The Twins enter Opening Day hoping to post a winning record in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008-2010. They will begin that quest without ace Ervin Santana for a month or two, and without shortstop Jorge Polanco for 80 games.
Polanco’s suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs damaged the team’s depth and fielding range, and prompted stereotypical responses from Minnesota fans who often expect the worst out of their most promising teams.
Santana’s injury and Polanco’s suspension are worthy of angst, but there is a rational way to optimistically view the beginning of the Twins’ 2018 campaign:
On paper or your favorite web page, these Twins are a much better team today than they were when they surged into the playoffs last summer, even without their ace and shortstop.
Remember, last year’s team used 36 pitchers, and one of them was Bartolo Colon.
The Twins ranked 19th in baseball in team ERA. They survived because of Santana’s regular-season efficiency, Kyle Gibson’s late-season surge, the rise of Jose Berrios and an illogical number of patched-together outings that proved just good enough to support a talented young lineup.
Their 2017 season ranks as a minor miracle, and a credit to manager Paul Molitor and clubhouse leader Brian Dozier.
Molitor should have much more to work with this year.
Even without Santana, the 2018 Twins will begin the season with a four-man rotation of Jake Odorizzi, Berrios, Lance Lynn and Gibson, a marked upgrade at the most important position in the game.
For years, the Twins counted on Gibson becoming an ace or No. 2 starter. The acquisitions of Odorizzi and Lynn mean that Gibson can be an asset simply by providing competent innings.
For most of this decade, the Twins have been forced to rely on any young starting pitcher displaying either savvy or stuff. The presence of Odorizzi and Lynn means that a talent like Fernando Romero can spend April in the minors, even though he may have as much upside as anyone in the organization.
Fernando Rodney should be at least as effective as departed closer Matt Belisle. Addison Reed and Zach Duke give the Twins veteran setup men to blend in with Trevor Hildenberger and Taylor Rogers.
It is safe to say that Colon’s services will not be required this season. The Twins’ pitching, given reasonable health, should improve.
But will the position-playing kids?
That may be the key question for this team. The Twins went 33-21 after Aug. 5 last year, largely because their young position players turned in dominant performances.
Their talent is undeniable, but few of those players have produced a full, excellent, big-league season.
Miguel Sano has yet to hit 30 home runs, drive in 80 runs or play in 120 games.
Byron Buxton and Polanco played like stars for half a season.
Max Kepler has much to prove as an everyday player. Until he can hit lefthanded pitching, he will not be the five-tool star the Twins expected him to be.
Logan Morrison has produced one outstanding big-league season.
The lineup features as many as seven players who can hit 20 or more home runs, but the only players who can be counted on to produce similar numbers on a yearly basis reside on the right side of the infield.
Given reasonable health, Dozier will reliably produce power, speed and excellent glovework, and Joe Mauer can be counted on for quality at-bats and a deft glove, as well as a lack of power.
Former Twins manager Tom Kelly resolutely withheld praise of young players until they performed well for two consecutive years or more. “Back it up,’’ he’d say, after Chuck Knoblauch or Marty Cordova won a Rookie of the Year award.
Back it up. That should be the rallying cry of the 2018 Twins, in their quest to produce a second consecutive winning season for the first time since Carl Pavano was their ace and Jon Rauch was their closer.