The Twins are in respectable shape for the 2018 season, considering what is likely to occur in the American League Central. Cleveland is not yet in position to lose important players, so it will remain the dominant force.
After that, Detroit will be in the same, frightful rebuild mode that was visible over the final weeks of this season, and Kansas City stands to lose four of its most-important players to free agency.
The White Sox should be a step ahead of Detroit and Kansas City in their do-over, and Chicago could threaten .500 next season.
That said, the Twins will be favored to finish second in the Central again next season, and when you finish second, there’s a strong chance to return to the wild-card round.
There does seem to be considerably more substance to this winning season, 85-77, than was the case when the Twins popped up with an 83-79 record and were in wild-card contention in 2015.
That was followed by the 59-103 dreadfulness of 2016, when the pitching was horrid, the fielding was frightful, the base running was ridiculous and the hitting was inadequate.
I heard a usually astute observer from the FSN crew suggesting a couple of weeks ago that 2016 was the outlier in an upward climb by the Twins. Nope. Those 103 losses were well-deserved with ineptitude in all four areas.
This was the first real sign of substance for a turnaround – as was 2001 (also 85-77) for the Twins that wound up winning six division titles in the next nine years. I’m not forecasting such a thing, not with the Indians still around and the White Sox on a rise in the division, but this team does have something important going for it:
The outfield of Rosario, Buxton and Kepler is exceptional, and the second and third names on that list will be better hitters in 2018. The infield veterans on the right side, Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer, are just fine for the season ahead. Jorge Polanco’s ability to survive and then grow at shortstop put a plug in a long-term hole. And Eduardo Escobar was absolutely wonderful, particularly once he took over at third base down the stretch.
The brain trust is convinced the catching part is much more important behind the plate than hitting, so the Twins will remain tied to Jason Castro. I’m betting they also bring back Chris Gimenez, even though Mitch Garver is ready for the big leagues.
The Twins must upgrade in two areas to have a chance against the Yankees (even in one game) or any other playoff-quality team next October. The first of those is obvious:
They need a minimum of two starting pitchers. Prospect Stephen Gonsalves might be one. They have to get another.
They also need a couple of live arms in the bullpen. One of those could be Ryan Pressly, if someone can fix his control and also his pitch selection in clutch situations.
You still would need another power arm who doesn’t require tricking hitters – someone who can come in and blow hitters away. I’m not saying you can find five of those guys, like the Yankees currently possess, but you need a couple in today’s baseball, to go with Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger and, yes, battling Matt Belisle.
And here’s the other thing the Twins need to compete more fully in 2018:
Somebody to get to Miguel Sano.
Somebody to convince this 290-pound man how great he can feel and more athletic he can be at 265.
Somebody to get through to Sano that striking out 12 times a week is not a necessity to be a power hitter. Somebody to convince him that if he stays on the pitch away and merely swats it to right center, as did Miguel Cabrera as one of the all-time great right-handed hitters, as did Aaron Judge as he became the Yankees’ phenomenal behemoth, that all of Sano’s money-making numbers will go up and that abysmal strikeout total will shrink to something like 160 (for a full season).
James Rowson did a lot of fine work as the Twins’ rookie hitting coach. Rowson also received accolades from Judge for his help when James was with the Yankees organization.
What Rowson wasn’t able to do in 2017 was get to Sano … not from what I saw, anyway. Sano hasn’t listened to anyone with the Twins in a serious way.
Sano fouled a ball of his left shin in the middle of August and wasn’t ready to catch up with a fastball or run to first base by the time the wild-card game was played on Tuesday night.
Why wasn’t he on the roster? He wasn’t ready to play, not as a DH or pinch-hitter. Period.
Assuming he’s back next season as what he was for 4 ½ months -- a slugger, a strikeout machine, OK at third base, still 290 pounds -- the Twins can have a good club, one capable of reaching and probably losing another wild-card road game.
And if someone gets to Sano, convinces him of all that is there for him if he shapes up in several areas, the Twins can win in the 90s* and be playing the next wild-card game at Target Field.
*Note: That’s based on also adding two starters and two relievers.