2016 MLB season preview: Minnesota Twins
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 21: the Minnesota Twins.
2015 Record and Finish:
83–79 (.512), second place in American League Central (14th overall)
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
74–88 (.457), fifth place in AL Central
The Case For
In their first year under manager Paul Molitor, the Twins snapped a streak of four straight seasons with at least 92 losses and remained in the AL wild card hunt until the second-to-last day of the season. This time around, they'll go wire-to-wire with both righthander Ervin Santana, who missed the first 80 games of last season due to a PED suspension, and new rightfielder Miguel Sano, who bopped 18 homers in 80 games as a rookie. They might also get a full season of Byron Buxton, the consensus No. 2 prospect in the game and the likely Opening Day centerfielder given the trade of Aaron Hicks, with holdover Eddie Rosario (who's entering his age-24 season) and newcomer John Ryan Murphy (entering his age-25 season) augmenting the youth movement. Meanwhile, veteran Joe Mauer—whose production has sagged in two seasons since moving to first base—is using sunglasses to help combat vision problems that have lingered since the 2013 concussion that ended his catching career.
As for the pitching, the rotation can look forward to the arrival of righty Jose Berrios (one of the game's top prospects) at some point in the season, though he’ll start the year in the minors and will have to force his way to the Twin Cities given the depth of the rotation. Barring injuries, that starting five will consist of Santana, righties Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson and Tyler Duffey and either southpaw Tommy Milone or veteran righty Ricky Nolasco. In the bullpen, Glen Perkins should be able to resume closer duties after a bulging disc in his neck contributed to an 8.22 ERA in 7 2/3 innings in September, with power arms Kevin Jepsen and Trevor May in support.
The Case Against
Last year's Twins were a lousy offensive team, ranking dead last in the league in on-base percentage (.305) and in the bottom four in both batting average and slugging percentage (.247 and .399, respectively). Sano (146 OPS+) was the only player substantially above league average, with six regulars or part-timers in the 95–104 range, all but one of whom (Hicks) is returning. Buxton has tremendous upside, but he struggled mightily (.209/.250/.326 in 138 plate appearances) in his first exposure to major league pitching, and Rosario's 7.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .289 OBP were both appalling. At least to start the season, it appears that Murphy will take a back seat to Kurt Suzuki, who's not only a poor hitter but also one of the game's worst pitch framers.
As ever, the Twins will struggle to miss bats. The team ranked last in the league in strikeouts, with back-rotation candidates Duffey and Nolasco the only ones to whiff even 7.0 per nine; Perkins, Jepsen and May were the only relievers who topped 8.0 per nine. Fewer missed bats mean more balls in play, and that isn't necessarily a plus for a team that was tied for the league's fourth-worst defensive efficiency mark (.687) and tied for third worst in Defensive Runs Saved (-21). The potential improvement offered by a full-time Buxton could be offset at least somewhat by the learning curve that Sano must scale in rightfield, though to be fair, Torii Hunter was rather brutal there (-8 DRS) in his final season before retirement.
X-Factor: Phil Hughes, SP
Hughes was a revelation in his first year in Minnesota, setting career bests with a 3.52 ERA in 209 2/3 innings and leading the league in both home run rate (0.7 per nine) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (11.6, a record). The Twins were so happy with his performance that they converted the final two years of his initial three-year, $24 million deal into a new five-year, $58 million deal. While his salary was still a comparatively modest $9.2 million in 2015, he wasn't exactly a bargain.
Between tinkering with his repertoire and arm slot, losing five weeks in August and September due to a back injury and shedding around two mph in velocity, Hughes was a different pitcher. In just 155 1/3 innings, he led the league in homers allowed (29, a rate of 1.7 per nine), and his strikeout rate plummeted from 8.0 per nine to 5.4. His ERA rose by nearly a run to 4.40, and his FIP rose by more than two runs, from 2.65 to 4.70; meanwhile, his Wins Above Replacement sank from 4.3 to 1.8. Had he replicated that 2014 season, the Twins would have been within a whisker of the second wild-card spot, as the Astros finished just three wins ahead.
Which Hughes will the Twins get? The question is all too familiar to Yankees fans, for sure. Like Josh Beckett and Bruce Bochy's Giants, Hughes has fallen into a pattern of being good in even-numbered years (averaging 192 innings, a 3.94 ERA and 2.7 WAR in 2010, '12 and '14) and lousy in odd ones (averaging 125 innings, a 4.98 ERA and 0.4 WAR in '11, '13 and '15). To his credit, he showed up to camp having lost a reported 15–18 pounds, but it's too early to tell whether he can reclaim the mantle of staff ace. Obviously, the Twins' chances of contending are much better if he does.
Number To Know: 2.76
That's Mauer's rate of ground balls to fly balls in 2015, a career high and well above his career mark of 1.99. Unfortunately, that's not a good thing at all, because Mauer's inability to get the ball off the ground translated into a career-worst .265/.338/.380 line and a 96 OPS+, the first time in his 12 seasons that he'd been below league average. On the 275 ground balls that Mauer put into play, he hit just .207 and slugged .215, lacking enough mustard even to meet his career marks of .248 and .258, respectively. On the 206 line drives and fly balls he produced, however, he hit .483 and slugged .811—numbers right in line with his career marks (.487 and .813, respectively).
As noted above, Mauer finally conceded that the foul tip-induced concussions that drove him out from behind the plate were causing blurred vision and difficulty tracking pitches, saying, "There are times I’ve gone up to the plate and I just couldn’t pick up the ball." If the sunglasses he's using can help him track pitches better, he can back off his attempts to pull the ball more often, which didn't bear much fruit. Where the average AL lefty hit .330 and slugged .610 when pulling the ball, Mauer hit .298 and slugged just .412. On the other hand, where the average AL lefty hit .322 and slugged .478 when going to the opposite field, even this less-than-mint Mauer hit .420 and slugged .636. He just needs to do it more often.
Most Overrated: Trevor Plouffe, 3B
"He's an okay third baseman, but they think he's a power bat. He hit 22 home runs last year, but he didn't hit all that much [for average]. They're counting on him to be a big-time player, but I don't think he is, personally."
Most Underrated: Brian Dozier, 2B
"Dozier is a great, underrated player, an All-Star second baseman because his offense is so good, and he works so hard on defense."