Is it a stretch to say that the team with the highest upside in the American League Central Division is the Minnesota Twins? Coming off of a very surprising 83-win season, the Twins boast two of the best young position players in baseball in Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton and have an interesting supporting cast. Brian Dozier is one of the game’s most underrated second basemen and others like Eddie Rosario, Trevor Plouffe, and Joe Mauer all have skill sets that yield positive results. With Jose Berrios waiting in the wings, the Twins pitching staff actually has some promise this season.
On the other hand, the Twins were one of baseball’s biggest overachievers last seasons by the BaseRuns standings metric, which suggested that they were 10 wins better than they should have been. BaseRuns takes expected runs scored and expected runs allowed and spits out a win-loss record based on those results. The Twins were second to the Royals and Cardinals in this particular standings metric. It is worth pointing out, even if you don’t believe in some of the advanced metrics and projection systems that the Twins and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were the only teams to finish above .500 with a negative run differential.
That means that the Twins, like most of the teams in the AL Central, have a very wide range of possible outcomes. If everything comes together, they can be a surprise winner of the division. If things stay the same, they’ll be in the hunt for the second wild card. If things bottom out, they could be closer to that BaseRuns standings metric from last season.
A very quiet offseason doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence, but in-house development can elevate this team, so it will be interesting to see how things play out. Terry Ryan opted to only give free agent money to Korean first baseman Byung-ho Park and wasn’t very active on the trade market. Most of the offseason moves focused on picking up league minimum depth. For a team in a very tough division with some very good pitching, it would appear, on the surface, that the Twins could take some steps back. However, all of those teams have flaws.
In taking a deeper look at the Twins, their success basically came from one month of the season. Minnesota was 20-7 in May. They were 63-72 over the other six months in which baseball was played. They were 13-6 against Chicago and outscored the White Sox by 51 runs and they were 12-7 against the Indians despite being outscored by eight runs. Going off of last season’s results, it’s easy to see how the Twins could have been much worse, but it’s also easy to see how some of their players could take another step forward this season to lead the team into the playoff hunt.
Season win total odds:
BetOnline: 79.5 (-115/-115)
5Dimes: 79.5 (100/-130)
Bovada: 78.5 (-115/-115)
Key additions: Byung-ho Park, Carlos Quentin, J.R. Murphy
Key losses: Aaron Hicks, Blaine Boyer, Neal Cotts, Brian Duensing, Torii Hunter, Mike Pelfrey, Josmil Pinto
Sports fans are lucky that hockey is so big in winter in the Land of 10,000 Lakes because the Twins would have caused everybody to die of boredom. After the Twins won the Byung-ho Park bidding process, not much happened. Carlos Quentin is presumably made up of prosthetic limbs in order to attempt a comeback.
Park is intriguing, as a low-risk, first base bat that can spell Joe Mauer or allow Mauer to DH occasionally. Beyond that, there’s very little to write home about. JR Murphy is a league average type of backstop that plays okay defense and has a serviceable bat when his balls in play are finding holds.
The losses are rather significant. Neal Cotts was a post-waiver trade deadline acquisition, but left-hander Brian Duensing has been a fixture of this bullpen for the last few seasons. Blaine Boyer made 68 respectable appearances for a quietly above average bullpen. Aaron Hicks is a really toolsy outfielder that was blocking Byron Buxton, so he was shipped to the Bronx. Torii Hunter’s production won’t really be missed, as his defense took a big bite out of the 22 home runs that he hit.
The Twins have to make up for 164.2 almost league average innings from Mike Pelfrey and gave up on Josmil Pinto. It wasn’t a great offseason for the Twins, who are banking on progression from some of their in-house guys.
Why bet the over?
In a sample of 335 plate appearances, Miguel Sano put fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. With violent bat speed and Incredble Hulk-like power, Sano hit 18 bombs, slugged .530, and embarrassed MLB pitching the same way he abused minor league pitching. Sano’s stats from 2015 are awesome. He crushed the ball, including some ridiculous exit velocity. He also struck out 35.5 percent of the time. He also walked 15.8 percent of the time. His zone-contact rate was pretty low at 78.4 percent, but he didn’t chase much at just 25.9 percent. He swung at strikes and he hit some of them very hard. He did DH a lot, which hurt his overall value, but he’s got the upside to hit 40 dingers with a really good triple slash (BA/OBP/SLG).
Brian Dozier has done things that nobody thought possible when he was in the minor leagues. Dozier has hit 75 Major League home runs in 544 games after hitting 16 home runs in 365 minor league games. He’s been a low average guy in the bigs, but he walks at a good clip and is a very underrated fielder. Over the last three seasons, there has been a very wide range in his performance, going from 2.5 wins in his first full season to 4.7 wins in 2014 to 3.4 wins in 2015. The happy medium is probably somewhere around three fWAR for the 28-year-old second baseman. That’s really valuable from a weak position.
I try to stress to people that league average is a good thing in Major League Baseball. Too many players fall short of average and too many average players are disrespected because being “average” sounds like a bad thing. In Trevor Plouffe’s case, here’s a guy that has worked hard to become an adequate third baseman and has some pretty decent pop. In three of his four full MLB seasons, he’s been an above average offensive player. Third base isn’t the offensive position it used to be, so he’s a valuable player, especially with his splits against lefties. He’s certainly not a detriment to this team and is one of its best everyday players.
Paul Molitor downplayed Byron Buxton’s early-season impact at the Winter Meetings when he mentioned that Buxton might need more seasoning at Triple-A. With Hicks gone, that would leave Danny Santana in center fielder at the outset. It shouldn’t be long until Minnesota realizes that they might as well let Buxton learn on the fly. He struggled to a .209/.250/.326 slash in 138 PA last season and had some major contact problems. If you buy into the Twins, I think you have to buy into Buxton.
Eddie Rosario wound up being more than a serviceable piece for the Twins last season. He hit 13 homers, swiped 11 bags, and wound up accumulating 2.3 fWAR. Rosario showed a plus arm in left and good range, so that offset some of his plate discipline struggles. He could very well repeat his two-win season, which would be a big win for a team that needs value wherever it can be found.
Hopes are high for Byung-ho Park, who Steamer projects to hit 30 bombs in his rookie season based on how he terrorized KBO pitching. August Fagerstrom compiled some industry views and added some other stuff recently at Fangraphs.
The starting staff has some guys that may be ready to take the next step. Former first-round pick Kyle Gibson quietly took some big steps forward last season. He’ll never be a low ERA guy because he allows quite a few balls in play, but most of them are on the ground and that forces teams to string hits together to score runs. Gibson has had a sub-4.00 FIP and xFIP in each of the last two seasons while being pretty durable. Gibson showed some strikeout gains in the second half as he got more comfortable with his secondary pitches. He’s a guy that could be on the upswing this season.
Another one is Tyler Duffey, who was the sixth-most valuable Twins pitcher even though he only threw 58 innings. Duffey was 5-1 with an above average strikeout rate and nice peripherals. After he was bombarded in his first start by a relentless Toronto offense, Duffey gave up two runs or less in eight of his nine other starts. He showed a good feel for his stuff and has a workman-like frame at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. He could be the surprise pitcher of the AL Central this season.
A full season of Ervin Santana should help Minnesota. Santana was limited to 17 starts because he was suspended for the first 80 games following a second PED suspension. Santana posted a 4.00 ERA, a 4.17 FIP, and a 4.42 xFIP with a late start to the season. A regular Spring Training to get ready could be really beneficial for him. Phil Hughes saw his strikeout rate drop and his command fall off as he paid homage to his days in the Bronx. Regression was undoubtedly going to happen, but a 1.68 HR/9 and a 13.5 percent HR/FB% should regress positively this season, making Hughes closer to league average. Ricky Nolasco has had past success.
The bullpen has some intriguing parts. Glen Perkins is a solid closer with a good strikeout rate and an excellent walk rate. His home run rate went in the wrong direction last season, with a 2.2 percent spike in HR/FB%, which was 1.6 percent above his career average. Fewer long balls and a bump in strikeouts could represent some solid gains for Perkins, who reportedly battled some muscular injuries last season. Casey Fien saw a drop in strikeouts but an increase in overall effectiveness with some weaker contact. Kevin Jepsen stole 10 saves and also induced a lot of weak contact. Trevor May was moved into the bullpen, where the Twins believe he will stay, and pitched really well in that capacity. Opposing hitters batted .246/.305/.392 with a 37/8 K/BB ratio. He’ll be the primary setup man in no time.
Paul Molitor seemed to win over his clubhouse last season as a rookie skipper. The former player certainly has a lot of credibility as a Hall of Fame player. He did a good job with the bullpen and should improve in certain situations in Year Two.
Why bet the under?
For one thing, somebody in the AL Central has to lose. It’s unlikely that the Tigers will drop 87 games this season and the White Sox have made enough improvements that they should lose fewer than 86 games. The Twins are the team with the most weaknesses. They trot out one well above average hitter in Sano, one above average hitter in Joe Mauer, some league average parts in Dozier and Plouffe, and then not a whole lot else. Put a bunch of Twins players into a hat, pull one out at a time, and you’re sure to find somebody due for regression.
Eddie Rosario’s .459 SLG was fun, but his .332 BABIP is going to come down and his strike zone coverage is severely lacking. As pitchers adjust, Rosario will be behind the times. As it is, Rosario struck out in 22.9 percent of his first half plate appearances and 26.4 percent of his second half PAs. His walk rate went from an anemic 3.9 percent to whatever adjective you want to use for a 2.6 percent walk rate.
Miguel Sano should hit, but he’s moving to right field, which has the potential to create all kinds of problems. It’s not the hardest right field to play with a limestone wall that will allow any ball hit over the fielder’s head to ricochet back to him, but Sano may not have a whole lot of range. It will cut into his overall value. If he keeps hitting missiles, a well above average BABIP is plausible, but a .396 probably isn’t. Even in the .350 range, he’ll be a three true outcomes guy with a ton of strikeouts, a lot of walks, and a lot of home runs. Basically, don’t expect a 151 wRC+. Probably more in the 135 wRC+ range, which is still really good, but it’s a step back on a team that can’t afford many of those.
Remember why projection systems hate the Royals? They don’t walk. The Twins are a league average team when it comes to plate discipline, and that’s with guys that actually work counts like Sano and Dozier. Overall, this is a substandard offensive team. Teams will pitch around Sano whenever possible and his free-swinging nature may lead to a lot of impatience. I’m not a believer in lineup protection in most cases, but Sano has none. The Twins will have to hope to get a baserunner or two and run into a mistake to score runs because they’re not a team capable of manufacturing them.
It’s very terrifying that Joe Mauer said that he has experienced blurred vision since his second concussion in 2013. Of course, he’s still been a decent contact hitter with above average plate discipline, which is rather impressive, but it’s very sad to see an extremely promising and talented hitter face these hardships. Unless doctors can pinpoint an issue and handle it, Mauer will continue to produce well below his contract value. Mauer was a below average hitter last season because he wasn’t aided by his usual BABIP. Given what we know now, it’s tough to see him bouncing back enough to be an impact bat. The contact quality just isn’t there anymore.
Park has prolific power, but that comes with a prolific strikeout rate and Major League pitching is not KBO pitching. Scouts believe Park will have problems with velocity, which is an issue in a division with guys like Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Chris Sale, Carlos Rodon, and some power bullpen arms. International players tend to be an unknown, especially Asian hitters. Pitchers have come over and have gotten by with some funky motions and some deception. Park is one of the few power hitters to come over in recent years, so we’ll see how that plays out.
As if the offense didn’t have enough worries, the pitching staff is pretty brutal overall. Kyle Gibson is a decent middle of the rotation starter forced into a front of the rotation role. He doesn’t miss enough bats and the Twins are a below average defensive team overall. To be honest, none of the Twins starters miss enough bats outside of Duffey and the league will probably adjust to him this season.
Hopes are not particularly high for guys like Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, and Ricky Nolasco, nor should they be. Santana and Hughes both have major command problems and Nolasco cannot stay healthy. Tommy Milone is still hanging around as a change-of-pace lefty and the Twins are frustratingly slow about bring up Jose Berrios, who could probably walk into the rotation and be the team’s best starter tomorrow. Trevor May probably would have been Minnesota’s second-best starter, but he has been relegated to the bullpen.
Speaking of the bullpen, Glen Perkins limits the value of his excellent control by having shoddy command. Kevin Jepsen had a .242 BABIP against, which is going to regress, along with his 81.9 percent strand rate, especially if his strikeout rate winds up in the same ballpark. Casey Fien had a 4.27 xFIP to go along with his 3.55 ERA. May is probably the second-best reliever in the bunch and the Twins have high hopes for him, but the transition from starting to relieving can be difficult for some guys.
There’s no depth with this team. An injury to Dozier or Sano would be crippling. Byron Buxton isn’t setting the world on fire enough to assume that he will be an immediate impact player this season. With Aaron Hicks gone, the Twins lost one of their better all-around players in hopes that Buxton would take center field and run with it. The starting staff is bad and shallow from a depth standpoint. Jose Berrios is it, especially if the team is serious about pushing Alex Meyer towards a bullpen role.
Remember the part about BaseRuns and how the Twins were one of the league’s biggest overachievers? They were 29th in wOBA with the bases empty last season at .289. The next lowest AL team was the White Sox at .298. With men in scoring position, however, the Twins were fifth (!!) with a .334 wOBA and a .332 BABIP. That, my friends, is one of the clearest signs of team regression we can find. Their performance with the bases empty should improve, given a .269 BABIP, but it also means that they will simply strand more runners this season.
Pick: Minnesota Twins Under 79.5 (-115 – BetOnline)
If you couldn’t have guessed already, I really hate trying to pick the American League this season. There are so many teams slathered in mediocrity that just about anything can happen with sequencing luck, variance, injuries, etc. This is finally one of my stronger plays. There is very little to like about this Twins team. Miguel Sano is basically it. Unless Byron Buxton makes a big leap, they will be below average in a lot of places and that’s with a poor starting rotation.
Somebody has to lose in the American League and this is the team that I think will do it. I’m thankful that they overachieved their BaseRuns and Pyth W-L standings by so much last season because it added value in going against them this season. Minnesota was 34-39 in the second half when some of their luck ran out. A 20-7 May skewed just about everything. In the other 135 games, the Twins were 63-72. Expect a similar performance to those other 135 games this season.
-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-
It took four straight losing seasons for Ron Gardenhire to be removed from the Minnesota Twins dugout. For the first time since 2001, a different person will be making pitching changes and taking the lineup card out before the game. The Twins opted to go with former player Paul Molitor for the job and he’ll have some big shoes to fill. Even though things didn’t go as planned for Gardenhire over the last four seasons, he still won over 1,000 games for the Twins and finished third or higher in AL Manager of the Year voting seven times, including a first-place win in 2010.
It was clear that a change was necessary. The Twins have not been able to put together a winning formula since they moved into Target Field in 2010. The Twins rode the wave of the new ballpark to a Central Division title and their last winning season, but they are just 265-383 in the four seasons since. In that span, they have finished at least 20 games out of first every season.
Changes were made and Molitor is tasked with navigating the ballclub through the time it takes for their top prospects to graduate to the Major Leagues. The surprising thing is that the Minnesota Twins were actually pretty good offensively last season. They just failed in every other area of the game. This is not a contending team, but they certainly have the opportunity to be a lot better than people think. GM Terry Ryan made some decent free agent signings and the Twins underachieved by five wins last season by Pythagorean Win-Loss.
Given the changes in Chicago and win totals in the 80s for Detroit, Cleveland, and Kansas City, the Twins come in with the lowest number in the American League at 68.5 wins per the opening number at Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno. Westgate Superbook posted the Twins at 71.5, which is the same number that BetOnline opened offshore.
Key additions: Ervin Santana, Tim Stauffer, Torii Hunter
Key losses: Jared Burton, Anthony Swarzak
There’s not a whole lot to write home about for the offseason for the Twins, but the signing of Ervin Santana is certainly an interesting move for a team with no postseason chances. The Twins were desperate for starting pitching and a guy that could miss bats with some regularity. Santana is a good fit in that regard, though it’s fair to be worried about his elbow health with the massive amount of sliders that he throws.
Torii Hunter makes his return to the Twins as a veteran presence with dwindling skills and faulty defense. Tim Stauffer is a nice bullpen arm that should be able to replace Jared Burton’s innings.
All in all, the biggest change in Minnesota was the one in the dugout with Paul Molitor in place of Ron Gardenhire. Gardenhire usually got the most out of his severely-flawed teams, so it will be interesting to see if Molitor can do the same.
Why bet the over?
If somebody asked you who the top offenses in the American League were by wRC+, who would you name? Of course you would name the Tigers and the Angels. You would probably think it over for a minute or two before saying the Blue Jays. Would you be surprised to know that the Twins tied the Indians for fifth with a wRC+ of 102? The Twins stood alone in fifth place in wOBA at .316. Only the Athletics had a higher walk rate than the Twins and only the Royals and Indians generated more baserunning value than the Twins.
Overall, this is a very underrated offensive club. Part of the reason that they are underrated is because they are more of a sabermetric darling. They don’t hit for a high average, they strike out a lot, they walk a lot, and they hit for a fair amount of power. Brian Dozier is a great example of this. Dozier hit 23 home runs and stole 21 bases at a very bad offensive position. His offensive contributions are second base were huge compared to the average performance. Dozier only hit .242, so he’s kind of an afterthought. But he walked 12.6 percent of the time and posted a .345 OBP. He also underachieved from a BABIP standpoint with a .269 BABIP. For a guy with 20 stolen bases, his BABIP should definitely fall into the standard range of .290-.310. There’s a realistic chance that Dozier improves again next season.
Trevor Plouffe is not a household name, and he shouldn’t be, but he wound up posting a pretty good 2015 campaign. He banged out 40 doubles and 14 home runs, walked at an above average rate, struck out at a better than average clip, and rated slightly above average on defense. Plouffe improved across the board in just about every important category and at 28 with three full seasons worth of at bats, he’s hitting his prime. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more underrated third baseman.
Oswaldo Arcia is one of those players that people overlook on the Twins roster. He hit 2 home runs in just 410 plate appearances last season, but he also struck out 31 percent of the time and he walked at a league average rate. He’s not the type of player that draws a lot of attention because he’s a low-average, high-strikeout hitter that has devastating power when he gets fortunate enough to run into a ball. Given some of the walk rates ahead of Arcia from people like Dozier, Plouffe, and Joe Mauer, mistakes thrown to Arcia can wind up in multiple runs.
What is Joe Mauer? His season was a tale of two different years as he showed some signs of wear and tear from the concussion he suffered in 2013 and then he strained an oblique and missed a month. When he came back, he batted .287/.397/.408 over the final two months and posted a 32/26 K/BB ratio. At first base, the thought is that Mauer can regain some lost power from not being in the crouch all the time, but that remains to be seen. In any event, he’s a high-contact, high-OBP guy surrounded by some unheralded players with a bit of power.
Slap-hitting speedster Danny Santana is a regression candidate, but even with that in mind, there’s still value in him as a player. Santana posted a .319/.353/.472 slash line with a .362 wOBA that he won’t repeat. That was over a 430 PA sample size and he posted a .405 BABIP, which is one of the highest over the last 25 seasons. The high slugging percentage won’t be there, but if the at bats are, Santana’s probably a .280 player capable of 25-30 stolen bases and, more importantly, he’s a first-to-home guy on extra base hits.
Kennys Vargas has some upside a power hitting bat who hits the ball really hard. He could be one of those BABIP overachievers because of the sheer velocity on balls he puts in play. He doesn’t have a lot of speed and plate discipline is not his forte, but there’s some thunder in his switch-hitting approach and the Twins have a few guys that can punish mistakes.
It’s safe to say that the biggest surprise in baseball last season was Phil Hughes. Like Corey Kluber, Hughes had the unfortunate job of pitching with one of the league’s worst defenses behind him. As a result, Hughes posted a 3.52 ERA with a 2.65 FIP. Hughes issued 16 walks in 209.2 innings of work and managed to strike out 186. That’s an incredible amount of control. Getting away from Yankee Stadium didn’t hurt as Hughes cut his home run rate by more than 50 percent. Regression is certainly possible, but not that much, and he is a good bet at the top of this rotation.
The biggest problem for the Twins last season was that they didn’t miss enough bats. That problem was exacerbated by a horrible defense. That’s why the signing of Ervin Santana was so big for this rotation. Santana should be around league average in strikeouts, which would be a huge upgrade for the Twins rotation. More importantly, he will give them over 30 starts and probably 200 innings. Middle relief is an area of weakness and the best way to hide that is to accumulate starters that can work deep into games. Santana is that guy.
Kyle Gibson has some middle of the rotation upside, despite his low strikeout rates. He makes up for it with a high ground ball rate and there should be some positive regression in his number if the Twins improve defensively. Gibson posted a 3.80 FIP and a 3.99 xFIP, but his ERA was 4.47 thanks to some cluster luck and the Twins bad defense. For those that aren’t familiar, cluster luck is a concept suggested by Joe Peta in the book Trading Bases. Basically, the theory is that hitters and pitchers experience cluster luck, where they perform at a much higher rate with people on base compared to without or vice versa. Gibson only stranded 66.3 percent of baserunners. With men on base, Gibson pitched to a .267/.344/.412 slash line. With the bases empty, Gibson was much better at .247/.294/.333. There could be a mechanical flaw from the stretch or it could simply have been bad luck. We’ll see this season, but there’s some hope for him to perform better in that area.
Ricky Nolasco was the biggest victim of the Twins defense and so there’s hope that he can bounce back. He posted a terrible 5.38 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and 3.97 xFIP. Nolasco’s BABIP against was .351, which should definitely come back to earth this season. Nolasco was limited to 27 starts, so it could have been even worse for him, but a discrepancy that big between ERA and FIP should regress almost naturally, though Nolasco has always been a guy that has posted a much higher ERA than FIP. It may just be a trend, but his ERA should fall by a decent bit this season.
The closer’s role is in good hands with Glen Perkins, who posted a great K/BB ratio and good advanced stats. His 3.65 ERA was a byproduct of the bad defense behind him, but his 3.10 FIP was solid and his control stats were very impressive. Casey Fien made 73 above average relief appearances and Caleb Thielbar was an adequate option. Tim Stauffer is a nice addition to the bullpen after posting a 3.50 ERA and a 3.02 FIP over 44 appearances with the Padres. Stauffer couldn’t stay healthy as a starter, but has put together a good strikeout rate as a reliever.
Why bet the under?
If you believe in the numbers that oddsmakers came up with, the other four teams in the AL Central are supposed to win 80 or more games. That means that somebody has to lose. That somebody would default to the Twins, who are clearly the weakest team from a pitching and likely defense standpoint. The Indians will improve defensively with Jose Ramirez and less David Murphy, so that likely leaves the Twins all alone, especially with the addition of Torii Hunter, who is no longer a good defender. It’s clear by the ERA-FIP discrepancy, which was the biggest in the league last season at 0.60 runs, defense matters a great deal.
The Twins are also hampered by having starters that are on the fringes of league average. Hughes is great, though some mild regression is to be expected. Frankly, who saw Hughes’s breakout coming? In that respect alone, you have to be a little bit skeptical, even if the statistical profile seems sustainable. Past Hughes, there’s Santana, who should experience some regression with the league change, Gibson, who will never pitch up to his advanced metrics with the Twins defense, Nolasco, who is just not a very good pitcher, and whoever the fifth starter may be.
The bullpen is not strong outside of Perkins and Fien and average pitchers will continue to look worse because of the bad defense. I know I’m really driving home the defense point, but defense is often unaccounted for in these projections and that’s where the value lies on some of these teams. Similarly, atrocious defense, which cost the Twins seven wins last season doesn’t really factor into how low a team’s floor might be. The Twins could very well reach that floor with some offensive regression and a continuation of bad defense.
The Twins had the fifth-most value as an offense against fastballs last season. Astute teams are going to see that and start to prey on the team’s weaknesses. The Twins were 13th against sliders, and 29th against cutters. Pitches that tail away from hitters are kryptonite for guys that swing and miss a lot. Teams will adjust and the Twins hitters will have to adjust as well. Many of the guys that had unforeseen success last year were either young players or players that had never put up the numbers that they did. That means that they will see different sequences of pitches this season. Guys with a lot of holes in their swings cannot adjust to those changes as quickly as the pitchers can adjust to the scouting reports. That puts a lot of pressure on the Twins to repeat last season’s offensive performance.
The Twins were 60-20 when they allowed four runs or less, which is pretty good. However, the number to focus on is that the Twins gave up at least five runs in more than half of their games. With an AL Central that should be better offensively, specifically with the White Sox adding some offensive pieces, why would the Twins pitching staff do any better? Amazingly, the Twins outscored three of their four AL Central foes in head-to-head matchups and had a winning record against the Tigers. They still fell short (or pushed) last season’s win total. That’s probably about the best that they can do against the division and it still wasn’t good enough.
It’s hard to bet on a team that’s going nowhere. The Twins often overachieved under Ron Gardenhire because he got the most out of his players. That may not be the case with Paul Molitor, a first-time manager whose sole job is to bide his time until top prospects like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Alex Meyer.
Pick: Over 71.5
I have to do this because I think the value side is the over. The pitching staff has major problems once again and the team may even be worse defensively this season. They’re a lock for being a bottom five defensive team and have a very good chance of being the worst since the Indians project to be a bit better defensively. Defense tends to be the overlooked element in these win totals, which was evident with teams like Baltimore and Kansas City going over in the American League last season. The Twins are this low for a reason and that reason is because their starting rotation is bad.
However, the offense is good enough to push them to 70 wins and the addition of Ervin Santana may be enough to get them over the hump. Alex Meyer should be in the rotation at the start of the season or close to it and Miguel Sano will show up at some point during the season. Things had gotten stale with Gardenhire at the helm and I don’t think he was a particularly patient manager when it came to losing. That’s why he had so much success pushing this team to overachieve when they were winning Central Division titles every season.
For bettors, the best-case scenario probably would be a bad season from the Twins because it will create value when their top prospects graduate to the next level later this season or at the start of next season. However, I think they’re going to be a little bit better than expected. They won’t play with the big boys in this division, but they’ve got a shot to avoid 90 losses.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
The Minnesota Twins managed to avoid last place in 2013, even though they lost the same number of games that they did in 2012. Consecutive 96-loss seasons don’t leave much room for optimism and the Twins are now mired in a three-year slump during which they have accumulated 291 losses. This comes after a string of six division titles in nine years during the 2000s.
Even though the Twins won the AL Central title in the inaugural season at Target Field, the new ballpark took away the Twins’ advantage. Teams all over Major League Baseball are tailored to their home ballpark. The Twins have had some decent power guys in recent memory like Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, but the lineup relied on scoring runs with little things. The team was full of contact, slap hitters that could steal bases and use the Metrodome’s FieldTurf to their advantage. The “baggie” on the right field wall and the wide gaps made the Metrodome one of the best triples parks in baseball. The Twins and their collection of speed and contact were able to play to the park.
Target Field is a different animal. A very high, limestone-covered wall in right field suppresses power for lefties and turns doubles into singles because of the violent ricochet off the wall. The cooler conditions through April, May, and September prevent a lot of carry to the baseball. The park plays better for the opposition because the Twins haven’t been able to turn their roster over quick enough. Over the last three years, the Twins have scored 959 runs in 243 games at home, less than four per game. Road teams have scored 1,223 runs in 243 games at Target Field, good for over five runs per game. Over that span, the Twins are 51 games under .500 at home.
Park factor isn’t the only reason the Twins have been bad, as they are nearly 100 games below .500 over the last three years, which means that they have struggled on the road as well. Pitching has clearly been an issue. Over the last three seasons, the pitching staff has posted ERAs of 4.55, 4.77, and 4.60, with FIPs of 4.23, 4.66, and 4.30. American League averages in that span are 3.99/3.97, 4.09/4.14, and 4.08/4.05.
The formula for losing isn’t always this cut and dry, but the Twins don’t score enough runs and give up too many. There aren’t many anomalies in this three-year trend that would point to bad luck. The Twins have lost 89 games by five or more runs over the last three seasons, so, simply put, this has just been a bad baseball team.
Projections aren’t real optimistic for this season either. 5Dimes.eu, Bovada.lv, and BetOnline.ag all have the Twins win total at 70.5 with varying vig. 5Dimes has the over at -120, while Bovada has the under at -125. BOL is -115 on both sides. BetDSI.eu has the total posted at 70, with the standard -110 on both sides.
Key additions: Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Guerrier, Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett
Key losses: Ryan Doumit
The oddsmakers expect the Twins to improve by a few games because of the additions to their starting rotation. Not listed in the key losses are P.J. Walters, Andrew Albers, Liam Hendriks, and Cole de Vries, all guys who started for the Twins last season. The reason they’re not listened is because they’re all extremely replaceable. One look at the overall numbers for the Twins rotation in 2013 will tell you that.
Ricky Nolasco seems to be one of the better value signings of the free agency period. Nolasco signed long before most of the free agent starters and got a four-year, $49M pact from the Twins. It’s the same money that Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez got, minus one million dollars. Nolasco was 13-11 with a 3.70 in the National League last season.
Phil Hughes, once a very highly thought of prospect, gets a fresh start with a new team leaving the high-pressure environment of the Bronx for the much more relaxed Twins organization. Injuries and gopher balls have really stunted Hughes’s development. He’s gone over 150 innings in a season just twice since joining pro ball in 2006 and has allowed 112 home runs in 182 appearances.
The signing of Kurt Suzuki will allow the Twins to move Joe Mauer to first base on a full-time basis. Suzuki is not an offensive threat in any way, but the Twins have clearly placed an emphasis on pitching and a good defensive catcher is an extension of that.
Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett, and Matt Guerrier all come home as those three guys made their Major League debuts with the Twins last decade. Ryan Doumit was traded to Atlanta to open up more playing time in the outfield for Oswaldo Arcia, Alex Pressley, and Josmil Pinto behind the plate.
Why bet the over?
The Twins rotation was historically awful and the upgrades in Nolasco and Hughes will pay dividends in making them better. The Twins rotation struck out just 4.93 batters per nine innings last season. Only Hughes is projected to be above average in strikeouts, but Nolasco strikes out enough hitters to get by and will certainly record more strikeouts than the others did last season. Twins starters gave up the fifth-most home runs per nine innings, which, combined with a large number of baserunners due to balls in play, was their biggest downfall.
About the only thing that saved the Twins from being even worse last season was that their starters walked just 7.1 percent of batters that they faced. That was just outside the top 10 for lowest walk rate. Nolasco fits nicely into that category with a career walk rate well above average at 5.5 percent. While Hughes struggles with command, his control helps him throw strikes. A similar walk rate from the rotation with an increased strikeout rate is going to be a big help.
Samuel Deduno gets no press because he’s not a strikeout pitcher, but think of him like the zone defense of pitching. It’s not a flashy profile at all, but Deduno gets by with a 59 percent ground ball rate and a way of inducing weak contact. He keeps the ball in the park and frustrates hitters with his heavy reliance on a curveball. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings last season, Deduno threw the sixth-highest percentage of curveballs. He’s a guy to keep an eye on, especially against aggressive teams that will allow Deduno’s stuff to play up.
Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey return from last season’s rotation and will slot into the middle or back-end of the rotation. For Pelfrey, there’s a sabermetric case to be made for improvement with a 5.19 ERA and a 3.99 FIP. Pelfrey had a .339 BABIP against last season, indicating that he may have gotten a little bit unlucky. It’s surprising that he doesn’t miss more bats with a fastball that can sit 94-95 on a good day and a downward plane at 6’7”, but he just doesn’t strike hitters out. He was coming off of Tommy John surgery in 2012, so he’ll enter 2014 with a clean bill of health. Correia remains a Major Leaguer because of his durability and craftiness.
Beyond these five, Kyle Gibson has had success at the minor league level that could show up in the Majors at some point. He got beat around due to bad command in 10 starts last season, but it was a learning experience for the kid. Vance Worley has shown the ability to get Major League hitters out before and could provide a nice depth starter.
The bullpen is a strength of this team. Glen Perkins went from matchup lefty in 2011 to very solid closer in 2013. He was terrific in every category, striking out over 32 percent of batters with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.88. Only Mike Pelfrey managed a better fWAR than Perkins among the pitchers. Jared Burton built off of his 2012 success and had another fine season with a 3.88 ERA in 71 appearances. Former starter Brian Duensing fared pretty well in his 61 innings with a 3.98 ERA.
As a whole, the Twins bullpen with other contributors like Anthony Swarzak, matchup lefty Casey Fien, and Caleb Thielbar had a solid season with a 3.50 ERA and a 3.62 FIP. If this team gets some leads, there’s talent here to protect them.
Joe Mauer continues to be one of the best hitters in baseball. In 113 games last season, Mauer accumulated 5.2 fWAR. His final stat line pretty much mirrored his career averages, so expect another five WAR season from Mauer to lead the Twins. Brian Dozier was a big surprise last season. From the end of May through the rest of the season, Dozier slugged almost .460 and hit 17 of his 18 home runs. For a guy with a little bit of speed, his BABIP of .278 should go up with a little more contact and fewer home runs on balls he makes contact with. There’s reason to believe that Dozier, who was also one of the team’s better defenders, can repeat his 2.8 fWAR season, if not exceed it with a better start to the season.
Josmil Pinto’s slow climb to the Majors culminated in a 21-game stint last season that saw the soon-to-be 25-year-old put up a .342/.398/.566 slash line in 83 plate appearances. It’s a small sample size, so tread carefully, but Pinto has hit at every level in the minors and should be an above average offensive contributor at his position. If his defense comes around, Pinto could be around a 2.5 fWAR player, which would definitely add value to the Twins.
One of the bigger strengths of the Twins lineup is how they work pitchers. Twins hitters struck out 23 percent of the time last season, the second-highest percentage in the league, but also were in the top 10 in walk rate. The Twins had the highest percentage of takes on pitches in the strike zone at 40.9 percent and fifth-best chase rate at 28.1 percent. That has value in the sense that it builds a starter’s pitch count and can wear out a bullpen late in a series.
Why bet the under?
Something that doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of consideration in these win totals is team defense. Sure, Nolasco and Hughes are upgrades to the rotation. However, the Twins were -10 defensive runs saved last season, had the fifth-fewest plays completed that were outside of a player’s designated range that led to the fifth-lowest Ultimate Zone Rating. In terms of Range Runs Above Average, the Twins were the worst team in the American League.
While those concepts may be foreign to you, apply them in a practical fashion. Even with Nolasco and Hughes, the Twins rotation will be well below average at striking hitters out. Balls put in play with a defense that lacks range are going to fall for hits more frequently than they would with another team.
Between the defense, a league change, and a better park for hitters, you have to expect Nolasco’s numbers to go up. The American League has an extra hitter with the DH and much more lineup strength overall. Nolasco has never been in the American League. He’s also pitched in Miami and Los Angeles, two parks that suppress home runs and extra base hits. Target Field has spacious alleys and may not give up a lot of home runs, but better hitters are simply going to hit more home runs. Nolasco’s not going to be the pitching staff savior that some people think he will.
Hughes hasn’t been able to put it all together. While Target Field will help his home run numbers a lot more than Yankee Stadium, he’s still a below average starter for where he’s slotted in the rotation. The depth behind him is marginal at best and if he’s not that good, this rotation has the potential to be pretty close to last season’s production.
Normally, the first place that you would look for improvement with a rotation that bad is at a pitching staff’s BABIP against. The .324 mark for the Twins was .013 points higher than any other team. The expectation would be that it would regress into the standard .290-.310 range, but not with a defense like this. The entire Twins outfield is below average. The infield defense is pretty decent, but Deduno is the only guy with a sharp ground ball split and Nolasco is slightly above average.
Help could have come from below as the Twins have one of the game’s best minor league systems, but third baseman Miguel Sano had to undergo Tommy John surgery, leaving the team’s biggest hole unattended to for 2014. Alex Meyer may come up to help the starting rotation, but scouts project him to eventually wind up in the bullpen. Eddie Rosario may be a late season call-up, but his impact will be small for this season. One of the game’s top prospects, Byron Buxton, has not played above A-Ball yet. The Twins will let these guys develop at their own pace, even if it means another awful season in the standings
Pick: Under 70.5 (5Dimes)
This will be a low average offense with a decent on-base percentage and a below average slugging percentage. Ron Gardenhire pushed this team to three more wins than their Pythagorean Win-Loss would suggest, partially because of how many times they were blown out skewing the run differential numbers. The Twins were 33-71 against teams .500 or better and the American League looks stronger as a whole this season. They were just 29-47 in the AL Central and that looks pretty likely again this season.
A five-win improvement shouldn’t be that hard with Nolasco, Hughes, and a full season of Mauer at first base, but somebody has to lose games in the American League and the Twins are one of the team’s operating at a major talent deficiency. This rotation will again be one of the worst in baseball. With a shift to pitching dominating hitting with the crackdown on PEDs, you can’t win if you can’t pitch. The Twins can’t pitch.