After another gut-wrenching loss in the MLB playoffs this year, coinciding with their 18th consecutive playoff loss in a row, the Minnesota Twins find themselves on the outside looking in yet again. Despite any successes within the organization that they have been experienced over the past two years, the fact remains that the group of players that they have right now can’t get the job done. As a team, they have been building upwards for years to be competitive during both the regular and postseason, yet time and again, once October begins, the Twins can’t seem to win. Why is that? Who is at fault? Is it time for a rebuild? Let’s try to figure that one out, shall we?
In 2019, the Minnesota Twins set franchise and MLB records for regular season hitting, as they hit 307 home runs as a club and established themselves as an elite offence. However, once the postseason arrived, they faced their old nemesis the Yankees and failed to live up to any of the hype and were promptly swept. Entering 2020, the Twins knew that their area of need was pitching, and, after a couple of attempts, they were able to acquire Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers, but paid a steep price in trading away famed pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol to the Dodgers. However, for a team that seemed to be coming together, they bought in on their success and tried to build on it.
This past season had its fair share of problems, but, in the end, Minnesota won the Central Division with the hopes of taking a big step forward. Instead, they were swept and faced another early exit. So what’s next?
Unfortunately for a small market team like the Twins, payroll absolutely matters. Looking ahead, they’re committed to Josh Donaldson (3B), Miguel Sano (1B), Michael Pineda (SP3), Max Kepler (OF), Jorge Polanco (OF) and Kenta Maeda (SP1); they have the choice to retain Sergio Romo. That’s not a bad start to rounding out a roster. Players eligible for preliminary arbitration and arbitration that I could see immediately being brought back are Luis Arrarez (2B), José Berrios (SP2), Byron Buxton (OF), Tyler Duffey (RP) and Matt Wisler (RP), which were all steady and solid this year, though it’s still to be determined if Buxton can do it for 162 games. That said, there are some questions that remain to be answered.
1. Will Nelson Cruz be brought back?
Other than a low xBA of .269, there was nothing here that showed him to be slowing down at all. He did hit more ground balls than usual and lowered his launch angle, but really nothing stood out to indicate a decline in anything. The ageless wonder’s return is a big key here though. One would think that at 40 years old (and turning 41 midway through next season), that age could catch up to him sooner rather than later. If he does decide to retire, I would assume that Miguel Sano slides into the DH role with Alex Kirilloff eventually taking over at first base. Still, with only Double-A experience, Kirilloff could use some seasoning at Triple-A to work on his patience at the plate and to gain some valuable work in against better pitchers. I will say though that I was shocked (and excited) that he was slotted into the line-up to start their elimination game, so maybe they do have plans to start him right away.
Outcome: Ideally, I feel like the Twins would like to have one more (and final) full season of Nelson Cruz so as to give Kirilloff the reigns at first base for the 2022 season. Had there been a minor league system this year, I feel like this would have happened to been the 2021 season.
2. Who will round out the rotation for the Twins?
Having a base of Maeda, Berrios and Pineda is a great start for the Twins, but not nearly enough to win a series. They need that dominant starter who can strike fear in their opponents and give them 7+ innings a night. Other than Maeda, I’m not sure they have that at the Major League level right now. Looking to their minor league system, they just might have that guy in Jhoan Duran. His 2019 stats were incredible, and his split-finger sinker was apparently confusing to hitters at the Twins’ alternate site all year.
If you haven’t yet seen him in action, you can check him out here, as his wipeout pitch is incredible and almost unfair. While we know very little about how his 2020 season, one can imagine that if he impresses in Spring Training, he has a shot to win a starter’s role at the end of the rotation and show the world that he’s as good as advertised.
Another name to eat up innings could be Randy Dobnak. His 2020 season was a mixed bag, but over his career, he’s been okay over a limited amount of innings when starting:
Personally, I like him, but I’m not sure he has what it takes to be in the rotation as he doesn’t miss enough bats. He’d be a perfect long relief arm who only needs to go through the order once or twice.
Outcome: If I had to pick right now, I say that Duran will make the roster once he gains another year of control by the Twins and will win one of the final starter’s roles. The list of free agents this offseason isn’t as ripe as in previous years. The only thing that could benefit a team like the Twins who are on a budget is that there could be some values in the free agent market with a lot of “prove it” deals to be had. Other than Duran, there aren’t many other arms in their system worth rushing to take over a spot. Dakota Chalmers is on the 40-man roster and was once a highly touted prospect. Perhaps a year off to fully heal and not push himself forward is what he would need to make an impact in 2021. Keep an eye on him next Spring too. My sleeper pick here too is Chris Vallimont, who had a quietly productive 2019 season. I have no idea how he’ll be when he returns though, but he’s worth keeping an eye on, as he pitched 127+ innings up to A+ ball last year.
3. Who will be the starting catcher for the Twins?
Mitch Garver had himself a phenomenal 2020 campaign and came into this season with a lot of hope for even more progression. Unfortunately the Twins were treated to a .167/.247/.511 line with minimal power and a 45.7% strikeout rate to match. Instead of Willians Astudillo or Alex Avila taking over, it was my #14 ranked Twins’ prospect Ryan Jeffers that hit the ground running, helping the team when they needed it most.
Overall he had great pitch recognition and stood out as the only player behind the plate who consistently did anything positive with the bat. What’s more is he kept his prospect tag for now and has made a real case to be the Twins’ starting catcher next Spring. While it’s hard to nag on anyone for underperforming in a shortened season under a global pandemic, the 60 game stretch for Garver perhaps showed that last year’s juiced balls were a major help to any success he did have.
Outcome: Catcher is a very volatile position. I could very well see the Twins doing what they can to sell Garver and convince other teams that it was an off year for him. Teams out there need someone who can hit behind the plate. Do I believe Garver can? I’d like to think so and I will typically be giving under performers a pass for 2020 failures. I see Jeffers, who can call a game quite well and is a defensive whiz, starting for the Twins at catcher next Spring, and Garver on another team altogether.
4. Who will be the closer for the Twins in 2021?
This is where I begin to really disagree with the philosophy of manager Rocco Baldelli, who, by all accounts, has done a very solid job for years now. However, where I believe he’s messed up is not always giving a designated role to a closer. Now, 2020 was a unique year with a ton of games lumped in together over a small time frame, but it’s been a Twins’ trend to use various players throughout a season and have multiple pitchers with multiple saves. While it worked for the most part last year, it’s not always proven system, as it could leave players guessing when their time is up and lowers their confidence on a daily basis. Looking at the free agent list, potential closers are ripe and ready to roll out this off season, so perhaps the Twins, if they change their philosophy, go out and spend big on an arms. A perfect fit for the Twins would be someone like Keone Kela, who, after a Covid-infused year mixed in with injuries, could fit in nicely with his unique mix of curveballs and fastballs.
Back to the Twins, Jorge Alcala proved himself quite worthy this year, specifically down the stretch.
Possessing both a slider and a changeup, used a combined 53% of the time, that both have a near 40% Whiff Rate, Alcala had but one bad outing as a Twin, and proved that he does belong with the big league club. Other prospect arms that could make camp are Edwar Colina (his MLB debut was ugly, but he’s better than that), the aforementioned Dakota Chalmers, and Cody Stashak (who should graduate from prospect status after a decent 2020 season).
Outcome: As it stands, the Twins don’t have enough MLB ready relief arms in their farm system, so if they were to spend free agent money, it may be to retain or sign free agents this offseason. Overall though, the bullpen was their area of strength during the regular season.
5. Will Marwin Gonzalez be re-signed?
My short answer here is no, but that’s not say he hasn’t been valuable. Over the years during his Twins’ tenure, he has been one of the most versatile players on the team, as he’s possessed the ability to play almost anywhere on the field. After a career season in 2019, Gonzalez never really got on track this year, finishing with a .211/.286/.320/.606 line. All in all, it was a poor showing for someone in a contract year who made $9.5 million in 2020.
Enter Travis Blankenhorn. One of the standouts from the 2019 minor league season, Blankenhorn showed versatility and poise, finishing the year with 19 home runs and 11 stolen bases, and was also someone who got the call late in the season and hit a double in his first game as a Twin. He’s someone whom I’ve touched upon before and was someone you could have bought earlier this year. The window to buying him is still open, but if Gonzalez doesn’t come back, look for Blankenhorn to get the call either at Spring or later in the year after a bit more seasoning.
Outcome: $9.5 million would be a lot to spend on someone in an area where the Twins have someone almost ready. Travis Blankenhorn looks to be the man to take over the infield utility role, so that money could go elsewhere. And don’t forget about Nick Gordon too! With information on the minor leagues this year being sketchy, once we find out more about his development, he could be an immediate call for a back up role in Spring while Blankenhorn puts the finishing touches on his Minor League career. Both Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez will be their starters, but Gordon has the glove and the patience to be a valuable piece for rest days and late inning relief.
Overall, I don’t think the Twins will do a full on rebuild, but I don’t think they will ultimately bring the band back together either. I think somewhere in the middle is where they will find themselves, since they have the tools to still compete. With regards to their minor league system, here is my early speculation of when I think these prospects will get the call:
Opening Day – Brent Rooker, Jorge Alcala, Nick Gordon, Ryan Jeffers, Cody Stashak
May 1 – Jhoan Duran, Dakota Chalmers, Edwar Colina
All-Star Break – Travis Blankenhorn
September – Alex Kirilloff, Chris Vallimont
Dave Funnell covers the Minnesota Twins minor leagues for Prospects1500. Located just south of Toronto in the city of Hamilton, he's an hour away from Buffalo (and the Bisons). He's been a fan of baseball his entire life and doesn't have a favorite team, which hopefully gives way for objectivty in analysis. Dave is in multiple keeper fantasy baseball leagues and is active on Twitter at @sportz_nutt51.