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Welcome to the brave new world of high expectations

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If this is the new normal, count us in

2017 American League Wildcard Game: Minnesota Twins v. New York Yankees

Rocco meets with the team on the first day of spring training and sets expectations World Series-high. Clearly, this is a first day ritual for a lot of teams, and for some, like the Yankees, anything less than the World Series is almost always viewed as a poor year. But that’s the Yankees, and as we’ve proven quite definitively over the past decade and a half…we haven’t legitimately competed with the Yankees.

Speaking of the Yankees, Aaron Judge joins the growing list of players outraged by the Astros and Red Sox cheating situations. I’ve already made my feelings known (the Astros are now my new least favorite team), but I guess I’ve got to let it go. LeBron is upset by it, many MLB players are upset by it, so I’ll leave it to their higher profiles to sort it all out, and I don’t want to be the guy on the lawn yelling at the kids to stay off of it…so I won’t.

It’s time to prepare for this season, and move forward from the past. Of course, as is common in these situations, those who’ve cheated and gotten caught simply want to “move on,” while those of us (all of the rest of us) victimized by that cheating would have actually preferred punishment and deterrence to discourage future bad conduct. Given that the basic integrity of the game is at stake and all. But, so it goes, on to the Twins…who have punished us plenty over the years with much of their own play and their seemingly self-imposed payroll limitations.

As Twins fans we’ve adjusted to our reality—typically in one of two ways. Many fans simply accept that the Yankees have two or even three times the payroll we do every year, so it would just be crazy to think we could compete. Some of those fans even rationalize it in the same way many of us rationalized it when it became apparent (sometime in middle school or high school probably) that we weren’t as good at math as we were when math was simple.

We decided that those who were good at math were losers, or nerds, or people with whom we wouldn’t want to associate (sabremetricians aside of course). Who’d really want to be good at math anyway? Kind of like who’d really want to be a Yankees fan anyway? How easy it would be to be a fan of those teams willing to spend to infinity and beyond, that’s not even real fandom! As if true fandom requires not just commitment, but painful, and often futile, commitment.

Or, some fans chose another route and blamed the Pohlad’s for not spending the money that they clearly have (and are clearly making) to increase the payroll to a more competitive number. “Pohlad Pocket Protecters” (credit to the Common Man) on one side of the fence, contrasted with more bitter and angry fans holding higher expectations on the other.

Both sides “comforted” with the sad reality of low expectations. “We don’t spend enough to ever get to the World Series again” versus “We can’t spend enough to ever get to the World Series again.” Whichever way we viewed it, it always ended the same: “We weren’t ever getting to the World Series again.”

So along comes Rocco, and the players we do have seem to be trending upward, and even the spending has loosened a bit (let’s not go crazy here, Donaldson makes only a bit more than Mauer did) and we still spend less than half of what the Yankees do, but it has loosened a bit and even the most hateful of us have to acknowledge that.

And thus the bottom line: We have high expectations that (at least in February) actually seem realistic. It’s not a place in which we’re used to being. For younger readers, these are not your father’s Minnesota Twins, and for older readers, these aren’t the Minnesota Twins you’ve gotten accustomed to over the years, and while indeed it’s only February, this seems so much better!

But enough about the warm and fuzzy generalities, how do we really get to the promised land of baseball, and truly compete in a post-season series (even if we inevitably have to face the Yankees?)

First, Jake Odorizzi has to be at least as good as he was last year. He was good, maybe very good, while his five innings per outing might’ve taxed the bullpen a bit more than could have been ideal…he was good. More of that would be…well…good. Perhaps most importantly, Jose Berrios has to be better than he was last year. His second half was not all that good frankly. He can be better. Given his youth and ability, there’s every reason to think that he will be.

Kenta Maeda needs to be what he was with the Dodgers, which, I think (given our offense) should be good enough. It’s always a little concerning when National League guys come over and our history with that type of thing hasn’t always been great. Still, if he’s as he was for the Dodgers, he’ll be fine in the third or fourth slot in the rotation, perhaps competing with Michael Pineda (after he serves his remaining 39 games.)

Don’t get me started on why/how big Mike and others serve suspensions for their cheating, while Astros players simply get to parade around with the trophy and seek the protection of their manager, the commissioner and others for their own safety…but, again, don’t get me started.

The fifth spot in the rotation goes to…who knows? Homer Bailey, Randy Dobnak, Lewis Thorpe, Devin Smeltzer? Somebody entirely new, maybe. As usual, with injuries, we should likely expect those spots to interchange here and there, but all of those guys seem quite competent for spot starts.

And frankly, as much as Kyle Gibson seemed to have been a good guy, did we really feel confident with him on the mound? He could look so good for two or three innings and then come out for the fourth or fifth inning and it would seem as though he’d lost everything.

Perhaps Texas will rejuvenate him, and at this point in his career, he should be a middle reliever and only see a batter one time. Kyle deserves our gratitude as he did a lot for the community, provided absolutely no off-field headlines, and was the definition of class, but on the field, our starting rotation is simply better this year.

With as potent an offense as we should have, the pressure on the pitching staff should be about as mild as it can be in Major League Baseball. We should never really be out of many games, given how productive we can be and how many big innings we realistically should have. And, as a fan, never being out of games makes baseball fun again, unlike a few short years ago when we’d typically give up runs early and we’d all pretty much know we couldn’t come back.

So perhaps the old adage of “pitching and defense wins” could be amended to read “good pitching and good defense can be made much better with a productive offense.” We should have that productive offense.

We might expect better from Miguel Sano, who struggled mightily for much of the season before he really got it going. Consistency all year would be great and may not be too much to ask. Donaldson should be a major upgrade over C.J. Cron, and C.J. Cron had a lot of good moments, until he hurt his wrist, which, obviously, is a problem for a hitter, so I’m willing to cut him some slack and simply wish him well in Detroit. After all, wishing someone well in Detroit, seems like the least any of us could do, I mean, it’s Detroit.

Jorge Polanco at short was excellent, offensively, and more than adequate defensively…more of the same there is fine. Luis Arraez at second is another major upgrade over Jonathan Schoop (acknowledging that Arraez pretty much had the job the second half of the season, and Schoop wasn’t bad). So, in sum, the infield is just offensively better. Better at third, same at short, same at second, better at first. That’s a quality upgrade. Mitch Garver, as the regular catcher, had a phenomenal year, and there’s really no reason to expect any major downturn there.

The outfield, as usual these last few years, depends primarily on Byron Buxton. Can he stay healthy, can he hit as he sometimes does, but often doesn’t? It seems very realistic to expect more from Buxton as the full-time centerfielder. Expecting more from Max Kepler in right may not be fair, as he had a true breakout season, and he may not be able to duplicate it. But, he’s good, better than we all probably thought, and most of us always liked him.

Eddie Rosario, in left, is a wildcard. He brings flair, and despair. He can be so clutch, but he can also flail at pitches that not only can I see are two feet out of the zone from my living room, they actually look like they’re being thrown at my living room, and he still swings….it’s…maddening.

His outfield play similarly can be interesting. He can make the easy plays look hard and the hard plays look easy. I prefer only the latter, but I think we have to accept the former as well. And, well, he’s “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie”….every team needs an “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie.” He seems to want to be up in clutch late inning situations, and you have to admire that…at least I do.

So, in sum, the outfield last year was really, really good, and that was because Kepler was fantastic, Eddie was better than most, and our platooning centerfielders (including Kepler late in the year) were fine. Not great, but fine. Jake Cave had good moments, he certainly wasn’t a black hole out there as his name may have suggested he could have been.

So, even if Max regresses a bit to the mean, there’s every reason to believe that both Eddie and Byron Buxton can be better than they were last year. So, like the pitching staff, and the infield, the outfield feels like it should be better.

The DH was fantastic, so perhaps we should expect a small drop-off from Nelson Cruz, but he was so good, that a small drop-off still makes him the best DH in baseball. Cruz got hit by a pitch in live BP Wednesday, and I’d prefer that things like that not happen, particularly to people his age, but he’s expected to be fine.

The bullpen is a wildcard, as it is for most teams, but it feels a little better, doesn’t it?

So, in sum, coming off a 101-win season, the Twins are fielding a better team. So, why shouldn’t the expectations be higher? Somehow last season was a tale of two seasons, and maybe the experience of last year’s success will help. As good as the Twins were in the regular season, they were hopelessly over matched in post-season. Injuries didn’t help, but they were over matched, plain and simple. They didn’t seem like a 101-win team in October.

As I write this in February, they really seem like they could win another 101, maybe 105 or more regular season games. As great as that would be, we now are both blessed and burdened with higher expectations than regular season success and post-season failure. I’m looking forward to the ride, and I’m on the bandwagon that predicts better things ahead.