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Ten questions for the Twins in 2021

An Opening Day list of things I’ll be watching this season 

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Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins
One of them is about Nelson Cruz!
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Opening Day is finally here — on time and with (limited) fans! For the Twins, that means it’s time to begin a division title defense for the second consecutive year. By most objective prognostications, Minnesota has the best chance at winning the AL Central for the third straight year.

FanGraphs projects Minnesota to win the division with a 87-75 record, good enough to clear nationally hyped Chicago (85-77) by two games. Rebuilding Cleveland (81-81) comes in at .500 and can never truly be counted out because of their pitching development voodoo. Kansas City is projected 77-85 but could surprise with their young pitching arriving and several seemingly shrewd acquisitions of veteran reclamation projects. Detroit brings up the rear of the division at 71-91, but could be better than expected if their own prospects and veteran retreads gel together.

Those are the most likely outcomes by the models. There are many other possible outcomes. Thinking about it from a probability perspective, FanGraphs’ playoff odds give Minnesota a 48% chance of winning the division, while Chicago has about 33%, Cleveland has about 13%, and Kansas City about 5%. If you prefer other sources for your data driven projections, FiveThirtyEight’s models are a little more Twins-friendly, predicting 90-72 and still about 48% to win the division. Baseball Prospectus is the most bullish, predicting 92-70 and an almost 70% shot at winning the AL Central with its PECOTA projections.

Of course, those numbers are interesting, but rely on lots of unanswered questions and assumptions. We won’t know anything for sure until the games are played and we get real answers. With that in mind, here are some of the biggest Twins questions I’ll be paying attention to as the season begins later today:

Let’s start behind the plate.

How will Rocco Baldelli manage the catchers?

Mitch Garver and rookie Ryan Jeffers figure to be part of some kind of timeshare behind the dish and it remains to be seen exactly how they’ll split up those duties. Baldelli described the situation as the Twins having “two regular catchers.” Fan favorite utility man Willians Astudillo is the third option and will also see some limited time behind the dish.

All of them hit right-handed, making a platoon based on the opponent’s starting pitcher, as Baldelli did in 2019 with Garver (73 starts) and left-handed hitting Jason Castro (72 starts), unlikely. Perhaps they will each regularly match up with a Twins starting pitcher in a revolving personal catcher situation. Perhaps Rocco will go by matchups and gut instinct. Perhaps one will get hot with the bat and run away with the starting job.

On one hand, it’s quite a luxury to have two options behind the plate that are considered worthy of mostly “regular” duty. On the other, both Garver and Jeffers come with some legitimate question marks.

How well will Garver bounce back after his disastrous, injury-riddled 2020 season (.167 / .247 / .264)? He seems likely to be a rebound candidate with clean health, but just how close can he get to his out of this world 2019 form?

And how “big-league ready” is Jeffers after his successful jump from just 24 games of AA-ball to the majors last season? His 62 PAs last season are hardly enough to draw definitive conclusions from, but they were enough to upgrade his prospect profile and he was added to several top 100 prospect lists this winter.

Speaking of top prospects…

What impact will the top prospects have?

Jeffers is the only rookie to break camp on the active roster, but there are several other prospects that figure to have an opportunity to make an impact this season. Pitchers Matt Canterino, Jordan Balazovic, Jhoan Duran, and Josh Winder all impressed in limited spring duties. Balazovic and Duran figure to continue developing as starters in the minors and may be mid to late season rotation options, along with Bailey Ober and Cole Sands. Canterino, Winder, and the currently injured Edwar Colina figure to be (very) hard throwing bullpen options at some point. Combined with last year’s rookie revelation Jorge Alcalá, Minnesota’s modernized pitching development program (now with velocity!) figures to start bearing fruit in 2021.

On the position player side of things, shortstop Royce Lewis will miss the season with an unfortunate ACL injury. Infielders/utilitymen Nick Gordon and Travis Blankenhorn also could play roles at various points depending on health at the major league level. The discussion of position player prospects in the Minnesota system really centers around the prized corner outfielders — Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, and the often overlooked Brent Rooker, with center fielder Gilberto Celestino not too far behind. The Twins made the decision to keep all of the youngsters in the minors to start the season in favor of veterans Jake Cave and offseason waiver claim Kyle Garlick, despite a very strong camp from Rooker.

That (somewhat surprising) decision brings me to the next question…

How effectively will Eddie Rosario be replaced?

When the Twins made the long-predicted decision to let Eddie Rosario go in December, I think most of us assumed the role in left field was about to be handed to Kirilloff. If not him, perhaps then to Rooker. In hindsight, it was probably a foregone conclusion Kirilloff would not start the season with the Twins, for many long term reasons. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the baseball economic system is designed this way and the Twins are simply operating in a way that they feel optimizes many competing variables. Kirilloff didn’t exactly force the issue, either, going just 4-31 in Spring Training.

That said, it remains unclear exactly how Baldelli will man left field on a regular basis and exactly how long the prospects will bide their time at the alternate site. We can expect some combination of Cave, Garlick, Luis Arraez, and the above prospects to handle the bulk of innings in left. Astudillo could provide some entertainment there as well.

Will the plan work? Over his last three full seasons, Rosario averaged 27 homers, 85 runs, and 88 RBI per season while performing offensively at a rate that was about 10 percent better than league average. Those are big shoes to fill, but the Twins have made a bet that a divide and conquer approach can approximate Rosario’s production for a mere fraction of the cost.

The cost savings from that exchange were largely re-invested into a certain expectations-defying designated hitter...

Can Nelson Cruz continue staving off Father Time?

Age eventually catches us all. It will for Nelson Cruz, too. Just not yet. We hope. Baseball writers have been telling the story of Nelson Cruz defying the aging curve since at least 2015. The Twins are hoping he’s got (at least) another good season in him.

It’s hard to put what Cruz has done the past two years in historical context. He’s posted the second-best wRC+ in baseball since joining the Twins in 2019 (trailing only Mike Trout) and has hit .308/.394/.626 with 57 homers and 141 RBIs in 173 total games. There just aren’t many previous examples of a hitter performing at a level like that at age 38 and 39. By OPS, only Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, and Ty Cobb had better age-38 seasons and only Bonds and Williams had better age-39 seasons.

Last season — to the extent we can draw any meaningful conclusions from it — Cruz may have started to show ever so slight signs of decline. His actual results outperformed his Statcast-derived expected results in batting average, slugging percentage, and weighted on base average, and his average exit velocity was down almost 2 miles per hour from years prior. Moreover, his ground ball rate was up to 47%, his highest of the Statcast era.

Even with those signals, Cruz has a lot of room to fall before he’s washed up. His .377 xwOBA from last season was in the 88th percentile. Even if he dropped off from there, odds are he’ll still be a well above average hitter and well worth the Twins’ investment in him for 2021.

For his part, Cruz maintains a diligent rest and recovery regimen ($) to try to keep his body in top condition for it’s battle with Father Time. The Twins will need him healthy and productive if they are going to improve on one of last season’s offensive bugaboos...

Can the offense get back to mashing fastballs?

The 2019 Bomba Squad feasted on fastballs, easily pacing the majors in production as measured by pitch type linear weights and collectively hitting .297 / .375 / .538 against them. In contrast, the 2020 Twins, with largely the same group of players, fell to the middle of the pack and hit just .263 / .351 / .469 against heaters. Last October, the Astros clearly targeted the Twins’ struggles against fastballs in their pitching game plans for the Wild Card Series, as I wrote in my post-mortem of the playoff disappointment.

Of the Bomba Squad players on the 2021 roster, Mitch Garver, Jorge Polanco, and Byron Buxton were the largest-decliners versus fastballs from 2019 to 2020. In the first two cases, there are reasons to believe injuries played a key role in those struggles. In Buxton’s case… well, I don’t think any of us know what to make of Buxton at the plate. We’ll just have to see.

The Twins are relying on some positive regression to take place in this area. Garver and Polanco are healthy and Marwin Gonzalez (now in Boston) was another significant contributor to the fastball futility. Replacing a large fraction of his at bats with Josh Donaldson and his .309 / .434 / .635 Statcast-era line against fastballs should be a big reason for optimism here. The rest of the lineup largely remains, with only Andrelton Simmons, a slightly below average hitter, both overall and against fastballs, being the only major position player addition this winter.

Of course, Simmons wasn’t added for his bat...

Will the investment in the infield defense payoff?

On the infield, Minnesota ranks just 20th in Statcast’s defensive measure, Outs Above Average (OAA), the past two seasons. The combination of Twins pitchers and fielders allowed a .247 batting average on ground balls (ranked 20th), a number that compares poorly to the league average of .241. Worse still, the expected batting average of the ground balls generated by Twins pitchers — derived from how often comparable batted balls, in terms of exit velocity, launch angle, and Sprint Speed, have become hits — was just .229 (ranked 8th). Clearly, a much higher fraction of the ground balls they got should have been converted into outs by the infield defenders.

Both corner infield positions graded out positively by OAA (+6 3B, +9 1B), but the overall infield performance was dragged down by the performance up the middle, as you can see by the blue boxes below:

Adding Simmons is intended to turn this weakness into a strength. If healthy, Simmons is a massive upgrade over Polanco at short and he is arguably the best defensive shortstop of all time. He is the all-time leader in Defensive Runs Saved and is second in Ultimate Zone Rating by just 3 runs. He should become the all time leader by that measure at some point this season.

Simmons is now 31 and has battled nagging ankle injuries the past few seasons, so it’s reasonable to expect some decline in the field (which may have started to show up in last season’s numbers). But, even if he comes down from his Hall of Fame level, he seems a pretty safe bet to be a good investment.

So, Simmons addresses the shortstop shortcomings, which displaces Polanco and Arraez...

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

Polanco will be the usual second baseman in the new defensive alignment, a spot that should prove to be a good fit for his skill set. Much of his poor showing at shortstop was attributable to his arm and that shouldn’t be as much of an issue on the other side of the bag. Polanco is also healthy after battling his own ankle injuries off and on the past few years, which gives optimism that he’ll regain some range and return to form at the plate, especially on the left side (from which he hit just .227 last season). After posting a combined .293 / .353 / .466 line in 2018 and 2019, Polanco cratered to just .258 / .304 / .354 last season.

In the field, Polanco should be a noticeable upgrade on Arraez at the keystone. The hope his transition can go smoothly is supported by the 200 games and almost 1,700 innings Polanco played there in the minor leagues. Statcast data also gives reason to believe in the move, measuring him as +2 OAA on the plays in the second base area since 2017.

Arraez is expected to have an “everyday, multi-positional role” much in the way Marwin Gonzalez served the past two seasons. It will be interesting to see how well Arraez converts to spending time in left field and at third base (and maybe even shortstop in a pinch), but the primary driver behind his role change is to find ways to keep his superlative bat in the lineup. Since his 2019 debut, Arraez is tied for second in batting average (.331) among all players with at least 450 PAs. His .390 on base percentage ranks 9th-best and, if Spring Training is any indication, Arraez is likely to hit atop the lineup frequently against right-handed starters.

Polanco and Arraez are not the only Twins who will need to successfully adjust to new roles…

How will the retooled bullpen fare?

The ‘pen was a strength of the 2020 Twins and the team’s relievers tied for the major league lead in Fangraphs version of WAR (3.6). Twins relievers finished sixth in ERA (3.62) and fifth in FIP (3.85) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.36). The group that comes through the bullpen gate in 2021 will look quite different, though, with Trevor May, Sergio Romo, Matt Wisler, and Tyler Clippard all with new teams.

The Twins played a patient and value oriented game in their offseason efforts to fill those roles — a wise approach (in my view, anyways) given the checkered history of bullpen spending. Instead of chasing the big names on the market, Minnesota added bounceback candidate Hansel Robles, made a slew of waiver claims (Ian Gibaut, Brandon Waddell, Ian Hamilton), traded from depth to acquire Shaun Anderson, and took a bunch of no risk fliers on non-roster invitees like Derek Law. The lone “major” addition was adding veteran late inning stalwart Alex Colomé to a one year, $6.25M deal.

The departures from last season’s relief group leave some high leverage innings open for the new look bullpen to cover and it will be interesting to see how Baldelli chooses to utilize the variety of options at his disposal. He has publicly refused to name a traditional “closer,” making plain that he intends to manage the bullpen flexibly and by matchups. Colomé, Robles, and Taylor Rogers all have experience closing games and Tyler Duffey has been arguably the most valuable reliever in the organization the past two seasons. Moreover, Alcalá has the stuff to push for high-leverage work and Randy Dobnak (and his new slider) could factor in, too. The underrated Cody Stashak and rebirthed Caleb Thielbar round out the Opening Day bullpen.

Another position group that is flush with good options is the starting rotation...

Will the Twins starting pitching depth be an advantage?

Kenta Maeda, José Berríos, and Michael Pineda return to front the starting rotation. Behind them there has been some turnover — Jake Odorizzi is in Houston, Rich Hill is with Tampa Bay, and Dobnak, as mentioned already, will start in the bullpen. Last season’s starters were fifth in the league in WAR, ERA, and FIP, despite 11 different pitchers making starts in just 60 games.

In the fourth spot now will be right-hander Matt Shoemaker, who is looking for a return to health in a new situation. Long-time veteran lefty J.A. Happ will fill the fifth spot and look to continue his late career evolution.

It’s incredibly rare for a team to rely only on its top five starters to get through a season. Research from 2014 suggested that teams average about 32 starts annually from pitchers not in their top 5 and average ten different starting pitchers per season. Given the trend toward increased reliever usage, I can only assume those figures have increased in recent years and that’s to say nothing of the fact that every team is nearly tripling the number of innings they need to cover from last season.

So, we’re very likely to see significant innings from Dobnak, the re-dedicated Lewis Thorpe, Devin Smeltzer, and potentially the prospects discussed earlier. Outside of Berríos and Happ, the rest of the rotation options all come with legitimate question marks about their ability to fulfill a normal full season’s starter workload. Shoemaker has thrown just 166 innings in the past four seasons combined. Pineda has 269 in the same span. Maeda’s career high innings pitched in a season is 175.2, back in 2016, and his workload was carefully managed by the Dodgers in the three seasons prior to his trade to Minnesota.

With at least eight solid(ish) options, and a penchant for cobbling together bullpen games and utilizing openers, the Twins are set up well to weather that uncertainty, the big workload increase, and effectively cover the inevitable 30+ games that won’t be started by one of the initial five starters. In a close division race, this enviable rotation depth could play a deciding role relative to Chicago, where the options after the top four are considerably less inspiring — unless you’re a Twins fan, like me, who enjoys facing Reynaldo Lopez.

While we didn’t get to find out how well Maeda would hold up over a full campaign in last year’s 60 game schedule, we did learn that he has the weapons to front a rotation...

Can Kenta Maeda repeat his 2020 breakout?

Riding some pitch mix adjustments that had him throw his offspeed pitches more than two-thirds of his offerings last season, Maeda posted a 2.70 ERA, 3.00 FIP, and 0.75 WHIP on the way to finishing second in the AL Cy Young Voting.

For that effort, Maeda has been tabbed as the Twins’ Opening Day starter and will look to build on last season’s breakout. With only 11 starts to work with, we can’t know for sure if last season’s performance is Maeda’s new normal. The analytic projection systems are decidedly split on his 2021 outlook: Steamer: 4.27 ERA, 4.30 FIP, ZiPS: 4.12 ERA, 3.95 FIP, PECOTA: 2.65 ERA, 3.24 FIP. The gaps between the Steamer and ZiPS predictions and the PECOTA projections are the largest among the 100+ pitchers those systems project to throw 100+ innings this season.

The MLB analysts at Baseball Savant lean more closely to the PECOTA side, relying on Statcast data to bolster their argument. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and likely depends on how well the division adjusts to Maeda’s slider heavy diet in his second American League Central go around. But, he’s preparing for them to do so and working to counter those coming adjustments with some of his own.

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What do you think, Twinkie Town? What questions are you most interested in seeing answered this season?

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.