For the 2016 Minnesota Twins, that’s the big question. Will they contend in 2016? After winning 83 games in 2015 and surprising pretty much everyone, except maybe themselves, by being in the hunt for the playoffs until the final series of the season, can the Minnesota Twins build off of that and make it to the postseason dance in 2016? We do know they enjoy dancing!
The Twins competed in 2015. First year Manager Paul Molitor was a big part of that. He got his players to believe they could compete with and beat any team in the league. They appeared to have that never say die attitude in every game and kept playing hard no matter what. That compete level might be the biggest thing for any team or player. When the Twins were losing 90+ games a season not so long ago, they didn’t look like a team that believed they could win. Once they got down a few runs, their heads would lower and the confidence to come back was not there.
Mike Zimmer, head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, has talked about every team going through 4 Stages of Success or 4 “learns”, Learning How to Compete, How to Win, How to Handle Winning and How to be a Champion. At the time, early November of 2015, Coach Zimmer said the Vikings were between stages 2 & 3, learning how to win and how to handle winning. He also said his team wasn’t “tight or a nervous kind of team. They’re confident but focused on the job.” The Twins might be in exactly the same position as the Vikings were about 5 months ago and we saw how that turned out, a division championship and pushing the reigning champs to the edge of defeat. This Twins team doesn’t just want to win, they expect to win.
The biggest reason this team is ready to contend is they have more and better depth in all areas. Some of that depth might be younger players who are still learning the game at this level but they are ready. They have nothing to prove in the minors anymore. When injuries hit like they always do, that depth will come in handy. They still have plenty of prospects too. Some good players were sent down to the minors. The AAA Rochester Red Wings could have a very good season in the young Twins prospects keep developing like they have up to this point.
*Going Deep has multiple meanings. Of course there’s Going Deep as in hitting the ball out of the park. There’s Going Deep as in the Twins having more depth this season than they’ve had in a long time. Then there’s Going Deep as in Deep as getting down and dirty on how this Twins team will do in 2016!
Better Starting Rotation
We’ll get a full season of Ervin Santana, a rebound year from a lighter Phil Hughes, another year of Kyle Gibson improving, a full year of Tommy Milone and maybe a year of Ricky Nolasco actually earning his money. That means the Twins had to send Tyler Duffey, who was probably the Twins best pitcher down the stretch last season, to AAA. They still have Jose Berrios waiting in the wings and he is very close to being ready if or when the rotation falters or injuries hit.
The Bullpen Will be Better
I said will, not is! It might not happen immediately. They are better than what the Twins had at the beginning of last season and they can be good. That bullpen last season overachieved in a lot of ways, especially early in the season. You still can’t believe how good Blaine Boyer was pitching. Aaron Thompson was pitching great too. The bullpen was a reason for a lot of losses last season. Those losses loom large knowing the Twins missed the playoffs by 3 games.
The Twins will start 2016 with Glen Perkins as the closer once again but they now have Kevin Jepson as a setup man along with a healthy Casey Fien and Trevor May as options from the right side. Ryan Pressly is also healthy again and an out of options Michael Tonkin is in a long relief role motivated to stay on the club. From the left side there’s Fernando Abad, who had a great 2014 then struggled in 2015. Can he get back to how he pitched in 2014? Or was that an outlier season? Is he a LOOGY (Lefty One Out Guy)? A 7th inning guy? Is he better than Brian Duensing as a lefty out of the pen? If he can get back to something resembling what he did in 2014, the Twins got themselves a nice lefty option in their bullpen.
That bullpen could get better as the season goes on as well. There’s some heat down on the farm very close to being ready. Those flamethrowers are the reason the Twins didn’t sign a free agent reliever to a long term deal. The amount of money those relievers were getting was a little bit crazy. You can probably thank the Kansas City Royals for that. KC’s bullpen has changed how teams view relievers. The Royals didn’t have great starting pitching but if those guys could get them through 6 innings, they would almost always close the door, saving the game or giving the Royals bats a chance to come back.
The Infield is Set
For the first time in a long time, the Minnesota Twins infield is set with four players that should be the starters for the whole season. There wasn’t any battles for 1st, 2nd, 3rd or SS in Spring Training. We can only hope that 1B Joe Mauer, 2B Brian Dozier, 3B Trevor Plouffe and SS Eduardo Escobar will be able to stay healthy all season long.
Joe Mauer is looking, with sunglasses on, for a rebound from his worst season in 2015 when he had career lows in batting average (.265), on-base % (.338) & OPS (on-base plus slugging %) (.718). He did play in a career high 158 games though. He’s still working his way back from his concussions that forced a move to first base. Did playing more and lingering concussion symptoms play a role in having a bad season? That’s incredibly hard to answer as concussions affect everyone differently depending on the severity of the concussion and how many they’ve had previously.
Brian Dozier is developing into a leader and could improve on his outstanding 2015 season. Could he top 30 HRs? We know he’s going to score runs as he is the most valuable baserunner in the American League. He plays gold glove caliber defense and he’ll keep dancing after Twins wins! Dancing! Dancing! DANCING!
Eduardo Escobar, after taking over the shortstop position the last two seasons, is finally getting the chance to be the starting shortstop for the Minnesota Twins right from the start of the season. He’s been a doubles machine and has shown unexpected power while playing above average defense. Can he do it for a full season now?
Trevor Plouffe will be the same solid 3rd baseman he’s made himself into through plain hard work. You’ll get some power and some clutch hits out of his bat as he will be in the cleanup spot most of the time. Will he have to deal with trade talk during the season? Paul Molitor & Terry Ryan believe Trevor is an important piece to this Twins teams. The obvious question is if there will ever be some Sano at 3rd base? It will depend on how Miguel does in right field.
Outfield of Dreams?
The Twins will start the 2016 season with an outfield of young prospects that could make for the most exciting outfield in the league. Eddie Rosario will be in left, Byron Buxton in center and Miguel Sano will take over right field. That young outfield should definitely bring some excitement at the plate, especially if Byron Buxton starts to show signs of how he’s performed offensively in the minors.
It didn’t take long for the league to see how legit the bat of Miguel Sano was as he pummeled pitches again and again to the tune of a .530 slugging percentage that included 18 HRs, 17 doubles and 1 triple! He hit .269 for average, .385 OBP and a .916 OPS in just 78 games or roughly half a season. He did have 119 strikeouts in those 78 games but he also had 53 walks. Will he be better in a full season? Will the switch to the outfield affect his at-bats? Will he be able to stay healthy playing the outfield?
Eddie Rosario lead the league in triples with 15 last season and was tied for 2nd in the league with 16 outfield assists. A low OBP and a high number of strikeouts is worrisome but Ed can flat out hit. This young outfield could make or break the Twins season.
In November, the Twins traded former 1st round pick Aaron Hicks to the New York Yankees for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy. They needed an upgrade at the catching position as Kurt Suzuki struggled in his 2nd year with the Twins and the backups were…well…backup catchers, meaning they provided very little offense and decent defense. The Twins got a catcher for the future in the 24-year-old Murphy, an everyday catcher according to the Yankees GM. Their bullpen coach, Gary Tuck said this about him:
“He’s different, he’s special. He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever had—and that’s 40 years of some of the greatest catchers who have ever been behind the plate,” said bullpen coach Gary Tuck, an ex-big league catcher and longtime catching instructor, to Dan Barbarisi back in May. “A championship player. And I don’t say that about many people. He’s right there—Joe Girardi, Jason Varitek, John Ryan Murphy. A championship player.”
That’s pretty good, huh?
Going Deep in Korean
The Twins went out and got Korean slugger Byung Ho Park as a right-handed bat with some power. He looked good in Spring Training adapting to a new country and a new league but, of course, it’s always difficult judging what a player does in Spring Training.
Byung Ho Park is a big reason why the Twins had to move Miguel Sano to the outfield but he could also be a big reason why the Twins can give Joe Mauer a break from playing in the field more often to see if that helps him come back from a career worst season.
The bottom line is it always comes down to pitching and the Twins have had trouble with pitching for a long time! If the rotation struggles early and the bullpen gets overworked, it could mean trouble. The offense looks good but there’s still some young pieces that could struggle in their second season in the Major Leagues.
I believe this team will compete. Brian Dozier will be the team leader on & off the field and they could take another step this season. It will be a fun season and this is just the start of something big for the Minnesota Twins!