Monday, October 9, 2017

Grading Out The 2017 Twins: Offense

With the Minnesota Twins now finished with both the regular and postseason portions of their 2017 Major League Baseball season, it's fair to look back on the year that was. This group matured, and turned around a catastrophic 2016 effort to once again give steam to a young team going places. It was a group effort, but breaking down individual performances is a must as well.

In order to provide some brevity, we'll make this a three part series. Today, grades will be handed out to the starting lineup. Tuesday will focus on the starting pitching, and Wednesday will conclude with the relief group. While there were additional efforts from secondary players, bench and rotational players will be skipped over for this exercise.

All of the groundwork is out of the way, let's get into it.

Catcher- Jason Castro C+

Castro turned in a .242/.333/.388 line for the Twins in the first of a three-year deal signed this offseason. Brought in mainly as a defensive addition, it's hard to suggest the new backstop was anything but an addition. Coming off a terrible tandem in Kurt Suzuki and Juan Centeno, Castro provided certainty over 110 games for Minnesota. His .720 OPS was passable, and he launched double-digit (10) HRs for the fifth straight season.

Most importantly for Minnesota however, was how valuable Castro was behind the dish. Ranked 11th (of 110) in framing runs by Baseball Prospectus, he was a massive improvement from the Suzuki a year ago (92nd of 104). Castro also posted a 26% caught stealing rate (in line with a league-wide 27%). On his own, he was a huge boost for the organization. Given his work with the pitching staff, it's hard to argue that he didn't directly influence a group that saw a good deal more success as well.

First Base- Joe Mauer A+

Now in his fourth season playing first base, Mauer turned in his greatest campaign at the new position. He has to be considered the front runner for the AL Gold Glove as he ranks near the top in all defensive categories. When on the diamond, both infield teammates as well as pitchers had to know they had as much of a sure thing at first base as possible.

At the plate, Mauer flashed ability that made him look like a glimmer of the player he used to be. With a .305/.384/.417 slash line, he posted an .800-plus OPS for the first time since 2013. He batted .300 again for the first time since that same year, and if there was increasing doubt as to his Hall of Fame chances, he brought them to a screeching halt. The local kid looked all Hometown Hero once again.

Second Base- Brian Dozier A

Coming off a season in which trade rumors ran rampant, and thoughts of regression appeared more certain than not, Dozier did his thing once again. Despite a traditional slower start, his bat heated up as they calendar did as well. After the All-Star break, Dozier slashed .301/.391/.587 with 21 homers. He finished the year with 34 long balls, and looks primed for an extension this winter.

Dozier posted a second consecutive season with an fWAR north of 4.5, and has become the best second basemen in baseball not named Jose Altuve. Minnesota could be kicking themselves for not extending him into free agency sooner, but Dozier appears like a player that should be at the core of a team making the playoffs consistently for the next few years to come.

Shorstop- Jorge Polanco B+

The hope was that Polanco could step in, arguably out of position, and solidify what has been a massive hole for the Twins in recent years. While he was able to accomplish that over the course of the 162 game season, it wasn't without some hiccups along the way. Despite a mid season slump coinciding with the loss of his grandfather, Polanco put up a .256/.313/.410 slash line. From August 2nd through the end of the year, Minnesota's shortstop hit .316/.377/.553 and sent 10 balls over the fence.

At short, while still being below average, Polanco was hardly a deficiency. Owning just a -1 DRS across 1,119 innings, he made massive strides against a -8 DRS mark in 406 innings a year ago. His range also remained limited, but again, not nearly as much as the year prior. Arm strength will always be an issue for Polanco, but it appears the offseason work he put in did a great deal to solidify him in a starting role. For now, Polanco is hardly a problem Minnesota needs to look into.

Third Base- Miguel Sano B

Arguably no player had a more frustrating season for the Twins than Miguel Sano. That's not to say he struggled or had a bad year, but when he got down, he never really was afforded the opportunity to get back up. Coming off a significant dip in production a year ago (.781 OPS in 16, .961 OPS in 15), Sano was needing to get back to his rookie numbers. The power looked there all season long, and despite playing in just 114 games, he hit 28 homers. The strikeout numbers climbed as well though, and play at third base remained average at best.

For the early portion of the year, Sano had to be the team's MVP. He was an offensive catalyst, and the power was only overshadowed, among young hitters, by the likes of Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger. With 173 strikeouts and just 54 walks, he was on the same record breaking trail from a year prior. The average was higher at .264, but plenty of production had been left on the table as the rookie season plate discipline wasn't there. Sano can stick at third, I think shedding some pounds can help him. He's an offensive threat, but honing it in some is a must as well.

Left Field- Eddie Rosario B

At the plate, it was Rosario who emerged for the Twins. With a .290/.328/.507 slash line, he easily put up the best numbers of his career. With 27 homers, he threatened for the team lead, and a career best 37.6% chase rate no doubt helped to paint a new picture. He also swung through a career low 11.9% of strikes, and enjoyed a career best 78.3% contact rate. Being just a bit more calculated at the plate paid big dividends for the Twins polarizing outfielder.

On defense, things continue to sag. After being incredibly valuable his rookie season, Rosario has been on a negative trend ever since. With -10 DRS posted across 1,257 innings this season, he cost the time in left field. There were plenty of errant or miscalculated throws, and his routes could use some real work. Rosario is an athlete with a big arm, but at times, he tries to survive on those realities alone.

Center Field- Byron Buxton B

At Twins Daily, I voted Buxton as my team MVP. It may be hard to wrap your head around this grade given that context, but let me explain. Buxton started out dismally at the plate, and that was well documented. He did however, completely revamp his swing at the big league level. While the final result was just a .728 OPS, he actually had an .804 OPS from Jun 2nd on. At the plate, Buxton turned it on when it mattered most, and despite the slow start, he became among the Twins most valuable hitters down the stretch.

With Buxton, offense is never going to overshadow just how good he is in the field though. In center, he's a lock for the AL Gold Glove, and was worth an MLB best 24 DRS. His range was consistently apparent, and it was on the back of Buxton that many Twins pitchers found themselves surviving. He's an asset in every sense of the word with the glove, and that along makes him an All Star caliber player. If the offense stays throughout a full season, the rest of the league will be put on notice.

Left Field- Max Kepler C-

If there was one youngster looking to take a step forward, but failed to do so, it was easily Kepler. After a .734 OPS and some breakout notions last season, the hope was that Kepler would leap forward this year. When the dust settled however, he owned just a .737 OPS and replicated many of the same statistics he put up a season ago.

Arguably the most frustrating development for Kepler this season was his struggles against left-handed pitching. Despite being able to hold his own on the farm, Paul Molitor went virtually full platoon with Kepler. He was sat regularly down the stretch, and lesser bats, as well as gloves, saw playing time in his place. Going forward, Kepler is going to need to tighten his approach at the plate as a whole, and the Twins can be hopeful that it's 2018 where Kepler makes his presence known.

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