presumed ace Ervin Santana. (Jorge Polanco was suspended 80 games for PEDs.) Miguel Sanó was coming off a surgery to put a metal rod in his leg and all observers would agree that he never quite looked the same. Byron Buxton had migraines, a broken toe, and a sprained wrist cost him significant time. Jason Castro was lost very early on for the season, and the Twins catching situation at the time was not equipped to absorb a loss like that.
I don’t consider these minor injuries. The Twins, in my opinion, lost a big number of wins off their final tally when those guys were knocked out, and at the time Minnesota was not deep enough to make up for those losses elsewhere.
This season has mostly been different. With the exception of Sanó, who ought to return very soon, and now Garver, the Twins have done all right in the injury department. It was a healthy spring, mostly. A Cruz wrist injury appears to be nothing too serious. Jonathan Schoop was out of the starting lineup for a couple days with a sore shoulder. But there he was, pinch running in Monday’s game against the Angels none too worse for the wear. Pérez was drilled by a line drive and had to leave the game over the weekend, although he ran on the foot right after the impact, and he ably walked off the field without assistance when he was taken out of the game. He’s expected to make his next start, which is great for the Twins considering how well he’s pitched lately.
Twins CBO Derek Falvey joined us as a guest on the SKOR North Twins show this week. It was a great chat about the state of the team, and the most revealing info, from my perspective, came in an answer about how to set up players to succeed. How do you reach the full potential with a given player, and then spread that across a whole team or a whole organization?
Here’s some of what Falvey told us:
“Every year you’re trying to just get better in terms of what you provide for resources to your players. And ever since I’ve gotten hear it’s something we’ve really invested a lot of time and energy in behind the scenes: making sure that we put tools in player’s hands to allow them to improve,” Falvey said. “Ultimately, [the players] have got to go and play the game, and coaches have got to help them find their way to being the best versions of themselves. But we’re trying to create a culture where, if you’ve got an idea, if you’ve got a tool, if you’ve got something that can help somebody get better, it doesn’t matter what your background is or your specific experience in baseball — in a dugout or otherwise — then we can all communicate about it.
“I think players really appreciate that. They want to find ways to be the best versions of themselves. It’s good for the team, it’s good for them, it’s good for everybody,” he said.
“I’ll credit Rocco [Baldelli] and the coaching staff. The way they’ve gone about this is just highly inclusive and collaborative in the way they’ve approached each conversation. … Ultimately the players know that we have their best interest in mind, and that we’re giving them information to try and be the best they can be. It’s a good outcome for everybody.”
Related listening: Catch this episode of the SKOR North Twins show for the full Falvey interview:
Consider: The Twins had a doubleheader Saturday with the Tigers and wanted to add an extra pitcher, in addition to allowed 26th man. Martin Pérez went on the paternity list to clear a spot for that day’s starter, Kohl Stewart, and the 26th man designation went to reliever Tyler Duffey. (This is in contrast to a few a years ago when Eduardo Escobar was put on the paternity list and the Twins neglected to add a body to the roster and instead played short-handed; I believe that I still have the bald spot from tearing my hair out over that decision.)
After the game, both Duffey and Stewart were taken back off the roster and optioned to the minor leagues, since likely neither one would have been available for Sunday’s game. No sense in wasting the roster spot on a dead arm, the thinking goes. Those two roster spots trimmed the active roster to 24, just enough space to return Pérez after his 1-day paternity assignment, just in time to make his scheduled Sunday start. (Additionally, Willians Astudillo returned from his IL stint, so reliever Fernando Romero was optioned to Triple-A in a pitcher-for-position player swap.)
Two days later Tyler Duffey was returned to the MLB roster in place of outfielder Jake Cave (optioned) to restore the balance of pitchers and position players that the Twins had preferred before Sunday.
None of these moves on their own represent any kind of wizardry. My point in bringing them up is that the Twins, under Derek Falvey and now Rocco Baldelli, are pushing the roster to its limits to get the most of the group of 25, 40 or 50 players they’ll use this season to maximize their odds to win each night. It takes some extra work but it’s worth it on the margins.
Beyond the SKOR:
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) May 15, 2019
It’s always difficult to lose a catcher; it’s never easy to replace one of your best hitters. It’s especially disheartening when you lose both of those things wrapped up in one package.
Mitch Garver’s injury is a tough blow for the Twins. He’s just hitting so well and making an already threatening Twins lineup that much more dangerous. The Twins think so highly of him as a hitter that he’s often been featured in the leadoff spot against lefties.
Last season when he broke in with the Twins after Jason Castro’s injury, it didn’t look to me like he was ready. He wasn’t nearly as refined behind the plate as Castro had been, and it was plain as day when watching the Twins turn to him over and over. Passed balls, borderline strikes lost and so on.
It’s against that backdrop that make’s Garver’s backdrop all the more impressive. He’s now more than capable behind the plate, pitchers appear to trust him on a nightly basis when he’s back there, and those same framing numbers that used to make him look bad are getting better and better. Simply put, Garver is not just the Catcher of the Future for the Twins, he looks every bit the part of Catcher of the Present.
“Garv’s had tremendous at-bats,” manager Rocco Baldelli said Monday. “He sees pitches but he sees the ball well and he makes the pitcher work for his money out there. He’s put a lot of good swings on the ball. … You can’t fake what he’s doing; his at-bats are genuine.”
As a minor leaguer with the Twins, Garver always was known as a catcher who could hit. He batted 271/.364/.429 in his minor league career, including an impressive .298/.386/.520 in 110 games at Triple-A. This year, of course, has been an entirely new level of dominance, in which Garver would be on all of the offensive leaderboards if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
He’s drawn more walks, cut down his swings and misses, chased way fewer pitches outside the strike zone, and he’s destroyed pitches inside the strike zone en route to a monstrous .329/.418/.747 batting line (.475 Weighted On-Base Average).
Short term, this will be a tough loss for the Twins to overcome. Longer term, what an incredible outcome this season to unearth a guy who looks like a star-caliber catcher and who will be in Minnesota for years to come.