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A review of the 2021 Twins season

Revisiting my ten Opening Day questions. A few were answered. Most just created more questions.

Minnesota Twins v Toronto Blue Jays
Three of the most common expressions on the faces of Twins fans during this bad season
Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Way back on Opening Day I posted ten questions I was interested to watch unfold this season. That was long before we had any inkling that we would be becoming quite familiar with players like Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan, Rob Refsnyder, and Ralph Garza Jr., or that the Twins’ time as a contender would be over before April turned to May.

Now that the regular season has reached its end, I want to look back at those ten questions and see how they turned out and what we might have learned. This will be a bit of a season in review.

The first question I posed in April was...

How will Rocco Baldelli manage the catchers?

Last offseason, there were some low intensity rumors that the Twins might look to trade Mitch Garver to fortify other parts of the roster. Ryan Jeffers had just finished an impressive rookie season and a platoon between two right-handed hitting “regular catchers,” as Baldelli called them in Spring Training, seemed awkward. In the end, due to injuries for Garver and struggles at the plate for Jeffers, the Twins rarely had both regular catchers available at the same time this season. Jeffers led the team with 84 appearances behind the plate and Garver managed just 59. The third catcher, rookie Ben Rortvedt, covered another 39 and Willians Astudillo added 10.

When he was on the field, Garver rebounded at the plate after last year’s down season. He delivered a .256/.358/.517 line in 243 plate appearances and looked much more like the patient, fastball destroying version of himself he was in 2019. Garver’s .372 wOBA and 137 wRC+ ranked third-best among all catchers with at least 50 plate appearances this season and were significantly better than the .302 wOBA and 89 wRC+ that are the league averages for the position.

Comparatively, Jeffers struggled with strikeouts (36.9 K%) at the plate in his sophomore season, posting a ugly looking .199/.270/.401 line (.289 wOBA, 82 wRC+) that reminded us that he’d essentially skipped the high minors to join the Twins last season. But, because the offensive bar for catchers is so low, Jeffers’ 2021 line was not too far off from league average for the position.

When you add in that both players were comfortably above average in terms of pitch framing on defense, it again seems that the Twins have two “regular” catchers. Garver’s total 2.1 fWAR ranked 11th-best among catchers, even though he played just slightly more than a third of the season. Jeffers’ 0.7 fWAR placed him in the top half of this demanding position.

This winter we might again hear and read more talk about the Twins making a choice between Jeffers and Garver and offering the odd man out in trades. But, the position is so physically demanding (and Garver has an injury history) and both are under cost effective arbitration control for a few more years, it could still make sense to keep them both and move forward with Rortvedt as the preferred defensive minded depth.

What impact will the top prospects have?

Not much that was good, unfortunately. When the Twins broke camp to begin the season, Jeffers and right hander Jorge Alcala were the only notable “prospects” on the roster. Of course, the expectation going into the season was that Alex Kirilloff would join the team after service time considerations were managed. With that as the starting place, that the Twins finished the season with the 6th-most plate appearances (1,529) by rookie hitters and 14th-most batters faced (1,650) by rookie pitchers are bright red indicators that things did not go according to plan this season.

Kirilloff did debut in April and impressed before a wrist injury sapped his power and forced a season-ending surgery. Fellow top prospect Trevor Larnach also made his debut earlier than expected and held his own early on before the league adjusted to him and forced him back to the minors. Gilberto Celestino was pressed into duty in center field before he was ready and was clearly over matched in 23 games. Brent Rooker and Nick Gordon finally got decent major league opportunities but now fit more into the post-prospect category due to their age. Both had some good moments, but neither made particularly strong cases they should be pieces of the puzzle going forward.

Altogether, Twins rookies hit just .215/.284/.378 (.288 wOBA) and finished 18th in fWAR with 0.8 combined. Those figures were likely dragged down by the absence of Kirilloff but can only be viewed as disappointing nonetheless.

On the mound, we did not get any looks at the preseason top prospects like Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran. Bailey Ober certainly impressed in his 20 starts and answered some of the questions about whether his stuff can play in the majors. Alcala had an up and down year that finished strong after he went through lots of valuable growing pains caused by the Twins intentionally challenging him with higher leverage opportunities and deliberate matchups with left handed batters. Joe Ryan, acquired from Tampa Bay in July, exceeded expectations and created a good deal of hype in his six start September opportunity.

Beyond those three, however, the rest of the thirteen Twins rookie pitchers ranged from barely passable to downright bad. Seven of them were replacement level or worse by FanGraphs’ version of WAR and the group collectively delivered 5.34 ERA / 5.22 FIP / 0.4 fWAR, which ranked 25th, 28th, and 25th, respectively.

The lack of impact by pitching prospects at the major league level and seemingly slow pace of development and numerous setbacks in the minor leagues of the ones that have not debuted has started to wear on the patience of the fan base and many are beginning to doubt if the pitching pipeline we were promised back in 2017 is going to yield fruit.

How effectively will Eddie Rosario be replaced?

From 2017-2020, left fielder Eddie Rosario hit a combined .281/.317/.493 to give the Twins production that rated about 12 percent better than league average. Rosario was (and is) an average at best defender in the outfield, which limited his overall value, but he still comfortably generated 2-3 fWAR per season in that span. When Rosario’s arbitration salary was expected to increase to around $10-million for 2021 the Twins made a bet that they could approximate that level of production with a combination of players at a fraction of the cost.

That turned out not to be the case. Eight players made at least 10 appearances in left field this season, led by Larnach’s sixty. Rooker (38 appearances in LF) and Jake Cave (37) handled left most often after Larnach and they were followed by Luis Arraez (28) and Rob Refsnyder (20). Kirilloff appeared in left field 13 times but spent far more time in right field and at first base (perhaps his best spot) when he was on the active roster. Kyle Garlick made 12 appearances there before his season ended with an injury and Gordon added to his versatility with 11 left field games.

Altogether, Twins left fielders hit .229/.304/.353 with .291 wOBA in 2021 according to Statcast. Whereas Rosario had been comfortably above average at the plate, the combined line of his replacements fell well short of the .244/.314/.411 and .314 wOBA that were the league averages for left field this year.

On the defensive side, things were no better. The Twins’ contingent of left fielders combined for minus-9 outs above average, a mark that was better than just four other teams. With a healthy Rosario as the primary man in left prior seasons, the team usually ranked more in the middle of the pack at the position defensively (save for 2019 when Rosario played through an ankle injury that wrecked his range and the Twins finished dead last in OAA in left field).

Splitting time between Cleveland and Atlanta, Rosario did not have a standout season, but his .261/.307/.439 line was still about league average. He also logged an average-ish minus-1 OAA, consistent with his career norms. His total 1.0 fWAR was worth an estimated $8.1-million by FanGraphs, not quite enough to break even on his projected arbitration salary before he was non-tendered by the Twins, but still a clear upgrade on what Minnesota got from his replacements in 2021.

Any analysis of the Twins situation in left field in 2021 would be incomplete without mention of Akil Baddoo and LaMonte Wade Jr., two young players who might have factored into the equation in left field for Minnesota had they not been mis-evaluated and mis-developed.

Baddoo was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft last winter and was picked by Detroit as a lottery ticket bet to make the jump from A-ball to the majors. It was a defensible decision not to add him to the 40 man roster at the time, but all Baddoo did was make it look foolish by putting up a 2 WAR season as a 23 year old for the division rival Tigers. Baddoo slashed .259/.330/.436 and effectively defended in both left and center fields.

Wade Jr. was traded to the Giants for RHP Shaun Anderson (9.35 ERA in 8.2 IP for Twins) and found a new power stroke with his new club, bashing 18 homers (more than double his career high at any level). Several of those homers and other big hits came in crucial spots for the 107-win Giants. Wade Jr. was given a catchy moniker — “Late Night LaMonte” — for his clutch late game hitting and his six tying or go ahead hits in the 9th inning this season are the most in MLB in 40 years.

Can Nelson Cruz continue staving off Father Time?

Finally, we get to something that went according to plan. Fan favorite Designated Hitter Nelson Cruz did nothing but exceed expectations in his third year with the Twins. Prior to being traded to Tampa Bay in July for Ryan and AAA pitching prospect Drew Strotman, Cruz hit .294/.370/.537 with 19 homers in 85 games. Overall, his offense graded out about 40% above league average — an incredible mark for a player that turned 41 years old during the season.

The Twins, after falling out of contention, wisely turned Cruz’s reputation and strong start into future value. Both Ryan and Strotman have a puncher’s chance to stick as starting pitchers with plausible fall back options as relievers. Given the state of the Twins pitching pipeline I detailed above, the trade looked good in July and might look even better now.

Cruz has not produced to the same level with Tampa post trade. Over 55 games as the Rays’ primary DH, he hit .226/.283/.442 with 13 home runs. It was a decline from his Twins peak but still about league average overall. Cruz made less contact and chased out of the zone more with the Rays — causing his strikeout and walk rates to both move in the wrong direction — which are signs that perhaps he’s finally beginning to show his age. (That’s been said many times before, though).

Absent the Twins having a playoff caliber season and Cruz playing a big role in it, the way 2021 played out for the Twins and Cruz was about the best case scenario. He played well with the Twins early on and drew a nice return in a trade. Now, there will likely be discussion this winter about the Twins reuniting with Cruz again for 2022, but there will again be questions about how much longer he can continue to hold off the inevitable aging. There are also likely to be more suitors for his services when the next CBA expands the designated hitter to the National League (as is expected), making a return to Minnesota less likely.

Can the offense get back to mashing fastballs?

One of the biggest weaknesses of the 2020 team was an inability to punish opposing pitchers’ fastballs. Extra base damage against fastballs drove a lot of the 2019 Bomba Squad’s success but fastballs were a big enough weakness in 2020 they were actively targeted by the Astros in the playoff series that ended the Twins’ otherwise successful season early.

In 2021, this area turned out to be another bit of good news. The Twins got back to crushing fastballs. Against fastball pitch types — four-seamers, two-seamers, sinkers — the team combined to hit .273/.359/.499 (.367 wOBA) which was good for fourth-best among all teams this season and an improvement over last season’s 16th relative ranking. By pitch type linear weights at FanGraphs the Twins ranked 5th-best against fastballs this year.

The three players that were the biggest contributors to the Twins struggles against fastballs in 2020 were Mitch Garver, Jorge Polanco, and Byron Buxton. All three made big improvements against the heat in 2021, which played a big part in lifting the overall team numbers:

wFB/c = linear weighted runs against fastballs, per 100 pitches
Data from FanGraphs and Statcast

It was not just production against general fastballs that improved, but the production against the fastest fastballs. Against fastball types thrown 95+ miles per hour in 2020, Buxton had .074 wOBA and Garver had .098 (obviously, in small samples). This season, those numbers were .447 and .429, respectively. Polanco had decent numbers against high velocity heat last year (.344 wOBA), but he took it to a higher level in 2021 (.394 wOBA).

The turnarounds by those three players were also complemented by a mostly full and healthy-ish season from noted fastball masher Josh Donaldson. Last season, Donaldson missed about half the Twins games with injury and was most often replaced by fastball struggler Marwin Gonzalez (.171/.275/.263). This season, Donaldson and his .299/.396/.578 (.409 wOBA) line against fastballs played in 135 games and took 543 plate appearances.

Will the investment in the infield defense payoff?

In 2019 and 2020, with Polanco as the primary shortstop and Jonathan Schoop and Luis Arraez the primary second basemen, the Twins ranked 28th in baseball for shortstop and second base defense as measured by OAA. Over the same span, they allowed opponents to hit .247 on ground balls, which ranked 19th. The club sought to address that weakness last offseason by shuffling Polanco to second base, Arraez to a utility role, and adding aging defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons to man shortstop.

Despite some costly errors in critical spots throughout the season and some controversial off the field events, Simmons fit the bill with the glove. Two (Defensive Runs Saved and OAA) of the three main defensive measures (Ultimate Zone Rating is the third) agree that Simmons was well above average with the glove for the Twins this past season. He accumulated +14 DRS and +16 OAA at shortstop, which ranked 2nd and 4th respectively at the position. UZR sees his work a little differently and measured him right at league average. Regardless of the measure, he was a massive upgrade on Polanco at shortstop defensively.

The offseason shuffling does not grade out as a win in total, though, because Simmons glovework was offset by the worst offensive season of his career and one of the worst of any player in 2021. While he has never been confused for a fearsome hitter, he was passable with the bat prior to 2021 (90 career wRC+ entering 2021). This season, his wRC+ was a paltry 56, thanks to the rare triple slash line that had all three stats under .300 (.223/.283/.274). Simmons produced a career worst strikeout rate (13.7%) and had the second-worst slugging percentage (.274) of any regular (400+ PAs) MLB position player.

All the value Simmons brought with his glove was erased by his performance at the plate and he was below replacement level by fWAR (minus-0.5). Simmons will be a free agent again this offseason. That, coupled with the normal uncertainty about prospect Royce Lewis’s recovery from a major preseason knee injury, means the Twins will once again be in the market for a shortstop this winter.

How well will Polanco and Arraez adapt to their new roles?

This is another of the few things that seemingly went right. As the regular second baseman and occasional backup at shortstop, Polanco delivered a very strong season. The lighter physical demands of the keystone helped him stay healthy enough to play 152 games and take 644 plate appearances. Polanco put up a four WAR campaign and had a .269/.323/.508 line (.349 wOBA, 122 wRC+) that was top five at the position. Defensively, Polanco was also better off at second base, performing roughly at league average with the glove (2 DRS, -3 UZR, -1 OAA).

Arraez bounced around between second, third base, and left field while battling a handful of nagging injuries that limited him to 121 games and 479 plate appearances. When on the field, Arraez was more or less his typical high contact and high energy self, batting .294/.357/.376, but a late season slump dragged down his seasonal numbers.

On defense, Arraez played most at third base (414.2 innings) which helped to keep Donaldson in the lineup. Second base was his next most common spot (321.1), followed by left field (165.1). Third base is probably Arraez’s best defensive fit, but he graded out at about average in smallish samples at all three positions by all the different defensive metrics.

How will the retooled bullpen fare?

Uhhh…. Not well.

Will the Twins starting pitching depth be an advantage?

Nope, far from it.

Can Kenta Maeda repeat his 2020 breakout?

Again, no.

OK, fine. I’ll give you more than that. Let’s tackle these three pitching related questions together because the fall off of the pitching staff from 2019 and 2020 was steep and was probably the single biggest factor in the Twins going from back to back division championships to a last place finish.

Coming off the shortened 2020 season, every team was facing uncertainty about the workload increase that would be required to get through a full season. Depth would be paramount to cover three times the innings in 2021. Still, the Minnesota front office did not make any big splashes in free agency or notable trades to fortify the pitching resources last offseason. Instead, they made a high volume of smaller additions via minor trades, non roster signings, and waiver claims.

Much of the Twins strategy for the pitching in 2021 appeared to hinge on a belief that they could conjure effective relief pitching from strategic adjustments to mostly unknown players and retreads as they had done in previous seasons with players like Ryne Harper, Martín Pérez, and Matt Wisler.

This time the gambit came up mostly empty and the group of little known pitchers largely made no positive impact. Things were not much better with the few recognizable additions they made, either. Veteran starters Matt Shoemaker and J.A. Happ were ineffective before being jettisoned mid season. Reliever Alex Colomé had one of the worst months of April in baseball history before righting his season in the second half, after it was too late. Hansel Robles replaced Colomé as closer for a stretch but crumbled in June and July before being sent to Boston in a last minute deal at the trade deadline.

The failure of this diversification approach was compounded by injury to and poor performance from many of the existing internal options that were expected to take the next step. Randy Dobnak was ineffective and injured for most of the season. Lewis Thorpe, Devin Smeltzer, and Cody Stashak missed most of the season with injury. Jorge Alcala had mixed results for the first two-thirds of the season before appearing to have made a leap in the last two months when the competitive aspirations for the season were already over. Tyler Duffey struggled with command for much of the season and it limited his ability to miss bats. Kenta Maeda pitched through minor injuries early in the season that contributed to inconsistent command and worse results than he earned in 2020 before he also succumbed to a major arm injury that will likely hold him out for all of 2022.

The only pitchers that met or exceeded expectations in 2021 were Taylor Rogers (before a season ending injury), the remarkable Caleb Thielbar, José Berríos (before being traded to Toronto), and Michael Pineda (when healthy). Bailey Ober and Joe Ryan can also be included in this bucket.

While spending money on pitching in free agency is far from a guaranteed route to success, the choice to skimp on the pitching investments last winter failed miserably. In total, Minnesota used 35 different pitchers (including Willians Astudillo), and had 70 starts from pitchers not in the Opening Day rotation. As a group, Twins pitchers finished 26th in ERA (4.83), 24th in FIP (4.66), and 24th in fWAR (8.2). Despite how the season started for Colomé and the rest of the relievers, the bullpen’s stats actually ended up slightly better than the starters’ numbers (but still were not good). Twins relievers ranked 20th in ERA (4.39), 21st in FIP (4.38), and tied for 19th in fWAR (2.4) and Twins starters ranked 25th in ERA (5.18), 24th in FIP (4.88), and 25th in fWAR (5.8).

Even more than the questions at shortstop, questions about the pitching for 2022 will dominate the offseason. As of this writing, just two rotation spots appear to be reasonably settled — Ober and Ryan — but its unlikely either would be physically ready to handle a full season’s workload. There are still numerous holes in the bullpen as well. One thing that does seem to be clear is that how the front office navigates the rebuild of the pitching at the major league level will likely be the most significant factor in determining how much longer this group of decision makers stays in charge.

Next week, I’ll turn the gaze forward and pose some of the key questions to watch for this offseason.

John is a staff writer for Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analysis. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.