Three-plus months after the Major League season was put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, there is finally a plan for the Twins to begin a year that was filled with great expectations when they reported to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.
A 60-game regular season that was implemented this week by commissioner Rob Manfred after negotiations between MLB and the Players Association turned contentious will begin on July 23 or 24. Players will report to camps by July 1.
The Twins, coming off their first AL Central title since 2010, will play the majority of their games against other teams in their division, with the remaining games coming against clubs in the NL Central. That will cut down on travel for all teams in the hopes of keeping players healthy and avoiding another potential shutdown that likely would end the season.
The Twins remain in excellent position to repeat as AL Central champs. In fact, their odds probably have improved. Minnesota won 101 games last season to finish eight games ahead of second-place Cleveland and went 50-26 against division foes. The Twins were 14-5 against the Royals and Tigers, 13-6 against the White Sox and 9-10 against Cleveland. Chicago is expected to be better this season, but the Royals and Tigers continue to rebuild.
What else might we have forgotten, or what has changed, since spring training shut down in mid-March? Here are five things:
READY TO GO?
The Twins signed lefthanded starter Rich Hill to a one-year, $3 million contract on Dec. 31 with the expectation that he would be ready to pitch in June or July after undergoing surgery on his left elbow. Hill, who turned 40 in March, had a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, meaning he needed Tommy John surgery, but instead of having TJ surgery, a “primary repair” procedure was peformed. That meant a quicker recovery.
Nonetheless, Hill was not going to be ready to go for Opening Day I. As for Opening Day II, that should be a different story. A healthy Hill, should be a big boost to the rotation. The issue is whether he can stay healthy?
Hill has made 16 trips to the injured list in his career, including having Tommy John surgery in 2012. He was on the IL twice last season with the Dodgers and went 4-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 13 starts. In four years with Los Angeles, Hill went 30-16 with a 3.16 ERA in 69 games and 68 starts.
In other words, he’s a valuable pitcher when he can, well, pitch.
Hill figures to slot into the Twins’ rotation behind Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi and Kenta Maeda and possibly ahead of Homer Bailey. Maeda and Bailey, like Hill, were offseason pickups by the Twins. Maeda came over in the February trade with that Dodgers that sent hard-throwing prospect Brusdar Graterol to Los Angeles, and Bailey was signed to a one-year, $7 million free agent deal on the same day as Hill.
A SHORT SEASON
This will be a brief season for all players, but that will be especially true for righthanded starter Michael Pineda. Pineda was suspended for 60 games last September by MLB for taking a banned diuretic. He served 21 games of the suspension to conclude the 2019 season but still has 39 games left on his ban.
If the season had started on March 26, as scheduled, Pineda would have been able to return in May. Instead, there will be only 21 games left when Pineda comes back. Pineda went 11-5 with a 4.01 ERA in 26 starts last season before he was suspended, and the Twins thought enough of him to sign him to a two-year, $20 million deal in December.
There’s a good chance Pineda will find his way into the rotation once he is eligible to pitch.
BETTER LATE THAN …
There was big-time excitement around Target Field in January when the Twins signed third baseman Josh Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million contract, making it the richest free agent deal the club has ever given to a player who wasn’t in the organization and the second-largest in Major League history for a player who was 33 or older. The veteran’s contract includes an $8 million buyout of a $16 million club option for a fifth year.
The 34-year-old Donaldson earned the contract after hitting .259/.379/.521 with 37 homers and 33 doubles in his lone season with the Atlanta Braves. This came after Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP, was limited to 52 games because of injury in splitting the 2018 season between Toronto and Cleveland.
Donaldson’s arrival caused the Twins to move Miguel Sano to first base and added another big bat to a team that established the Major League single-season home run record by hitting 307 in 2019. Donaldson was looking forward to getting the chance to make Target Field his home park, after hitting .373/.464/.819 with 10 home runs in 22 career games as a visitor. The 10 homers is tied for the eighth-most by a visiting hitter at the ballpark.
The Twins will finally get a chance to see if Donaldson can continue that production wearing the home uniform.
Reports surfaced last week that Sano had been accused of kidnapping in his native Dominican Republic, but Sano said he was being blackmailed, according to the Star Tribune. Here are the details from a CBS Sports report. It’s not the first off-the-field situation Sano has found himself dealing with and it’s unclear if this one might delay his arrival next week for the start of training camp.
Once Sano does arrive, the Twins will be hoping that he remained in as good of shape as he was when he showed up for spring training. Sano’s conditioning has been very questionable at times during his time with the Twins, but it was not an issue at all in March.
Signed to a three-year, $30 million contract in the winter, Sano is coming off a season in which he hit .247/.346/.576 with a career-high 34 home runs and 79 RBIs in 105 games. Sano was putting in plenty of work in spring training to make the adjustment to first base, and we will now find out if that work paid off.
That’s assuming Sano’s off-the-field issues, don’t keep him away. If Sano is delayed, Marwin Gonzalez could be the choice to take over at first base.
There was plenty of speculation during spring training about how often center field Byron Buxton would be able to play early in 2020 as he returned from a torn labrum that ended his season on Aug. 1, 2019 in Miami.
Buxton is the best center fielder in the big leagues, but has become known for a daredevil style that often lands him on the injured list. Buxton hit a career-best .262/.314/.513 with 10 home runs, 46 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 87 games last season. He has played in more than 100 games in a season only once in five years with the Twins.
The 26-year-old admitted in spring training that he needed to alter his style and that running into outfield walls was hurting him and his team. What was unclear then was if he would be in the lineup on a consistent basis in April as the Twins attempted to be cautious.
But that was then. Now, there is no question Buxton’s name will be in the lineup card on a daily basis. Provided he can keep himself healthy.