FIVE STORY LINES FOR THE TWINS SEASON
Will the baseballs be homer-friendly again?
Few teams have ever been as dependent upon home runs as the 2019 Twins. They scored a franchise-record 939 runs, and a whopping 51% of them, 481 in all, were driven in by homers. Five members of the starting lineup reached career highs, and eight of them hit more than 20.
The Twins then doubled down on the strategy, adding Josh Donaldson and his 30-homer power to the mix, giving them potentially the most fearsome lineup in franchise history.
It wasn’t only the Twins who were bashing the baseball, though. A total of 6,776 homers were hit around the game, 601 more than ever before. Some of that is undoubtedly an analytics-driven emphasis on swinging for the fences, but suspicions about the composition of the baseball itself were widespread, though difficult to quantify and never admitted by MLB. A reduction in the ball’s flight performance — not to mention, an off year by one or more of the Twins’ power hitters — could impact the Twins more than most.
Is Twins’ transition from a young rotation to an old one wise?
Derek Falvey added three new starting pitchers to the Twins’ rotation during the offseason, and they have one thing in common: experience. Rich Hill, Homer Bailey and Kenta Maeda have a combined 40 seasons of big-league experience (including Maeda’s eight years in Japan’s top league), turning a rotation that had one starter older than 30 (the now-departed Kyle Gibson) last year into one that, at least initially, will probably start only one pitcher, Jose Berrios, younger than 30.
“We’ve got some guys who have done just about everything you can do in baseball, and that experience can be really helpful when you get into circumstances that you’ve never seen before, like we have this year,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “These are guys who aren’t going to be rattled by anything you throw at them. … And it’s like having teachers in the clubhouse, sharing their knowledge.”
They’re suddenly deep with starters, too, given that Michael Pineda will return on Aug. 31, and that Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer proved last season they are more-than-competent fill-ins.
How will new rules impact the Twins?
Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson’s ability to slot the right relief pitcher into each situation will be an interesting story line, considering the three-batter minimum goes into effect this week, but they are helped by the presence of some pitchers with reverse tendencies: Lefty Taylor Rogers, for instance, was better at getting righthanders out last season, and new righthander Tyler Clippard has a long history of foiling lefthanders.
They’ll also have 30 players on their roster until Aug. 7, and 28 until Aug. 21, a supply that should allow Baldelli to employ his strategy of regular days off for his players, a factor that could become more important during a hectic 60-games-in-66-days schedule. Look for the manager to find starts for Dobnak and Smeltzer in order to give extra rest to his veteran rotation.
Baldelli also said he and bench coach Mike Bell have discussed the new extra-inning rule, which places a runner on second base to start every half-inning after the ninth, but he has reached no specific strategy about it. Some teams have mulled using pinch runners in those cases, and several figure to employ sacrifice bunts. The Twins, though, don’t have much speed or proven bunting ability on their bench.
Is the defense good enough?
The Twins’ powerful offense disguised a defense that ranked among the lower half of the American League last season, but there is reason to believe it will be improved in 2020. Most noticeable is the presence of Josh Donaldson, one of the most consistent third basemen in the league, to take over from Miguel Sano, who was statistically one of the worst. Sano moves to first base, where his mobility is less of an issue (but his strong arm is less of an asset), and his development will be an important project.
Improvement with experience by shortstop Jorge Polanco and second baseman Luis Arraez is likely, too. But the linchpin of the Twins’ defense, as always, is a healthy Byron Buxton. Starting the season with a sprained foot isn’t a great sign, especially since the Twins have only two off days before September. But Buxton’s presence not only turns extra-base hits into long outs, it seems to have a positive effect on pitchers’ approaches.
What does a nine-week season feel like?
Every year, players spend seven weeks in spring training and complain it’s too long. This year, they will spend only a couple more weeks than that playing a regular season, and it undoubtedly will feel like it’s over in a flash. There will be 39 games in the first 41 days, no fans in the seats to raise the intensity level, and a daily reality of masks, sanitizers and rules.
“I’m really proud of how well our players have adapted to this unusual year,” Baldelli said. “We definitely have a mind-set of, whatever we need to do, we’re going to get it done so we can be successful.”
More than ever before, that means being successful away from the ballpark, too, to keep the coronavirus from infecting the clubhouse. The players are tested for the virus every other day, all but quarantined at their road hotels, and constantly reminded of the circumstances that have suddenly changed modern life. Would winning a championship, as they were openly targeting in Fort Myers, mean as much after a nine-week season?
“I think it would,” Baldelli said, “just because of everything you’d have to go through to get there.”