I came across an interesting post on Fangraphs.com recently, one that really reflects the Twins’ team-building strategy, at least for 2016. It’s titled “The Hidden Moves of the Offseason,” and it’s basically a reminder that acquiring players from outside the organization — via trades and free-agent signings — may be what monopolizes your attention (and your emotions) over the winter, but it’s not the only factor that improves a team.
In short: Some players get better. Some get a lot better.
In an offseason with only one notable trade (Hicks for Murphy) and one free-agent signing (Byung Ho Park) by the Twins, it’s clear that general manager Terry Ryan and his staff are banking on their young players taking big steps forward this year, a not-indefensible gamble — but a gamble nevertheless. As their experience with Aaron Hicks, Danny Santana and Alex Meyer reveals, just in the past couple of seasons alone, high hopes and everyday playing time don’t always turn highly touted prospects into solid major leaguers.
Yet Ryan has chosen to stay the course with his farm system this winter, unwilling to deal away any young talent or block that talent’s progression by adding free agents. We can debate the Twins’ motivation for the ultra-patient blueprint, but there is little doubt that if it works, the benefits of winning with homegrown talent could be enormous.
So that Fangraphs article held some encouraging news for Twins fans: By their projections, the Twins stand to be one of MLB’s biggest beneficiaries of organic improvement this season. In a chart accompanying the story, the Twins rank eighth in expected improvement by returning players, adding more than 2 1/2 Wins Above Replacement from offensive players who were in uniform last season.
That doesn’t necessarily translate into an improved record over last year’s 83-79, given the improvements that other teams have made. And you should take the sabermetric site’s “Steamer” projections for what they’re worth —they can’t foresee injuries or playing-time changes — but they’re at least a somewhat-educated guess about what the Twins’ roster might produce this season. And they’re certainly intriguing.
For one thing, all that improvement from the regulars comes, the site projects, despite some moderate steps backwards by Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe, two of the Twins’ most reliable veterans. The projections see Dozier regressing from 3.4 WAR last year, a borderline All-Star, to 2.7, probably a reflection of his late-season slump. Plouffe loses 40 percent of his value, the projections say, going from 2.5 WAR to 1.5, with his defense being especially problematic.
The biggest predicted dropoff, however, belongs to Eddie Rosario, the 24-year-old outfielder who faces a severe sophomore slump, according to Fangraphs. Rosario produced 2.3 WAR last year, but that number will tumble to 1.0 this year, the projections say, with his lack of plate discipline (just 15 walks last year) catching up to him.
The good news? Well, it’s pretty obvious: Miguel Sano is expected to play six months, not just three. His WAR of 2.0 in three months last season jumps to a projected 3.4 in 2016, and that’s despite a sizable penalty for his defense as he learns to play right field. More specifically, those “Steamer” projections say the Twins can expect 32 homers, 27 doubles and yes, a franchise-record 174 strikeouts.
Byron Buxton has a similarly rosy future, the projections say, contributing 1.5 WAR this season. Most of the value comes from defense, since the system expects him to hit just .258 with a .309 on-base percentage, but the Twins would take that after a disappointing (and injury-plagued) minus-.5 debut in 2015.
Also expected to improve: Joe Mauer, from .3 WAR last year to 1.3 in 2016, and Kurt Suzuki, bouncing back from a minus-.1 season to add .8 WAR. And Oswaldo Arcia, a washout last season, is projected to hit 11 home runs in 248 plate appearances, a .4 WAR contribution that could make him a major leaguer again.
Pitching is even harder to project, so I won’t break down the numbers. Safe to say, though, that fangraphs’ site sees a comeback season from Phil Hughes, a standard full season from Ervin Santana, and even some value from Ricky Nolasco, along with a bit of regression from Kyle Gibson.
The point is, it may be too optimistic to predict much improvement in the Twins’ record this year, with so many players lacking extensive experience. But it’s not hard to envision the Twins’ gamble on improvement from within showing signs of paying off this season.