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Championship Window: Is it Open for the Twins?

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Well? We’re waiting! Is it open or not?

Winter In Valle D’Aosta, Italy Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on the “Championship Window”. Make sure to read the first part here!

In my article earlier this week, I set an agenda for what a team in its “window of contention” should look like. I used six criteria: payroll, average age of roster, previous year’s result, strength of division, number of players above 5.0 and 3.0 WAR, and five-player “core”. After examining the past five World Series champions using the lens of these categories, I concluded this:

“So in conclusion, here’s how I’d define an open championship window. We’re looking at teams that have a payroll in the top half of the league. The teams should have an average age that is in the midst of a player’s “prime”. The teams do not need to have made the playoffs in the years prior, but they do need to have some playoff experience on the roster. Division strength (or lack thereof) is not a huge factor, but the teams should be able to reach 95 wins and win the division (no wild card teams have won since the play-in game was instituted). In this super-team era, the teams should have at least two above-average starting pitchers, a dominant starting pitcher, and a dominant relief ace. They will need to have an MVP-caliber position player, a couple more All-Star-level players, and a handful of above-average guys as well. Finally, the teams should not be counting on their key players to have breakout seasons.”

Now let’s see how the 2019 Twins measure up. I’m going to run through each of the categories, and rate how well the Twins meet them from 0 (completely misses requirement) to 3 (exceeds requirement). At the end, a score from 0-6 would mean the window is closed, 7-12 would mean the window is nearly open, and a score from 12-18 would mean the time is now.

Payroll

The Twins projected 2019 payroll (per Spotrac.com) comes in at about $116 million, which is good for 17th in the league. Therefore, the Twins are just barely in the bottom half of the league in spending currently. They could easily make the jump into the top half of the league with another big signing or two (Keuchel or Kimbrel, anyone?), but we’ll have to mark this category as a near miss for right now.

Score: 1

Total: 1

Average Age of Roster

The recent World Series teams have all had an average age that was right in the thick of a player’s “prime” years. The 2019 Twins are no different, as they land at 28.6 years of age. However, this does include a 38-year-old outlier named Nelson Cruz, so in reality they are a little younger than it would seem.

Score: 3

Total: 4

Previous Year’s Result

This may be the lowest bar the Twins have to clear, as what I found last time suggested the previous year’s team result had very little correlation to winning a championship in the next year. Last year’s Twins finished 78-84 and missed the playoffs. However, having players with playoff experience is important it would seem, and the Twins are quite limited in this category.

Score: 2

Total: 6

Strength of Division

The Twins play in one of the weakest MLB divisions in recent memory. The current AL Central is made up of three teams that are tanking for draft position along with the Twins and Indians. The projected average wins (excluding the champion) comes in at a lowly 73 for the division (per fangraphs.com). The projected winners (Indians) are projected to win 92 games. It would seem the division is there for the Twins’ taking, but they’ll have to be able to clear 95 wins and win the division to be real title contenders.

Score: 2

Total: 8

WAR Depth

Now, we’ll start getting into the actual on-field product the Twins will be putting forward this season (unfortunately). Using ZiPS projections, the Twins come in with zero (ouch) players over 5.0 WAR, and only one (double ouch) over 3.0. This is not exactly up to par with the recent champions, who had four to five players over 5.0 and eight or nine over 3.0. Putting it bluntly, the Twins are missing (by projections) both the top-end quality and the general quantity of solid players to compete for a championship, and it’s not particularly close.

Score: 0

Total: 8

5-Man Core

Here are the top five players by ZiPS-projected WAR on the 2019 Minnesota Twins.

‘19 Twins ZiPS WAR Core

Position Name Age ZiPS 2019 WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired
Position Name Age ZiPS 2019 WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired
SP Jose Berrios 25 3.2 3.3 Amateur Draft
DH Nelson Cruz 38 2.5 2.6 Free Agent 2019
RF Max Kepler 26 2.2 2.6 Amateur Free Agent
LF Eddie Rosario 27 2.2 3.4 Amateur Draft
SP Kyle Gibson 31 2 2.8 Amateur Draft

Not great, Bob. Not great at all. Looking on the bright side, most of these guys are pretty young (average age 27.25, excluding Cruz) and are projected to regress, so they could easily outperform expectations. Instead of leaving this category on that depressing note, I’ve compiled what a near-future core could look like. It’s organized based on (my totally subjective opinions of their) potential.

Future Twins WAR Core

Position Name Age ZiPS 2019 WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired
Position Name Age ZiPS 2019 WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired
CF Byron Buxton 25 1.9 3.5 (2017) Amateur Draft
SP Jose Berrios 25 3.2 3.3 Amateur Draft
RF Max Kepler 26 2.2 2.6 Amateur Free Agent
3B Miguel Sano 26 1.7 2.4 (2017) Amateur Free Agent
LF Eddie Rosario 27 2.2 3.4 Amateur Draft

I don’t believe it’s too much of a stretch to say Byron Buxton has MVP-type potential. If (and it may be a long shot) he can become the player he was in the second half of 2017, he will be that MVP-caliber guy that a World Series roster needs. Jose Berrios, in my opinion, is the most likely of these guys to reach his ceiling, and that ceiling is sky-high. He likely will become that all-important dominant starting pitcher. Rosario and Sano have already shown that they can be all-star players (although whether Sano will return to form remains to be seen). Tawny’s boyfriend Kepler has shown flashes of big potential, and it would be huge if he rounded into the all-star some believe he can be. Beyond these guys, Jorge Polanco is another guy who could provide some important depth. The average age of this core is a staggeringly young 25.8 years. However, you can’t count on breakouts to help you compete for a championship.

Score: 1

Total: 9

Verdict

Coming in with a total score of 9, it is evident to me that the Twins do not yet have an open championship window. While some of the variables are in their favor at the moment, the roster is just not there yet. However, the time could be near.

So let’s daydream a little bit. Let’s say all of my proposed core guys improve this season. Buxton and Sano prove they’re big-league ballplayers and can stay healthy, Berrios becomes a bona-fide ace, Rosario matches his great season from last year, and Kepler breaks out. These guys won’t be of a “World Series Champion”-type average age for three more years. Top studs like Kirilloff and Lewis could (and likely will) be in the bigs by that point. So we have a couple seasons for these guys to improve and breakout and see how they all fit together. I can’t blame the front office for waiting to see if these things will happen in the meantime. It is potentially a terrific homegrown core, and most of the championship teams were built on mostly homegrown players. If they see marked improvement from these guys, then they should and they will go out and sign and trade for proven players (read: pitchers) to push the team over the top.