The legendary publication, Sports Illustrated, included a 60-page baseball preview in its March 25 edition. A major surprise in the “How They’ll Finish” predictions was that the Twins would win the AL Central with a 90-72 record, one game in front of three-time defending champion Cleveland.
There were several more first-place forecasts for the Twins to be found with other national outlets. The assumption here was that the Cleveland lineup had been degraded during the offseason to the point that these observers were looking for any option to the Indians.
And with the White Sox, Royals and Tigers as the other options, there was nowhere to turn but the Twins, the second-place finisher in 2018 with a 78-84 record.
The Twins and the Indians wound up a series to open the season at Target Field on Sunday, and the No. 1 takeaway has to be this:
Without radical changes to its lineup, it’s not going to take 90 wins to unseat Cleveland in the AL Central — more like the 83 the Cardinals used to win the NL Central in 2006 (before also winning the World Series).
The 2018 season for Cleveland ended in a three-game sweep vs. Houston on Oct. 8. The lineup for the final game was: Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, Yandy Diaz, Brandon Guyer, Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis.
When Cleveland opened here on Thursday, the lineup was: Leonys Martin, Ramirez, Tyler Naquin, Carlos Santana, Hanley Ramirez, Jake Bauers, Roberto Perez, Brad Miller and Eric Stamets.
The Indians are without Lindor, one of the half-dozen best players in the big leagues, and Kipnis, not close to what he used to be, because of injuries. Beyond that, six players from the postseason lineup are gone, replaced by players on the downslide or nobodies.
Manager Terry Francona’s imploded lineup was helpless against Jose Berrios on Thursday, helpless against Jake Odorizzi on Saturday, and helpless for four innings against Michael Pineda on Sunday. The large man needed 40 pitches to get 12 outs, and then the Twins stuck to the pregame plan — hooking Pineda after four to get some work for future fifth starter Martin Perez.
One thing about these new Twins deep thinkers, folks:
They are going to stick with the plan, even if it makes as much sense as the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts sticking with the plan to hook pitcher Rich Hill and turning the World Series over to Boston last fall.
The Twins were leading 3-0 when Pineda left, then put up five runs in the fifth and finished a 9-3 victory that gave them the series, two games to one.
Cleveland was in extra innings with the Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series in 2016. The Indians gave it a shot again in the past two postseasons, and they still have the best top-to-bottom rotation in baseball with Cory Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and 23-year-old Shane Bieber.
The Indians are at the end of the line in controlling those pitchers, and this should have been the last, best shot at winning a World Series for the first time since 1948. Instead, owner Larry Dolan decided to downsize and wound up with this subpar lineup … which can’t be sitting well with Francona.
The manager’s frustrations came out in the eighth. The Twins’ Willians Astudillo had two doubles and a sacrifice fly. And then Bieber’s first pitch of the eighth drilled our folk hero, Wondrous Willie, under his left arm.
A day earlier, Nelson Cruz was hit by Bauer and complained about all of Cleveland’s inside pitches. Rocco Baldelli, the rookie Twins manager, was not happy Sunday about the one-sided nature of batters being hit and brushed back.
He was composed, as has been his style in daily interview sessions since the middle of February, but peeved — as indicated by this:
“It’s not something we as players and staff take kindly to. … When our guys continually get thrown at or near, these things are hard to forget.”
Astudillo was the Twins’ third starting catcher in the three games. He hammered a pair of doubles to left-center, hustled to back up first base and get an out, and then was hit by Bieber.
There were hints in the clubhouse that Astudillo was hot about this, but when asked later why he was hit, he said:
“I don’t think about it. Maybe it slipped out of his hand.”
No one in Target Field believed that. And a lot of us didn’t believe what Sports Illustrated suggested about the AL Central, not until seeing in person Cleveland’s current lineup.
It’s so bad right now Lindor might not be able to save it.