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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Minnesota Twins MVP candidates (2019)

When a team wins 101 games the divvying up credit ought to be the easy part. Plenty to go around, right? From the players on the field, to rookie manager Rocco Baldelli, to his coaching staff, to the front office and support staff around the team every day, some whom you may say or hear and others whom you might not.

Settling on a Twins MVP is a chore. And while you’d be tempted to give it to someone like hitting coach James Rowson for elevating the level of so many hitters throughout this historically powerful Bomba Squad lineup, that’s now how these things work.

This column presents 5 thoughts on my Twins MVP ballot, that counts for nothing more than entertainment value.

1. What do you think of the Twins on the mound?

Lately the Twins have rounded into form in the late innings. You trust Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey is on an unreal tear, and Sergio Romo has three World Series rings.

That’s a fun conversation to have for October. For team MVP, though? Is there a reliever you can point to and say that guy’s the MVP for Minnesota? I think Rogers would top the list.

How about starting pitching? Jake Odorizzi would be what you’d consider the steadiest hand of that group. Michael Pineda was good in stretches but team MVPs don’t go to guys that get pinched for banned substances. José Berríos has had a strong year and will get a start in the postseason and I always feel like his pitches leave room for another step to be taken.

With respect to the guys who will be counted on to record major-impact outs if the Twins are going to march through October, the 2019 Twins MVP won’t be a pitcher.

2. Did Byron Buxton or Miguel Sanó do enough in limited time to get your MVP vote?

Buxton is incredible, a true game changer in the truest sense of the phrase. He might have the most value to contribute to the Twins – when healthy – but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that he contributed the most value in 2019. Shoulder surgery ended the latest installation of a promising-and-frustrating year for Buxton. He went further in both regards than in 2017, when he was brilliant in September after a trying season and then, yes, had to leave the A.L. Wild Card game in Yankee Stadium when he crashed into a wall.

I’ve been the most vocal advocate of Sanó that you’ll find. His incredible offensive numbers — .247/.346/.576, 34 homers in two-thirds of a season – trail only Nelson Cruz and Mitch Garver among Twins hitters in Weighted On-Base Average. Sanó is a monster offensively.

Some people can’t get past the strikeouts. If you look only at the number of “barrels” a hitter catches per plate appearance, as tracked by Baseball Savant, then Sanó is one of the top slugger in baseball. The percentage of time he goes to the plate and smokes a baseball 95 mph or more? He’s the best in baseball. The trick to getting over the strikeouts with Sanó is to think of him in the same context you think about Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.

Still, even if the crowd will accuse me of being the Sanó guy I can’t pick him for Twins MVP.

3. Top to bottom, Mitch Garver was the most impressive player to me this season.

This is based on my prior expectations coming into the season. Last season Garver looked overmatched behind the plate to my untrained eye. By all accounts this winter the dude put in work with a capital ‘W.’ This season he was a standout all around, and no longer a liability behind the plate when it came time to preserve strikes on borderline pitches.

Oh, and he rakes.

Garver hit .273/.365/.630, which look like all-star numbers no matter what position you play. But for that to happen off the bat of a good catcher is incredible. We were spoiled here in Minnesota for a decade when one of the best pure hitters in baseball played catcher in a Twins uniform. But Joe Mauer and Mitch Garver are different kinds of hitters entirely. Mauer was a sweet-swing lefty who’s dreams were populated by spraying line drives to the warning track in right-center field for a standup double. Garver’s dreams feature bombas.

A high-ankle sprain ensured Garver would not get enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title this year. The Twins’ approach in the Rest and Recovery era might have kept him from that threshold anyway. But stack his .630 slugging percentage up next to any catcher in baseball history with enough trips to the plate to qualify, and Garver’s 2019 season is No. 2 on the list behind only Mike Piazza’s 1997 campaign. (Mauer’s 2009 season is No. 7 on that all-time list.)

Close your eyes and imagine learning those facts in January of this year. How likely are you to have believed those words? And as FiveThirtyEight author Travis Sawchik points out, Garver was in the top-10 in Wins Above Replacement on a per-plate-appearance basis.

Put simply, Garver had an amazing season and the Twins are fortunate to have him. It’s still an awful lot to name him Twins MVP after 93 games, 359 plate appearances and 674 defensive innings at catcher. Terrific player who made big contributions, it’s just that he was deployed a whole lot less than the guy I’d vote for as Twins 2019 MVP.

4. Nelson Cruz is rightfully viewed as one of the leaders of the ball club.

He seems like one of those guys who is a natural extension of a coaching staff, and that makes sense when you consider he’s actually older than the guy hitting print on the lineup card every night, Rocco Baldelli. Quiet in the presence of media; a vocal leader who knows the right moments to hold a team meeting; and a quasi-life coach for a younger player like Miguel Sanó. If you think that last bit is overblown then just sit down someday and listen to Sanó gush about his teammate and friend. It’s incredible the reverence he has for Nelson Cruz.

Oh, and could you pinpoint a better player to embody the shifting principal in baseball, away from an ethos that rewards grinding at all costs?

One thing I feared from the time the Twins had signed Nelson Cruz and we all were ringing in the new year: That all this leadership talk would overshadow Cruz’s actual production on the field.

To that end, the only two American League players who handed in a higher Weighted On-Base Average than Cruz (.417) this season are vying for an MVP award: Alex Bregman and Mike Trout. Nelson Cruz is one of the best hitters in baseball, and there’s no need for the qualifier to read “for his age.” What he’s doing as a hitter, period, is outstanding; what he’s doing as a 39-year-old hitter borders on unbelievable.

Nobody has more homers over the last decade than Nelson Cruz. This season he missed time in two stints with a wrist injury, including a ruptured tendon that at one point sounded like it would threaten his season. Instead, he was right back at it as soon as he could, hitting a stunning total of 41 home runs, 108 RBIs, and playing 120 games as one of the best free-agent signings in Twins history. Leadership, production. Nelson Cruz has it all.

Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Mr. 400, Nelson Cruz; Lights-out reliever Tyler Duffey

5. Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler signed long-term contracts in spring training, making them two unquestioned cornerstones over the next several years.

Kepler had a terrific breakout season. I’m voting for Jorge Polanco for Twins 2019 MVP.

I really liked the steps forward that Kepler made this season. He went from hitting the ball hard to hitting the ball hard in the air and seeing big results. He plays a good right field in my book, and when pressed into stretch duty as a centerfielder, he filled in competently to whatever extent one can when replacing a mastermind like Byron Buxton. Kepler never griped about knee problems or groin problems or, more recently, shoulder problems – although all three had a very real impact on his ability to play this game at full capacity. He finished with 36 home runs in 134 games, led the team in WAR as calculated by FanGraphs, and the Twins are quite fortunate to have the right to pay his salary for the next handful of years.

Polanco led the Twins in games played (153), plate appearances (704), hits (186), runs (107), doubles (40), triples (7) and defensive innings at shortstop (1,233). He started at shortstop on the A.L. all-star team, and he deserved it. In 2019 we witnessed Jorge Polanco’s first full breakout season, although he was wonderful hitting in the second half of 2018 after sitting out half of the season for testing positive for a banned substance.

To me, the edge for Twins 2019 MVP goes to the guy who held down shortstop, hit .295/.356/.485 and was available on a dang-near-every-night basis. I don’t value grit for grit’s sake as much as the next person, but there’s something to be said for logging a complete campaign, bringing value to the table and quietly leading your clubhouse in a bunch of offensive categories – in a lineup that will be regarded as one of the best we’ve ever seen from the Twins.

In my book the next step for Polanco is to tidy up his glove work and throwing. If he can do that he’ll have made the jump from “good hitter who can play in the middle infield,” to “shortstop who can really hit.”

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