The 2023 Twins season started with a theme that seemed hard to refute: If they were going to go anywhere this year, they would be carried by high-priced stars Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa.
Instead, both players slumped offensively, Buxton didn't play an inning in the outfield and both are on the injured list now.
That we are talking about how much they might be available and contribute in the postseason is a testament to some of the surprising players that have emerged this year. The top of the rotation has been even better than we might have guessed, as has Royce Lewis.
But the real story of the Twins' season is their depth. As such let's take a look at five of the unsung players who have keyed this season and have the Twins on the brink of an AL Central title — something I talked about on Thursday's Daily Delivery podcast.
Willi Castro: There's recency bias here, with Castro showing up all over these last two Twins wins in Cincinnati, but there is also a steadiness to his game that has served Minnesota well all season.
He was signed to a minor league deal in late December. In a similar sample and usage to what he had with Detroit in 2021 and 2022, Castro has produced an OPS (.735) about 100 points higher while providing defensive versatility and value. He's a symbol of a roster that has been much deeper this year than in the recent past, something for which Derek Falvey and Thad Levine deserve credit.
Matt Wallner: Finally called up for good in late July, Wallner has been the hitter the Twins thought Joey Gallo was and they hoped Trevor Larnach would be. He hits for power and draws walks, leading to an .850 OPS. He's been a key to the post-break offensive surge.
Michael A. Taylor: We probably should have known something was up with Buxton when the Twins traded for Taylor in January. But where would the Twins be without Taylor's excellent defense in center field and his surprising pop (20 homers in 359 plate appearances)? He's one of 11 Twins players in double-figures in home runs on a team with 218 total, but nobody has more than 22.
Bailey Ober: He started the year in the minors, but the Twins quickly reached down after early injuries to Kenta Maeda and Tyler Mahle. The year could have gone sideways at that point. Instead, Ober has posted a 3.66 ERA in 24 starts and even with some end-of-season struggles projects as a rotation mainstay for years to come.
Emilio Pagán: The Twins tendered Pagán a contract in November, which either surprised or outraged most fans. He was the symbol of a failed 2022 season after blowing so many leads — particularly against Cleveland.
Pagán had a 5.60 ERA in mid-May, and fan again howled. Since then, somewhat by default, the Twins have used him in a lot of big spots. And Pagán has delivered with a 2.27 ERA over the last four months. With other parts of the bullpen either injured or ineffective, he's been undeniably consistent and important.