The playoffs are just around the corner, and despite some painfully played games lately, the Twins are firmly entrenched in the postseason picture, as are seven other teams (sorry Gardy). If the season ended as I write this, the White Sox would be their first round opponent as the seventh seed. Is that ideal? If they were to pass the Indians for second in their division, the Twins would then play the Jays as the fourth seed. Most ominously, if the Twins win their division with the best record in the AL and everyone else holds at their current win percentage, they would play the Yankees as the first seed. In this truncated season, it is entirely possible that the Twins could play any of the other seven teams currently in line for playoff spots. Let’s take a look at all of those potential matchups to see who would be most ideal to end our streak of playoff series losses.
The Rays are seen as a sleeper team more years than not, because they have a reputation for winning with what they have, and what they have is usually a lot of pitching. They still have that, but most of it is on the IL.
Who can return healthy will be a big factor in whether their pitching is actually a strength and not a theory, and whether their dominant record in the standings will matter.
Nick Anderson is one of the most dominant relief arms in baseball, and is out with a forearm strain, which outside of “elbow tightness” and “rotator cuff soreness” is about the most ominous pitcher injury one can have. He is throwing sim games as of this writing, however, and will give it a go.
Yonny Chirinos is underrated and was a huge loss when he and his horrifying splitter went down for the year with Tommy John.
Diego Castillo is closing games and has nice power stuff, but his FIP is 4.87 and I wouldn’t trust him in big games- he was streaky last year and lost eight games out of the pen.
Jose Alvarado was a mess and is now hurt. Chaz Roe, Jalen Beeks and Andrew Kittredge are out for the year
Charlie Morton just got back from shoulder inflammation, and is 36. Basically they are going to ride or die with Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow both staying healthy and effective, which has never happened for more than a week prior to this past week. Rays fans are probably hoping their team will Cole-Verlander themselves deep in the playoffs. I doubt it because their offense is merely above average.
The only guys who have really been hitting are Willy Adames and Brandon Lowe. Only Lowe has a track record for continuing that success, although Adames is a first division major league shortstop whether he puts up a .750 OPS or the .953 he is currently posting (they really did get something for David Price, after all).
Austin Meadows, you figure, would join them in hitting at some point, and Yandy Diaz was OBP’ing .428 before getting hurt (You figure he gets back from his hamstring strain before October). So on a good day, and buying into Adames’ 37 game breakout, you have a lineup that runs four deep. I just don’t think that gets it done with four rounds of playoffs.
Starting Pitching: Edge Rays
Bullpen: Edge Twins (Edge Rays if Anderson comes back strong)
The A’s are nearly as cursed as the Twins in the playoffs, and would probably be considered more cursed if not for the fact that their lone playoff series win in this millennium came against the Twins in 2006. They don’t usually get swept, either.
Basically if you took the Twins and the Rays and put them in a blender, you get the general vibe of the A’s. They are fundamentally a good team and do not give many games away, while being open to new ideas and strategies given their low revenues. In the mid 2010’s they made the playoffs several times but were knocked out by the Tigers, Royals and Yankees, victims of having too many .780 OPS types who were great to have in the regular season but not difference making in the post. Like, Brandon Moss was their guy they wanted up in the late innings in those days.
Now they have superstars Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and Marcus Semien (if Semien rebounds from his tough start and Olson stops being Steve Balboni). But in my view they now have an abundance of 110 ERA+ type pitchers, which are a great resource to possess, but do you really want Chris Bassitt starting game two of a postseason series for you? Of course Jesus Lazardo is exciting, but is he the ace now, or will he hopefully be two years from now? Frankie Montas looked like a budding superstar, but the 2019 PED suspendee has had three truly awful starts in a row, including giving up nine runs to the struggling Diamondbacks and 4.2 innings of four run, seven hit, three walk ball against the pathetic Angels. He was doing well before that, though, so he is truly the X factor in that rotation unless Sean Manaea is visited by three ghosts who give him his location back. Adding a good #3 starter like Mike Minor doesn’t help them any more than adding Marcus Stroman helped the Mets last year. Whenever I talked about the Twins in the offseason, I always said we needed to add a starter better than Jake Odorizzi, not because Odorizzi was bad but because we needed a difference maker (maybe that has ended up being Maeda?). Minor might be a hair better than Odo but I don’t think he moves the needle for that team.
Where they really separate is the bullpen, where Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria, Yusmeiro Petit, J.B. Wendelken, Lou Trivino, Jake Diekman and, for some reason, T.J McFarland are all posting obnoxiously good numbers. They are doing it legitimately, maybe outside of McFarland, but you wonder with the mercurial nature of relief performance, if they are peaking too soon. The Twins, for instance, had their bullpen peak around this time last year, with Duffey and Littell on ridiculous scoreless streaks, only to have them all wobble a little towards the end of September. You saw what happened in October.
Starting Pitching: Twins (But that could change if Montas bounces back strong, or if Minor reverts to his first half of 2019 form)
Intangibles: A’s (Those comeback wins against the Giants were pretty good)
I detailed in my Central breakdown many moons ago, that the Indians shouldn’t be taken lightly. They have two elite hitters in Ramirez and Lindor, and they just need a couple of things to go right offensively to be a stronger team than the Twins, because their starters are that good. That thing already might have happened with Franmil Reyes busting out to a .941 OPS.
Losing Clevinger was a big deal, and trading away three of their aces in a span of 13 months is generally not a good strategy, but they definitely won the Bauer and Kluber deals and have been competitive for a long time, so I give Chris Antonetti and co. the benefit of the doubt. Josh Naylor has slotted in right away in a corner. He has a terrible body (picture a mix of Willians Astudillo and Manny Ramirez) and will look stupid in left field but should hit enough to outperform Jordan Luplow, Delino DeShields and Oscar Mercado combined in about a week.
Carlos Carrasco and his legendary change-up is the most prototypical #2 starter in existence slotting behind genuine ace Shane Bieber. Aaron Civale and his cartoon front door two-seamer is a fine #3. There you go, set for the Wild Card round.
But wait, there’s more! Zach Plesac’s first four starts were so good that he is second on the team in bWAR. He’ll be back from his team imposed exile, and should be more readily welcomed back than Clevinger would have been, because although he partied in Chicago, potentially putting his teammates at risk (especially sweetheart and Leukemia survivor Cookie Carrasco), he didn’t lie about it and fly on the team plane right after (Clevinger totally did that and is complete garbage).
Not to be outdone, top prospect Triston McKenzie has come up and thrown three brilliant starts. Maybe he keeps ascending to the point they can trade Civale over the offseason for Josh Bell, although at this point two years of Bell wouldn’t nearly cover five years of Civale. Now the Pirates might have to throw in Kevin Newman just to start negotiations.
The bullpen is good, with Nick Wittgren showing 2019 was not a fluke, and James Karinchak representing the least fun a hitter can have in an at-bat. I would probably still take the Twins’ bullpen over the Indians due to Brad Hand no longer possessing velocity and slowly turning into Joe Borowski.
Lineup: Twins (Though not by a landslide)
Intangibles: Indians, they have Tito and just play a more intense type of ball.
Chicago White Sox
I predicted the White Sox would be pretty good, as well, pegging them for 88 wins. I didn’t think their offense would click so quickly, even though Moncada and Encarnacion haven’t gotten into gear yet. We now know that Luis Robert is here to stay, Eloy Jimenez is evolving, Tim Anderson is getting better, James McCann is a force against lefties (justifying the confusing acquisition of Yasmani Grandal who we now understand is part of the best offensive catching platoon ever), and Jose Abreu has another level to him that he ascends to when he has something to play for. Who knew? If Nick Madrigal, questionable defense aside, can hit just a little, then the only hole in this lineup is Nomar Mazara, a circumstance that may result in fatter pitches to Mazara that lead to him performing better than the zero tool player that he is.
And then there is their pitching, which I presumed would be the question mark. Giolito is proving 2019 was not any sort of fluke and seems hyper focused while throwing harder than he ever has. Also he is half horse and has one of the best change-ups in the game. The Twins do seem to have good at-bats against him, however. Keuchel seems reborn and Dylan Cease might be breaking out, which I believe in now that I don’t confuse him with the thoroughly mediocre Dylan Covey anymore.
Alex Colome has really come into his own as a one-pitch pitcher and it works well for him. It is funny to think that the Rays thought they were selling high on him when they traded him to Seattle in 2018. Now the Rays’ whole bullpen is hurt and Colome simply does not blow saves.
Losing Aaron Bummer was huge, since the Sox now rely too heavily on smoke and mirrors change-up artist Evan Marshall, inconsistent Steve Cishek and the increasingly hittable Jimmy Cordero. Matt Foster is great but the league will adjust to him. They’re not bad and I like Colome, but that bullpen may be their undoing.
Starting: Sox (I would go Twins in a five game series, the Sox are very top heavy here with Reynaldo Lopez regressing and Carlos Rodon presumably dead)
Intangibles: The Twins usually find a way to crap in the Sox’s cornflakes, no matter how the teams stack up to each other.
Our good friends the cheaters! They have taken a weird shape this season- Kyle Tucker leads the team with seven home runs. George Springer and Jose Altuve have been almost unplayable. Alex Bregman is hurt, as is their entire bullpen save Ryan Pressly. Yordan Alvarez is done for the year, and Carlos Correa is slugging .422 while remaining healthy. Framber Valdez and Christian Javier have emerged as quality starters and Zack Greinke has pitched like the ace he has had to be since Verlander is questionable for the playoffs with his elbow issues.
Are they… good? Their offense will probably be good if you simulated this group of guys 100 times. The pitching would be atrocious in that scenario. People wondered if they had enough pitching to contend deep in the postseason before Verlander and the entire relief corps went down. Some rookies have done well and Martin Maldonado is OBP’ing .400 but at the end of the day this team does not strike the same sort of fear into opposing teams as they have the past three years. Their players are also getting expensive and the prospect capital they exhausted to go for it in 2017-2019 is going to come back and bite them at some point.
Starting: Twins (but not if Verlander comes back with vengeance)
Intangibles: Twins (as far as we know, they have not cheated on a massive scale)
New York Yankees
Do not be fooled by the lackluster start the Yankees have gotten off to. It is merely a trick to position themselves to where they can play the Twins in the first round. They sense the Twins will place second in the Central as a four or five seed and are trying for the same result in the East. Not really, but maybe.
They haven’t been hitting, but having Judge and a functioning Gleyber Torres will make a big impact on whether their lineup continues to post single runs against the Orioles or give me night terrors.
Their typical lineup these days:
Hicks- Solid but not a three hole hitter
Frazier- Raking but still unproven
Ford- Hitting .141
Torres- Hitting .232
Gardner- Hitting .180
Higashioka- OPS of .476, Gary Sanchez is benched and hitting .130
Wade- Their version of Adrianza (though with actual speed), hitting .163
The Twins can pitch to that lineup. Judge is close to returning but has injured his same calf muscle twice after he tried to return too quickly. Ironic since the Twins were overly cautious with Donaldson’s calf injury, sitting him a month though it was only minor to begin with. There is history with Donaldson, but you would think the Yankees would have been more careful with the straw that stirs their drink.
Torres is back now but what of Stanton? Nobody knows- he might have contracted Josh Hamiltonitis and will slowly fizzle away with injuries until the Yankees pay some other team to put him on their IL. Or maybe he’ll return triumphantly and hit six home runs in the wild card round. One thing is for sure in that Yankees fans are not expecting much. I am a little worried that they may bow out early and the eventual pennant winner will be de-legitimized because the Yankees “weren’t really trying this year.” It’s a ridiculous assertion given how much they spent on Gerrit Cole, but with the way Yankees fan sentiment permeates sports media, it will probably gain traction.
The true strength of the Yankees has been their bullpen, ever since they started doubling down on elite bullpen arms in 2017. Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Chad Green still lead the way. But as we saw in the 2019 ALCS and 2018 playoffs with the Rockies, Adam Ottavino is susceptible to the big moments and can lose his command in an instant. A big loss that has gone relatively unnoticed has been Tommy Kahnle, whose change-up is majestic and can provide an automatic out against Miguel Sano. After the top four, names like Jonathan Holder and Luis Cessa crop up, so this unit is not nearly as deep as their 2017 heyday.
The rotation is full of question marks. It can be elite if Gerrit Cole stops giving up home runs like he’s Ricky Nolasco, Paxton comes back healthy, and Tanaka continues his string of strong though usually brief performances. In Cole’s case, big name pitchers going to New York don’t always transition seamlessly. Javier Vasquez was a Cy Young contender whenever he pitched in the NL, but struggled to be league average with the Yankees. Twice. Mike Mussina thrived. Randy Johnson was human. Roger Clemens pitched some great games for the Yankees, but his stats with New York pale in comparison to his time in Boston, Toronto and Houston. CC Sabathia was great and immediately led his team to a title. Sonny Gray flopped and immediately became his old self again in Cincinnati. David Cone was great.
But even Cone and Mussina pitched to higher ERAs with the Yankees than their previous teams so it would be unprecedented for Cole to outperform his Houston numbers. The question is will he be a 120 ERA+ guy going forward, or will he push it to the 150 level he reached as a Pirate and again his first year in Houston? The Twins can handle the former, and have shown they cannot sniff the latter.
Starters: Yankees, assuming Cole is 75% of last years Cole.
Bullpen: Yankees (Close, but Chapman is an all-time great and Rogers is.. not)
Lineup: Both fully healthy? Yankees. The only time the Yankees have been fully healthy in the last two years? October 2019.
Intangibles: Yankees until further notice
How nice would it be to go on a run, grab the first or second seed and get a cakewalk like Toronto to break your decades long playoff futility streak?
It would be nice, and the Twins certainly would match up well against the Jays. However, the Buffalo located club full of ex-ballpayers sons have a quick strike offense led by Keith Hernandez’s son, Teoscar, who has 14 home runs. Vlad Guerrero Jr. is still waiting to break out but posting decent numbers regardless, Cavan Biggio is an OBP machine and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. keeps getting better. The lineup does have holes, however, and slugging shortstop Bo Bichette will maybe not be available for October.
Hyun-Jin Ryu is pitching for now like the ace he was signed to be, but we all know Ryu is a first class #2 in the long run and his injury history is long. Having said that, he has the kind of stuff to shut down the Twins, Taijuan Walker is talented and Allan Anderson’s son, Chase, is perpetually underrated. They went out and got Robbie Ray from Arizona, but not only is Ray painful to watch, with his deliberate pace and three true outcomes style, but he hasn’t performed better than a backend starter in years. The bullpen is less imposing, with Anthony Bass (fraternal twin of Brian Bass) currently savings the most games for them at the moment. Ken Giles should be back, but you never know quite what you’re getting from ol’ Kenny.
Not a team to be underestimated, but definitely the weakest team of the bunch.
Intangibles: Blue Jays- they would have a good story, being so young and playing their home games in Buffalo, New York.
Ranking them in terms of beatability, I came up with this list:
#1 Jays- Young, no bullpen
#2 Astros- A shell of what they were, not enough pitching
#3 White Sox- Suspect bullpen, Twins have gotten to Giolito, tend to make mental mistakes and fielding gaffes
#4 A’s- No pitcher to be afraid of, but they play intense and disciplined under Bob Melvin- if the Twins want someone to hand them games like the White Sox, this one ain’t it
#5 Indians- The offense doesn’t need to be clicking on all cylinders with the pitching they have, but the Twins know how to beat them
#6 Rays- Snell and Glasnow can put you down 0-2 in an instant
#7 Yankees- Luke Voit might hit eight home runs, and they’re the Yankees. It might be fun to beat a weakened Yankee team, but then the cost of losing would be even greater and my night terrors will never go away.
Whatever happens, I think there is a good chance the Twins don’t get swept this year. Hallelujah.