On Thursday, our friends at Beyond the Box Score took a run at predicting how the Minnesota Twins could contend in 2016. Nicolas Stellini was understandably underwhelmed by the lack of action the club took over the winter on the pitching side of the equation; when Fernando Abad is the guy expected to stabilize middle relief, hopes have to be high that guys like Nick Burdi and J.T. Chargois are more or less ready to go at the first sign of trouble.
Yet I can't help but thinking that Stellini fell into the same trap as I did heading into 2015. Just to remind you how much foresight I don't have, here's what I said during my season preview regarding how the Twins could make a run.
The Twins will absolutely surprise some people this year, but for the Twins to compete for anything other than fourth or - optimistically - third place in 2015 would require a great deal to go not just right but better than could reasonably be expected. Health, in the first instance, would be of vital importance.
After that you could list the necessities in any order you like. The rotation would need to go above and beyond "Ricky Nolasco has a bounce-back year," because that wouldn't be enough. Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana would need to have great years, and it probably means seeing someone like Alex Meyer coming up and pitching like a Rookie of the Year candidate. The bullpen would need to quickly find its balance and one or two pitchers to develop in front of Perkins and Fien. Offensively, it would require a nice bounce-back season from Mauer, a competent bottom of the order, and the continued development of Oswaldo Arcia and Kennys Vargas as power hitters in the middle of the lineup - not to mention good performances from Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano upon their arrival.
Of course the Twins did contend last year, but how many things went right that I thought needed to go right? Hughes didn't repeat his great year, Santana missed half the season, Nolasco was hurt all season, Meyer imploded in the minor leagues, the bullpen was a weakness even after Trevor May and Kevin Jepsen were added to the crew, Mauer didn't bounce back, both Arcia and Vargas had sophomore slumps, and Buxton struggled in limited duty. Hey, at least I mentioned Sano, right?
And so when Stellini lists the things necessary for the Twins to contend - Sano destroying worlds, Berrios being brilliant and winning awards, Buxton arriving in full - they come off as superficial and, unintentionally, disingenuous. Because we've seen analysis like that before, from people who know the team intimately, and they (see: we...or me) always, inevitably, get it wrong.
Yes, the Twins probably need other teams to not match their own expectations. Yes, the Twins didn't proactively address the bullpen, other than not blocking off a handful of flame throwing strikeout arms with an imminent ETA.
But is Minnesota "woefully incomplete?" Not even by half. Eduardo Escobar is an average shortstop on both ends of the ball. The outfield, Sano or not, has the kind of youth and potential that every team in baseball would consider giving their right arm for. Granted, with youth comes inconsistency and failure, but without youth and the quality boasted by that youth, you don't build and develop a strong core. If anyone ever says to a Twins fan, out loud, that an outfield of Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Eddie Rosario is full of holes, feel free to smirk and leave the room knowing you'll be getting the last laugh.
What do the Twins really need to do to contend? Well, here's a summary of the ten things that helped them compete in 2015:
- Production from rookies. Stellini mentions Buxton and Berrios, but we all know that Burdi, Chargois, Meyer, Mason Melotakis, Jorge Planco, and Max Kepler are all right there, too.
- Talent development. In September I mentioned Brian Dozier, Kyle Gibson, Trevor May, and Miguel Sano. And we know from experience that young players can fall off after a season of success, but with the current crop of young talent the Twins have proven that they can actually make their players better. Rosario is very talented. Tyler Duffey opened a few eyes last year. If Minnesota rookies were so integral to the team's success last year, why is it that far fetched to think they could make an impact now that they actually have Major League experience under their belts?
- Managerial & in-game strategies. Paul Molitor has done a really nice job here. Maybe it's difficult to qualify how much of an impact this makes on wins and losses, but he's done what you want a manager to do so far.
- Run prevention. Stellini bemoans Minnesota's pitching, yet the Twins were only 17th in runs allowed in 2015. It's not good. But it's not bad. And while the bullpen didn't make any splashy noises about getting better, those young arms are literally a phone call away. Berrios is weeks away from making his Major League debut. So Twins pitching hasn't actually gotten worse, and there's some obvious potential for getting better. You won't find me celebrating the club's lack of activity on the pitching front over the winter, particularly in the bullpen, but Minnesota's pitching isn't as bad as people say. Twins starters lowered their ERA 0.92 points from 2014 to 2015, and there's no reason to believe that trend won't continue in 2016.
- Rotation depth. There's no ace on staff. There are a bunch of mid-rotation options in-house. Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, Tommy Milone, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, Jose Berrios, Ricky Nolasco. Maybe we can count Alex Meyer still, and some people are high on Taylor Rogers. No, it's not a great staff for top-end talent outside of perhaps Berrios and Meyer on a long shot. But it's not bad. And the truth is that Minnesota could absorb three or four injuries to its rotation and not suffer a great deal of loss in talent.
- RISP success. This was an unsustainable part of the Twins' success in 2015, particularly in the early going. Minnesota cannot rely on raking with runners in scoring position to off-set what was otherwise a pretty poor performance with the bases empty.
- The month of May. The Twins went 20-7 in May, and it propelled them into the Wild Card discussion through the rest of the year. Hot streaks like that aren't necessary for Minnesota to compete in 2016, but they're always welcome.
- Hot streaks. Different players got hot at different times to carry the Twins for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Maybe Minnesota's star power isn't yet fully developed, but it doesn't have to be. There are already plenty of good players on this roster. If it was enough in 2015, it can be enough in 2016.
- Success at home. When I wrote this article in September, the Twins had a .618 winning percentage at Target Field. Continuing to play well at home will play an integral part in determining whether this team contends.
- The Twins have nothing to lose. In spite of their success in 2015, the club finds itself in the exact same position. People quite clearly expect next to nothing from this club. Part of that is because the organization was quiet this winter - probably a little too quiet. Part of that is because young players are difficult to predict. Part of that is because people are still used to the Twins pitching staff being a punching bag, even if it's not true anymore. There are next to zero expectations on Minnesota, outside of what they put on themselves. There's an inherent advantage that comes with having nothing to lose.
These are the kind of things that need to go well in order for the Twins to contend. Limiting expectations of success to one or two or three players just isn't realistic, and there's an endless string of seasons in every single sport to bear that out. Minnesota's contention status, or lack of it, in 2016 is going to be the result of a multitude of successes or failures. In a season 162 games long, things are too involved for the hopes of a team to be just that simple.
Having said all of that, Stellini isn't wrong in his conclusion. He states that this will be an uphill battle for Minnesota, and he's absolutely right. For as optimistically as we might want to view the success of the 2015 campaign things could just as easily go wrong. I probably don't need to spell out all the ways in which the Twins could sink in 2016, but let's get it out in the open anyway.
- Veterans don't produce enough to support the youth movement. Minnesota is relying on guys like Santana, Hughes, and Joe Mauer to more than earn their roster spots. Santana's age makes him a wild card, Hughes could revert to the pitcher he was in New York, and Mauer is as big of a question mark as he's ever been. What if Brian Dozier slumps hard?
- Division rivals step up. The success of any team is balanced, first and foremost, by the success of other teams within its division. What if Detroit's rotation rebounds? What if Cleveland's rotation turns into the best not just in the division, but in baseball? What if Chicago finds a way to magic an additional 100 runs on offense? What if the Royals pull another Royals and play exceptional baseball in spite of the division's worst rotation?
- The youth movement stalls. This is the big one. There's no doubt that 2015 was special, and we've spoken about the role of young players in Minnesota's success on multiple occasions. How many of us expected Sano, Rosario, Duffey, and May to average roughly 2.0 fWAR apiece? If we see sophomore slumps, if we don't see Berrios and Buxton step up big, if John Ryan Murphy isn't the long-term answer the club hopes he'll be, if Escobar falls off a cliff and Polanco can't fill the void, if Byung Ho Park - who wouldn't be considered young but would definitely be considered inexperienced in Major League Baseball - can't put it together, yeah. Things could go south.
- Health. While Minnesota lost Ervin Santana for half a season, there were no other major losses of playing time by players upon whom the organization depended. That was weird, because for a few years there it felt like Twins players were magnets for the disabled list. Staying healthy and on the field is the product of many factors, not the least of which is luck.
Succinctly: it would require things to go exactly how the national media thinks it will go. A lack of health, young players not developing, and seeing the few existing stars fall short of their potential would be more than enough to sink Minnesota in 2015.