Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Twins Future Foundation

As much of a disaster as 2018 has been for the Minnesota Twins, it's hard to look back and call it anything but expected. The reality is that injuries, suspensions, and ineffectiveness destroyed any possibility of a return trip to the postseason. Going forward however, the future is bright (I wrote about that here). The same foundation that was going to be relied upon this season remains key for the years ahead. That begs the question of who is there, and who are we waiting on?

While Paul Molitor and the combination of both Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have earned some blame for their roster decisions this season, none of those three would be positioned to overcome the biggest elephant in the room. Experiencing lost seasons for both Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton was going to be a hill too steep to climb for this squad. It also represents that reality that each of those players remain integral to the future exploits of the organization as well. Although both of the top two names have sputtered, others have produced. Let's take a temperature check on where the core for the Twins youth is in relation to being able to provide a solid foundation for the future.

Eddie Rosario: Arrived

Somewhat of a knucklehead, maturity was arguably the greatest thing working against the Twins left fielder early on in his career. Posting just a .735 OPS and a 97 OPS+ (100 being average) through his first two MLB seasons, there was plenty of room for growth. Fast forward to today, and Minnesota has a legitimate All Star on their hands, as well as a top 20 player in MLB in terms of fWAR.

Since May 2017, Rosario owns a .296/.336/.518 slash line. He's still a free swinger going after pitches out of the zone nearly 40% of the time, but the 12.3% swinging strike rate is significantly lower than the roughly 15% average he was at in his first two years. After posting down numbers defensively in 2017, he's back to being a very good asset out there and the mental lapses appear to be few and far between.

Two years ago Rosario looked like a guy Minnesota would be questionable in offering a contract extension. At this point, they should make it a priority.

Byron Buxton: Still Waiting

There's no way to sugar coat it, 2018 has been an abomination for the Twins centerfielder. After winning a Gold Glove as well as the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017, Byron has played in just 28 MLB games this season. He garnered MVP votes a year ago, and hasn't looked even close to the player that emerged down the stretch. Among batters with at least 90 plate appearances, Buxton's .383 OPS is second to last. Injuries and ineffectiveness is thew narrative here.

The flip side of this coin is that Buxton already has over 300 G at the big league level under his belt, and he;s yet to turn 25 years old. He's the best defender in the game when healthy, and that helps to soften the blow of an offensive impact that's yet to catch up. There's far too much talent here to stay down for long, but consistency and availability is a must. Getting him back at the end of the year, and playing games somewhere this offseason could be huge. Buxton has to be a cornerstone for the Twins going forward, and I'm still fine betting on that being the case.

Miguel Sano: Still Waiting

When analyzing Miguel Sano's output over the course of his career, there will never be a down time that doesn't coincide with narratives pointing towards weight. As he has ballooned at the waistline, he's been scrutinized for his play. While being out of shape never helps an athlete, I think the bigger narrative is the one Minnesota employed in sending the slugger to Fort Myers. This is a story of accountability, work ethic, and desire. Sano puts on weight when he chooses not to buy into those areas. He has flashed the ability to be Minnesota's best power hitter since Harmon Killebrew. Right now Miguel knows that, but it's up to him whether or not he wants to work hard enough to achieve that.

In his time back with the Twins since his hiatus on the farm, signs have been encouraging. Not only did he buy into a conditioning program enough to come back a more trim version of himself, but the plate appearances have been better as well. The hot corner doesn't look like a spot he's incapable of holding down, and the power potential there remains immense. Sano left a .203/.270/.405 line in the middle of June, and has compiled a .250/.368/.344 mark in his return. He was swinging through 16.1% of pitches, and has drastically dropped that amount to 11.4%.

We're still experiencing a small sample size here, but the returns remain good. This offseason, Sano is going to need to display continued buy in. This isn't a flash in the pan type of change, and it has the ability to be career altering. If he's able to close the book on who he was, and be this type of an athlete, then the sky remains the limit.

Max Kepler: Turning a Corner

Looked at as somewhat of a breakout candidate for 2018, this season has been filled with ups and downs for Kepler. He came out of the gates extremely hot in April, and then cooled significantly by June. Since July 1 though, the German native owns an .890 OPS and has launched six longballs amidst his 12 extra-base hits. On the year he's still hitting lefties better than righties, and his launch angle continues to be an area of promise.

Despite being outspoken regarding a desire to put the ball on the ground, it seems Kepler has bought into the reality that success is through the air. He very well could reach the 20 homer plateau for the first time in his career, and he's made significant strides in the plate discipline department. A deeper dive into batted ball numbers suggests that Kepler is getting fairly unlucky, and that should only help to fuel a late season burst.

Jose Berrios: Arrived, but Not Fully

Owning a 3.0 fWAR on the season, Berrios is currently ranked as the 15th best starter in baseball. The 3.51 ERA and 3.58 FIP are in line, and there's not a number he's put up that isn't a career best. What's truly impressive about that however, is we still aren't seeing the best of him. At just 24 years old, Berrios was invited to his first All Star game. His success has include four clunkers with 5 ER or more, and he's got another three starts in which he's allowed 4 ER. Expecting perfection each time out isn't realistic, but 36% of his starts lending themselves to significant improvement is a very fun thing to project forward.

Having kept home runs largely in check, Berrios has stifled one of his largest downfalls. Slight in stature, he's been able to get enough movement on his pitches to combat the throwing plane in which the ball travels from his hand. We've seen a lot of good starts from Berrios this season, and we've also been privy to opportunities for growth. Although he'll likely set career bests across the board this year, we're just scratching the surface. He's got the ability to round into a bonafide ace, and it's a development that Minnesota has craved for years.