The Twins front office and coaching staff knows this season is going to be unlike any other in franchise history as the team gets ready for Opening Day next week in Chicago against the White Sox.
Baseball fans will have to get used to seeing games played without fans in the stands and the Twins must prepare to face only nine different teams during the 60-game season.
But there is no doubt that everyone around this club wants to start playing, because this is the best lineup the Twins have ever fielded.
Yes, injuries are always a risk — as the Twins saw on Monday when they had a scare from Byron Buxton during an intrasquad scrimmage at Target Field — but after setting a ton of offensive records last season, this Twins lineup could be even better.
The Twins finished 2019 with the second-best record in club history (101-61). Their 307 home runs and 2,832 total bases were the most in baseball history and their 906 RBI were the 11th most in baseball history and the most since the 2007 Yankees drove in 929.
And while the team lost C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop, who combined to hit 48 homers and drive in 137, they added Josh Donaldson, the 2015 American League MVP who hit .259 last season for the Braves with 37 homers, 33 doubles and 94 RBI.
Just as important as acquiring Donaldson is that the club could get larger contributions from Buxton, Luis Arraez and Mitch Garver.
Buxton was hitting a career-high .262 with 30 doubles, 10 homers, 46 RBI and 48 runs scored through 87 games last season when he got injured.
Arraez, now 23 and the surprise star of last season, hit .334 and had more walks (36) than strikeouts (29) but played only 92 games.
Garver was the best-hitting catcher in baseball last year, posting 31 homers and a .273 average, but he also had only 359 plate appearances over 93 games.
No holes in lineup
The Twins have had better hitters on their rosters over the years, with greats such as Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett, Tony Oliva, Kent Hrbek, Joe Mauer, Rod Carew, Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter.
But from top to bottom, this club is hard to beat.
On Opening Day, the lineup could feature Garver at catcher, Miguel Sano at first base, Arraez at second, Jorge Polanco at shortstop, Donaldson at third base, Eddie Rosario in left field, Buxton in center and Max Kepler in right, with Nelson Cruz hitting as the designated hitter.
That lineup has no holes and will be trouble for any opposing pitcher.
And it doesn’t stop there. The bench will feature hitters such as Willians Astudillo, Marwin Gonzalez, Alex Avila, Jake Cave and Ehire Adrianza, all of them fully capable of playing a lot of games in 2020.
This club is going to need depth to get through even a shorter season, and they have that.
Derek Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations, said the team is already planning how to balance not only the 30-man roster, but the 30-man taxi squad training at CHS Field in St. Paul.
That roster, full of minor leaguers, could play a big role as well.
“Our focus is trying to figure out how do we build the team that’s going to give us the best chance to win from day one, but also give ourselves the chance to have depth when we need it,” Falvey said. “Independent of COVID, we know we’re going to have an injury or an issue we’re not anticipating today. How do we make sure we have as much depth as possible? We’re going to try and pick and select the best team we can with that 30, recognizing two weeks later we’ll be cutting that down artificially [to 28].
“There’s going to be some guys sent out with no one coming up and that’s going to be tough, and then two weeks later doing that again [to 26]. We’re just going to have to figure out how do we keep the best 60 available to us because we know we’ll need more than 30 through the season.”
Tight end talent
Pro Football Focus ranked the top tight end groups going into the 2020 NFL season and put the Vikings at No. 7 overall and first in the NFC North.
They wrote: “Minnesota has one of the best one-two punches in the league at tight end, with Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. Rudolph has a huge frame, and while there always feels like there should be more production in there, he’s had a solid nine-year career for the Vikings. Last season, Rudolph had the No. 13 receiving grade during the regular season (76.9), though his run blocking has tapered off in recent years, given that he has graded in the 50s in this department for four consecutive seasons.
“Smith brings a different skill set to the unit as more of an oversized receiver who can line up in the slot and make plays in space. He caught 39 passes for 350 yards [including postseason] as a rookie to go with a solid run-blocking grade of 65.4. Then there is 2018 fifth-rounder Tyler Conklin — and his 13 career catches — who will add depth to the group.”
• Big Ten Commissioner and former Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren told The State News, a student newspaper out of East Lansing, Mich., that the conference is still working on how to create a new schedule without nonconference games. “This is really where the work begins with the potential schedules that would be put together and all the operations, logistics, that data that need to be worked through,” Warren said. “So we don’t have that answer at this point in time, and that is something that we’re focusing on over the next couple weeks.”
• Former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, now assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the Bills, is getting a lot of notice as a potential head coaching candidate next season. Frazier has built the best defense in the NFL since he joined the Bills in 2017. That season, they ranked No. 26 in the league in total defense, allowing 355.1 yards per game. In 2018, they were No. 2 (294.1 ypg) and last season they were No. 3 (298.3 ypg).
• Former Martin County West High School pitcher Brandon Williamson is on the Mariners’ 60-man roster. The 6-6 lefthander was a second-round draft pick by the Mariners in 2019 after one season at TCU. He also spent two seasons at North Iowa Area Community College. Last season with the Mariners’ Class A farm team in Everett, Wash., he was 0-0 with a 2.35 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 15⅓ innings. Williamson got a reported signing bonus of $925,000 from the Mariners.