MINNEAPOLIS – The way the Twins approached this winter, I think a lot of us on the outside characterized their moves collectively as a hedged bet on 2019. They added some good players and let a few others go – and left two big ones unsigned into May, at least. But with each of those contracts a Twins front office detractor could fairly say that the brain trust running the baseball ops department didn’t seem to put every available chip on the table for the spring.
Nelson Cruz had been a great hitter for a long time, and the Twins spent on him. Jonathan Schoop had a rough year last season with two teams, but you could see why the Twins could dream on him bouncing back to impressive form. Without going down the whole list of acquisitions, suffice to say that The Economist Derek Falvey added some good value-bets, enough to put the Twins in the mix if things went as well as an optimistic Twins fan could hope.
And then the first five weeks of the season, they did. Pretty much everything this side of Miguel Sanó has gone really well for the Twins, as they sit in first place in the A.L. Central and are jockeying for the best record in the American League.
This column presents 5 things that have broken in favor of the Twins.
Their approach to the winter put them in the conversation of competing for a division or an A.L. Wild Card spot. This list has them in first place.
You read that right. Jorge Polanco is one of the best hitters in baseball, and he’s stinging the ball, especially from the left side of the plate. The Twins made a bet on Polanco, you’ll remember, with a spring training contract extension that will keep him in a Twins uniform through at least the 2023 season.
I think a lot of Twins fans were cool with the move at the time, because the downside was so minimal. If things didn’t work out perfectly, well, the Twins would have a decent hitter who couldn’t shipwrecking the whole payroll, and that’s something that apparently a lot of fans are very particular about. Even the optimists didn’t see things going this well for Polanco in the first five weeks of his brand new deal.
Polanco is currently the fourth-best hitter in the American League, as measured by Weighted On-Base Averaga. Here’s a look at the wOBA leaderboard:
Hunter Dozier, .465
Joey Gallo, .434
Mike Trout, .425
Jorge Polanco, .414
Shin-Soo Choo, .412
Nelson Cruz, .410
Only three A.L. hitters topped a .400 wOBA last season: J.D. Martinez, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. So Polanco is in elite territory right now. Ditto for Nelson Cruz.
The reason I didn’t lump those two together is that Cruz is a 38-year-old great hitter with an established track record. At most he’s signed to a two-year deal with the Twins at what logically seems like the tail end of his wonderful career. Polanco is 25, and signed for the next five seasons at a minimum, at an average salary of $5.15 million. It looks like the Twins have an incredibly valuable contract on their hands in Polanco. And that’s before figuring in that club options could stretch the deal another 2 seasons, to 7 years total.
As a follower of the Twins, hopefully you don’t root for Cleveland injuries. The old saying is you want to beat the best when they’re at their best. What does that make you?
But we’d also be naïve to ignore the fact that Cleveland is reeling a little bit right now. The Twins entered the week with a 2-game lead in the division, but on May 6 it’s far too early to start taking stock of the actual standings and giving any real weight to what’s got on in the first 5 weeks of the baseball season.
If we keep our eye on what we thought over the winter (informed projections) and combine that with what has happened to date, I think we get the best picture of what the current standings mean going forward. And from that perspective, Cleveland losing an ace and a borderline ace (Mike Clevinger), their 2019 win projection has taken a serious hit.
“We’re constantly evaluating our team relative to its chief competitors,” Twins GM Thad Levine told SKOR North, “and certainly the Cleveland Indians are the class of the American League Central until we or another team unseats them. … But I do think it changes the landscape somewhat. We still regard that team as being excellent and one that we’re trying to chase down. Right now we’re relishing the position we’re in but we know there’s a lot of season left to be played.”
At the time Clevinger got hurt, manager Terry Francona told the media it would be eight weeks before he picked up a baseball again. The latest reports are that he’s stretching out his throwing distance in games of catch, and could soon climb back up a mound. Still, he’s not even eligible to come off the Injured List for a month, so that return date is not on the immediate horizon. Kluber has a non-displaced fracture in his ulna bone on his pitching arm, and your guess is as good as mine for when he’ll return to the mound. The team hasn’t even announced a time frame for his return, only that he’ll be re-evaluated at the end of May.
It sort of feels like Buxton needed this, doesn’t it? After years of stops and starts and injuries and disappointments and rejection, Buxton looks ready to take on the world this year. The thing I’ve heard for years about Buxton, beyond his ability on the field, is how well he grades in things like resilience and the psychology of being a top-level athlete. I sometimes wonder how a person who wasn’t as tough as Buxton would have handled these first few difficult years to start his career. Would those same trials have broken or defeated others where Buxton persevered?
In any case, he’s now getting on base at a respectable rate. And when he gets hits they’re often for two bases at a time. He’s batting .263/.318/.485, which is enough to make him a really good player given how he can take over a game with his speed, glove and arm.
With his teammates thriving around him, there’s been less attention on Buxton in general and maybe that’s a good thing or maybe it doesn’t matter. I won’t pretend to know what it means to Buxton. I’d still like to see more great contact before we start declaring that he’s arrived and has become the best version of himself as a baseball player.
The fact that Buxton has turned himself into a confident hitter, in addition to the elite centerfield defense, is a terrific early sign for the Twins. There’s no two ways about it. He’s been worth one full win, according to FanGraphs, and slightly more than one win above replacement according to other sites that track metrics like that. For those who’ve continued to dream about Buxton’s peak ability manifesting, this isn’t quite to the level you were dreaming about. But this qualifies as a good dream and definitely not a nightmare, and that’s a great development if you’re the Twins.
The Twins hired Wes Johnson from the college ranks to be their pitching coach, and it caught some attention around the league because of the novelty. Well, given how it’s gone for the Twins in the first month and change, the guess here is that Johnson won’t be the last pitching coach hired from college – we could be looking at the early stage of a trend.
Who saw this coming from Jake Odorizzi after how things went for him in his first season in a Twins uniform? Who saw this version of Martin Pérez – mid-to-upper 90’s fastball and a cutter that’s keeping hitters honest — emerging after he was cut loose in Texas? And if we go back to last summer shouldn’t we also give the Twins’ system a little credit for getting Taylor Rogers to ditch the changeup in favor of a slider that’s made him a lethal fireman playing anchor in the bullpen?
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Some of these developments count as an incredible surprise, among all of us save the most unflinching optimists. Odorizzi deserves credit for his improvements. Pérez certainly does, as well. And don’t ignore new pitching coach Wes Johnson when you’re looking around the room trying to distribute the credit for this leap forward.
Johnson shouldn’t be the only staffer commended. Jeremy Hefner is an important part of the equation for the Twins, and CBO Derek Falvey ought to count identifying and developing pitchers as a critical strand of DNA for his system. Falvey told me in spring training, when I asked about “Project Martin Pérez,” that there might be as many as a half-dozen people working to make him better, not the least of which is Pérez himself. Honestly, it could be even more than that when you consider the amount of research and development the Twins have pumped into their continued development and improvement of the on-field product, from guys and gals you’ve never heard mentioned in the press.
In hindsight, we might have wasted a lot of digital ink and countless valuable on-air minutes stressing over the uncertain depth at catcher. Jason Castro was coming off surgery, Mitch Garver appeared to have a long way to go behind the plate, and Willians Astudillo had yet to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was more than a flash in the pan.
That analysis looks like a big whiff right now. Castro’s work load has been reduced because of the depth at the position. So far so good with the knee, anyway. Astudillo is undoubtedly more than a flash in the pan. He’s a hitter who can play multiple positions, one of which is catcher. And Garver has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the organization.
Defensively he’s not Yadier Molina. But the difference that a year has made in his development is stark and apparent. Garver now looks confident behind the plate, he’s employing the Tony Peña crouch at times, he’s got an arm, and he doesn’t look to me to be overmatched in any capacity as a catcher.
All of that is great considering he’s one of the most valuable bats in the lineup. Garver’s played 18 games so far this season, mostly at catcher. And if the Twins didn’t have a DH like Nelson Cruz – or a first baseman like C.J. Cron – you can bet that Garver would find his way into the lineup a lot more regularly. Minnesota’s “backup” catcher is currently hitting .333/.387/.719 with 6 home runs in only 62 plate appearances. Simply put, he’s been the best hitter on a Twins team full of great hitters.
If he could maintain this remarkable level of production for 600 plate appearances, he’d hit 58 home runs, score 135 runs, drive in 116 and finish the year with a .455 wOBA. Oh, and he’d win an A.L. MVP award along the way.