What kind of variance awaits the Twins for the rest of 2021?
The Twins probably think they made a statement with their series win over first place Kansas City, and maybe the thought is what matters. The offense started to formulate into something frightening for opposing pitchers, lengthened by the returns of Kepler and Simmons, as well as the improvements from Garver and Polanco, and continued breakout of Buxton. All of a sudden the bullpen doesn’t need to be that good for the team to win. They are still 10-16, however, and questions remain on both sides of the ball. Let’s look at how each player is performing one month into the season, and what their worst case and best case comps are for the rest of the year.
Mitch Garver- Apparently the Twins see enough in Garver to send the promising Ryan Jeffers down to Triple A. His OBP is still only .221, but he is on pace for thirty home runs, as meaningless as that projection can be one sixth of the way through the season. The defense has been decent, and not demonstrably worse than Jeffers, so the move makes some sense. Garver showed a great eye in terms of chase percentage in 2019 so he didn’t just Steve Balboni his way to a Silver Slugger that year. No player has a wider variance going forward.
Worst case: Tim Laudner
Best case: 400 at-bats of Mark McGwire and decent catcher defense
Miguel Sano– Hurt currently, and Sano can be a slow starter. He will get hot at some point, but the question is, how long the hot streak will last, and will his cold streaks be palatable enough to keep him in the starting lineup. Ultimately, if Kirilloff’s breakout is legitimate, Sano will be fighting the next guy on the list for playing time, and that player does a few more things for a team when he isn’t hitting great.
Worst case: Indians-era Jason Giambi but without the leadership
Best case: Chris Davis before the contract
Jorge Polanco– His at-bats have looked better lately, and as mentioned, that could be bad news for Mr. Sano. Polanco is a serviceable defender at 2nd base, although he has made some boneheaded plays there recently. His speed is underrated- he gets down the line and to extra bases quickly, but his lack of stolen base skill is notable. You get the feeling that even if Arraez somehow hits .270 all year, they would prefer his bat in the lineup of a playoff game over Polanco. Not that Jorge isn’t a grinder in the box, but if the opposing team has their closer on the mound in a playoff game, you and I would both want Carew Jr. in there.
Worst case: Denny Hocking with more power
Best case: American League Ozzie Albies
Andrelton Simmons– A little slow coming back from COVID, but hit a home run yesterday and the difference between him and Polanco at shortstop is sometimes striking. He isn’t a great hitter but the flow of the game seems to not affect him. He would be a good hitter to have if you needed to break up a no-hitter and crawl back into a game with a spark- the sort of player that knows he’s the best and smartest athlete on the field (regardless if it’s true or not) and likes to show that off.
Worst case: Jack Wilson
Best case: Jay Bell with better defense
Josh Donaldson– I think what we’re seeing is what to expect from Donaldson, a .260 hitter who takes walks and drive the ball enough to see their OPS hover around .850. The defense is reliable but I do worry about the ultra-intense Donaldson talking his way into the lineup over the conflict-avoiding Baldelli too much, and injuries ensuing.
Worst case: 2020 Josh Donaldson
Best case: 2020 Justin Turner
Byron Buxton– What can you say? The guy is a threat in the box and pitchers know they have to be careful, which starts the vicious cycle of pitchers trying to be too fine, falling behind in the count, and Buxton capitalizing on that leverage when the pitcher needs to throw a strike to avoid walking one of the fastest men in the sport.
Worst case: Ellis Valentine without the drugs
Best case: If Bo Jackson had stayed healthy and focused just on baseball?
Max Kepler– Kepler has been sluggish out of the gate but one would assume he would get hot at some point. There isn’t much pressure on him right now to hit. The team has Arraez, Donaldson, Buxton, Cruz, and Kiriloff carrying the load so Kepler’s reinsertion after his COVID stint is a bonus. His defense and history will afford him some time to figure it out, and if he does he’ll be yet another spot in the lineup pitchers will have to be very careful with. The knock on Kepler are the cold streaks, which generally stem from his hot zone being very small, so as a focal point of an offense, he falls well short. But, he has a flair for the dramatic and is the last thing a pitcher who just fought through pitching to Donaldson Cruz and Buxton, wants to see.
Worst case: The worst of Andre Ethier
Best case: Yankees-era Curtis Granderson
Nelson Cruz– He hasn’t stopped yet. He could at any moment, but he hasn’t yet.
Worst case: Orioles-era Jim Thome
Best case: 2010 Jim Thome but with 500 at-bats.
Luis Arraez– Arraez hasn’t had as much success as he or the Twins have been hoping for thus far, but he is still spraying line drives all over the place. Playing the left fielder shallow seems to be the most effective way to defend Arraez, and will likely prevent him from the .350 batting averages we were promised, but he is nonetheless an important piece of what the Twins do offensively. He also seems to be the heart and soul of the Twins (if not second to Berrios). He is animated, emotional, and always seems to show up at crucial moments, which are never too big for him.
Worst case: 1st base Joe Mauer
Best case: Peak Placido Polanco
Jake Cave– Cave is struggling right now, and may be on the way out after finishing Sunday with a .171 average while misplaying a ball in left field that sailed over his head. He hustles and is likable but his bat is too much of a liability at this point. The team may trust his skillset more than the recently reinstated Kyle Garlick enough to keep him around once Sano returns, but he needs to show something to stick around as outfielder number four.
Worst case: Nomar Mazara as he actually is
Best case: Paulo Orlando for 300 at-bats
Willians Astudillo– Astudillo is hitting for average, and I think Baldelli likes to have a guaranteed ball in play sitting on his bench and able to play any position in a pinch. It can be tough however, to watch how easily double plays get turned with him at the plate, as well as how easy the at-bats against him can be for a pitcher who knows not to throw him a strike.
Worst case: Yuniesky Betancourt with worse defense
Best case: end of career Tony Gwynn for 250 at-bats
Alex Kirilloff– He has said hello to the world and looks like he’ll stick around for a while, provided he doesn’t get homer happy from his success against Kansas City pitching and go 0 for his next 25. Outside of that he’ll be in the lineup, either in left field with Jorge Polanco sitting, or at first base with Miguel Sano sitting, a wonderful problem to have.
Worst case: Marty Cordova
Best case: Better defense Shawn Green?
Jose Berrios– Berrios has gutted out his first five starts, and carries his customary 3.50 ERA. He remains susceptible to hitters who are aggressive early in the count, and to changing his approach when given a lead. In a tie game Berrios is as good as anyone; with a six run lead he throws batting practice. In fact, for his career his OPS against is 54 points higher when the Twins score six or more runs than when they score zero to two. That spread is 53 points more pronounced than noted “pitch to the score” pitcher Jack Morris.
Worst case: Ricky Nolasco
Best case: Peak John Lackey
Kenta Maeda– The best player on the 2020 squad hasn’t figured it out yet. His pinpoint command has been off and he hasn’t had the best luck, either. He isn’t a 2.70 ERA pitcher like last year due to the rate he allows homers, but a 3.50 with an ability to be occasionally dominant sounds right to me.
Worst case: Yankees-era Javier Vasquez
Best case: Javier Vasquez the rest of his career
J.A. Happ– Happ has been great so far, with his two most recent seven inning performances standing out, albeit against the inept offenses of Pittsburgh and Cleveland. He’s got guile but we’ll see how he holds up as the weather heats up and he faces stronger offenses.
Worst case: 2007 Kenny Rogers
Best case: 2006 Kenny Rogers
Michel Pineda– Big Mike has been solid to start the year, avoiding the big long innings that wear him, and viewers of games, out. A lot is riding on him continuing to perform because I don’t think the Twins brass want Happ starting game three of a playoff series. Prior to joining Minnesota, Pineda was considered the talent that couldn’t put it all together- sort of a less successful Berrios. With the Yankees he could throw seven one hit innings with twelve strikeouts one night and get bombed the next. Now he is a more of a game manager quarterback type, sitting in the low 90’s with his fastball, locating and hoping enough hitters guess wrong on his slider to get through six low pitch count innings. Personally I am very on the fence about whether that approach will work in an elimination/playoff game.
Worst case: late career Livan Hernandez
Best case: late career Tim Hudson
Matt Shoemaker– Shoemaker needs to make some sort of adjustment, because his sinker and splitter are floating up to hitter’s belts and they are teeing off. He was much more effective his first few starts when he was working down in the zone. Either he fixes whatever is going on or he’s cooked, which opens the door for our next starting pitcher contestant.
Worst case: Ramon Ortiz with the Twins
Best case: Masahiro Tanaka
Randy Dobnak– Dobnak would be the beneficiary of the end of the Matt Shoemaker era. He’s done pretty poorly in a mop-up role, but his starting stats speak for themselves, and didn’t include his new slider. He’s interesting as a fifth starter.
Worst case: What Joe Mays became
Best case: What Joe Mays started out as
Alex Colome– Things could not have gone worse for Colome, whose one pitch is not working. Like Shoemaker he needs to figure something out because Colome without his cutter is like Mariano Rivera or Kenley Jansen without theirs- nothing.
Worst case: Sam Dyson
Best case: Every other year of Colome’s career
Taylor Rogers– Rogers has been great and his pitches have been sharp. As cool and collected as he has always looked, I do worry about Rogers under pressure. Whenever there are molehills, they tend to become mountains in a hurry. A particular instance in Cleveland in 2019 comes to mind when the backup catcher led off the 10th inning against Rogers with an excuse-me double, and a couple pitches over-emphasizing the need to get ahead in the count later, Carlos Santana had a walk off grand slam.
Worst case: Craig Kimbrel in the 2018 playoffs
Best case: Andrew Miller in the 2016 playoffs
Tyler Duffey– Duffey looks a little off. He’s an emotional player so the hope is that once he finds his confidence, he’ll roll from there. But hitters are sitting breaking ball with him so he needs to be perfect locating his fastball, and most pitchers aren’t perfect for long periods of time.
Worst case: Ryne Harper
Best case: Peak Sergio Romo
Caleb Thielbar– Thielbar learned how to add carry and velocity to his fastball, and hitters still are having trouble with it. When he throws it low in the zone, hitters almost give up on it, but there it is, a strike well above the knees. Paired with a difficult to hit curveball he can throw for strikes, Thielbar has 21 legitimate strikeouts in only ten innings. Hitters may learn to adjust (they have three homers already off of him) as Thielbar gets more exposed, but his stuff works pretty well right now.
Worst case: late career Ray King
Best case: early career Hideki Okajima
Hansel Robles– Robles has been somewhat effective, but seems to usually be walking a tightrope. His velocity has been mid 90’s, but as the summer progresses he may, if history is any indication, get into the high 90’s and that may allow for him enough room for error to be dominant like he was in 2019. Robles as a command pitcher is not what the doctor ordered.
Worst case: Jose Valverde (the bad version)
Best case: Bruce Suter for 60 innings
Cody Stashak– Sometimes it seems hard to pinpoint what the Twins see in Stashak- a small bodied control artist with a slider that comes out weird enough that hitters can’t get good swings on it. But his fastball gets whacked and the team is quick to send him down at the slightest provocation.
Worst case: Willie Eyre
Best case: Matt Guerrier
Jorge Alcala– Alcala is being groomed for the 8th inning and possibly later, but lefties still destroy him so I’m not sure what the point is. He is holding righties to a .139 OPS so far, and lefties 1.357, so perhaps another pitch needs to be invented for him before we start having visions of Francisco Rodriguez running through our heads.
Worst case: A worse version of Jordan Hicks?
Best case: Troy Percival