MILWAUKEE – As the 61st season of Twins baseball begins Thursday afternoon, Minnesota is predicted to be easily among the top ten teams in the majors, with many expecting a three-peat as AL Central champions.
To achieve such status, the club has steadily beefed up its roster with proven talent.
They signed designated hitter Nelson Cruz before the 2019 season, traded for righthander Kenta Maeda and signed third baseman Josh Donaldson before the 2020 season and now have wonderglove shortstop Andrelton Simmons set to make his Twins debut.
The results: A 101-win season in 2019, a second consecutive AL Central title in 2020 and lofty expectations for 2021.
Cruz has been a smash hit, a study in preparation and preservation. Maeda sparkled as he pitched to his potential. Donaldson was limited because of calf problems, but the fire he brings in undeniable. And Simmons has no peers defensively. The Twins have a .617 winning percentage over the past two seasons and seek more of the same in 2021.
Let's not forget where this all began. While President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine have made the moves to make the Twins a contender, a core of players produced through the Twins farm system were the foundation for this success.
Those four are first baseman Miguel Sano, outfielders Byron Buxton and Max Kepler and infielder Jorge Polanco. Eddie Rosario used to be in this group, but the Twins didn't view him to be worth the $10 million he could have received in arbitration and non-tendered him during the offseason. And you can also include righthander Jose Berrios, their best homegrown starting pitcher since Matt Garza — and, yes, that is a noticeable developmental gap.
The core four position players who remain are essential to not just the Twins sustaining their success in the division but also vital to ending their record 18-game postseason losing streak.
Sano, Kepler and Polanco were all international signings in 2009, and are now under multiyear contracts. Sano and Buxton were fishing buddies as they recovered from injuries in the minors. Kepler and Polanco roomed together their first year as professionals.
Kepler is 28, the other three are 27. All four should be disappointed about their 2020 seasons, and prepare to perform as the core they are supposed to be in 2021.
Sano batted .203 last season while leading the majors with 90 strikeouts. His on base-plus-slugging percentage of .757 dropped precipitously from .923 in 2019. For a change, Sano did not have an offseason fraught with peril and was able to work on his swing.
Buxton's career has been hampered because of injuries. Last season was no different; he was limited to 39 games because of a mid-foot sprain early and concussion symptoms late. When healthy, he tantalized everyone with 13 home runs and an .844 OPS. Buxton added 21 pounds of muscle this offseason to try and expand his power numbers, while trying to play more than 87 games for the first time since 2017.
After playing in the 2019 All-Star Game, Polanco slumped to a .658 OPS in 2020 before having offseason surgery to remove a bone spur and chip from his right ankle, the second consecutive offseason surgery on the same ankle. The arrival of Simmons means Polanco will try to rebound as a second baseman.
Kepler looked headed for stardom in 2019 with 36 homers, 90 RBI and a .855 OPS, but he hit .228 with nine homers, 23 RBI and a .760 OPS last summer. Kepler hit .293 against lefties in 2019 but plummeted to .128 last season and is searching for answers.
Coming off these dismal stats, how did these lads respond in camp?
Sano batted .156 in 18 spring training games with 22 strikeouts. He did draw an eight-pitch walk and hit a long home run in one of his final games.
Buxton batted .158 with one homer, one stolen base and 10 strikeouts. But the new muscles look fabulous.
Polanco actually batted .282 with a .391 on-base percentage. Some believe his ankle problems affected his lefthanded hitting the most.
Kepler, in 17 spring training games, batted .067 with two runs, three hits and zero Zoom interview sessions with local media.
Not encouraging numbers for a group of hitters entering their primes, some of the leaders of an offense that was tied for 18th in runs scored in the majors last season.
Then again, as Opening Day arrives, they have a chance to prove what I've spent the last week telling panicked Twins fans: Spring training numbers predict nothing.
La Velle E. Neal III's season outlook for Twins
Final record: 93-69. There will be injuries and they will likely have to address the bullpen during the season, but Rocco Baldelli's Twins teams know how to grind through a season. After bringing in proven veterans such as Josh Donaldson and Kenta Maeda before the 2020 season, they've worked on building depth this past offseason and it should help.
Best-case scenario: Maeda and Jose Berrios form one of the better one-two punches in the league. Mitch Garver, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler have bounce-back seasons. Donaldson and Byron Buxton stay relatively healthy and perform close to expectations.
Worst-case scenario: Berrios doesn't take the next step in his development. Donaldson and Buxton are limited through injuries. Nelson Cruz's inevitable decline begins. Sano breaks Mark Reynolds' season-single strikeout record while struggling to catch up with good fastballs.