If you’re looking for a reason why the Twins were swept by the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series look no further than their injuries.
A lot was made of the Yankees struggles with injuries this season but their lineup and pitching staff was mostly healthy, and it showed.
But for the Twins, the injuries to Max Kepler and Mitch Garver, which kept them sidelined toward the end of the regular season, never got fully healed.
Kepler went 0-for-10 with three walks and three strikeouts in three games. Garver finished 2-for-12 with one RBI and two hits but also struck out five times.
Those two players accounted for 67 home runs and 157 RBI during the regular season, but there’s no doubt they weren’t themselves in this series.
It also can’t be understated how much this team missed Byron Buxton in the field and on the base paths. And now three of his previous four seasons have been cut short by injury.
The Twins also clearly missed Michael Pineda, who wasn’t injured but ruined his season when he was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. He had gone 7-1 with a 2.76 ERA over 11 starts and 65⅓ innings before his suspension.
Not having a starter like that put the Twins in the position of having to use untested pitchers like Randy Dobnak, Cody Stashak and Zack Littell for huge innings in Yankee Stadium.
Of course, whether or not they should have pitched in New York is a question for manager Rocco Baldelli and the front office to think about over the course of the offseason.
Instead of having a third starter like Pineda eat up innings, Dobank and Devin Smeltzer threw the third and fourth most innings for the Twins in the ALDS.
But as the team looks forward to the 2020 season, the fact is they should have players like Buxton, Kepler and Garver fully healthy for spring training.
Falvey has flexibility
The Twins have one thing going for them as they enter the offseason far sooner than they wanted, and that’s flexibility.
Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said this week that the club is setup to build on the foundation they laid this season.
“I think that we have a really good club coming back next year,” he said. “I would say that when you look around our position players, a lot of these guys are under club control and part of our team next year. We have continued flexibility and work to do on the pitching side, as we continue to add some names to that list.
“I have said this before and I will say it again, [owner] Jim Pohlad supported every step that we have made around investing in this club. It led to the club we had on the field this year and we’ll continue to build and add to it as we go into the offseason.”
One big questions is what the Twins will do to build their pitching staff as Pineda, Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson are unrestricted free agents. Those three pitchers threw 465 innings, 31.8% of the team’s total innings.
But they will have salary cap space. After spending $124.8 million on payroll in 2019 on 37 players, their current payroll for 2020 is $38.6 million for 22 players. But that number will jump dramatically with arbitration.
Falvey said that the team has a lot of players who were primarily in the minors that could be big contributors next season.
“[Brusdar] Graterol and some of our young pitching, we saw glimpses of what they can do in the last month of baseball here,” he said. “Beyond that we still feel really great about guys like Nick Gordon, who went through some ups and downs this year in terms of health and trying to get him back on the field at full strength.
“You go down to Double-A [Pensacola] and see that team that made the playoffs in that league and guys like Jhoan Duran and other pitchers, Edwar Colina threw really well for us.
“In addition to the likes of Alex Kirilloff and Royce Lewis and others who we talk so much about, I think the guys like Trevor Larnach and Ryan Jeffers and others, we can be excited about that group tracking here and hopefully over the next couple of seasons they are showing up and helping us, along with the guys that we already have.”
The front office may also look to sign players like Buxton, Garver, Miguel Sano, and Eddie Rosario to long-term deals, like they did with Kepler and Jorge Polanco this season.
“We actually have already started our process with a lot of our people in the front office and our scouts of preparing for the offseason,” Falvey said. “That is a focus for us right from the get-go. We want to continue to add to this team, and I have no doubt that we will. We feel that the start of this year and what we’ve done in winning this division, we can build off that going forward.”
Gophers are on fire
Through two Big Ten contests, the Gophers rank third in conference play in scoring offense (39.0) and seventh in scoring defense (24.0). They also rank fourth in rushing with 212 yards per game and second in passing with 275.5 yards per game.
This team is on fire and P.J. Fleck’s squad opened as seven point favorites against Nebraska, and this offense is as good as any recent Gophers team.
In their 38-31 win over Purdue two weeks ago, it was their passing attack that shined. They threw for 396 yards while only rushing for 92. But in their 40-17 win over Illinois on Saturday, they dominated the run game for 332 yards and only needed 155 passing yards.
Fleck said that balance is a big key to their success going forward, and he said it all starts with an offensive line that features Sam Schlueter (redshirt junior), Blaise Andries (redshirt sophomore), Conner Olson (redshirt junior), Curtis Dunlap Jr. (redshirt freshman) and Daniel Faalele (sophomore).
“There is not a senior upfront,” Fleck said. “There is a lot of people who know exactly what we do and how we do it. I thought [against Illinois] having the pass soften up the run helped. Then when you have to be able to rely on the run in a game like last week [against Purdue], I thought our guys did a great job of dominating the line of scrimmage.
“That is what you need to be able to win football games in the Big Ten, in my opinion, especially when you get into late October and November. You have to be able to run the football. I think we are getting better. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re getting better.”.