Monday, May 6, 2019

Taking the Twins Temperature

Coming off a week in which the Minnesota Twins faced a schedule akin to death itself, we can’t describe a 4-3 record as anything short of exceptional. The Houston Astros look the part of a World Series champion, and while the New York Yankees aren’t close to full strength, they’re holding serve in the AL East. For Rocco Baldelli’s club, there’s plenty of positive momentum, and rather than focus on one specific area, now seemed like a good time to highlight some standouts.

Byron Buxton is currently cruising. He has 14 doubles which is the amount of hits he tallied in total during 2018. Offensively he’s posted an .805 OPS which is well north of the average among big league centerfielders, and he’s pacing the defensive leaderboards. Buxton is first in outs above average, is the only player with two completed five star catches and has accumulated 3 DRS across just 247 innings. Without a significant dip taking place over the course of a full season, this is production that will have him earning MVP votes.

For some reason there was some concern about Nelson Cruz in the early going. With the layout of Minnesota’s schedule, and early interleague play, he missed plenty of at bats to get going. Now 28 games into his season, he owns a .972 OPS (best mark since 2008) and is on pace for 35 homers. Also sitting fourth in average exit velocity among big league hitters, the boomstick is just fine.

The roster continues to be paced by two players at some of the most important positions. Jorge Polanco leads the club in fWAR, while Jose Berrios is tops for pitchers. Polanco’s bat has played exceptionally well, which has always been expected. The .393 wOBA is just outside the top 20 in baseball, but the best part is the peripheral numbers suggest a level of sustainability. Add in that Polanco is now providing plus value at short, and you’ve got a strong asset. Berrios has turned from staff ace into a bonafide big deal. Command has been ramped up a notch halving his walk rate, and the WHIP is beyond fantastic. If Jose wants to push even higher, limiting the longball is maybe the last piece of the puzzle.

You may not find a bigger believer in the Twins blogosphere when it comes to Mitch Garver. His offensive profile has long looked the part of a big leaguer. As a receiver and defender behind the plate, there’s been concerns as to whether the position would be a long-term fit. Although not yet above average, he’s upped his strike rate over 4% this season. Mitch has also developed a much stronger presence at the bottom and edges of the zone, while addressing his blocking ability in a big way. Right now, it seems fair to wonder about his fit as the long-term solution.

I recently wrote about Martin Perez and the development of his cutter. He introduced a new offering into his repertoire and now looks like an entirely new pitcher. Minnesota targeted him based on the feeling that his stuff could be tweaked to unleash ability yet to be harnessed and there’s no denying that the front office looks spot on in that thinking.

There are still some question marks in the bullpen, but the trio of Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger, and Blake Parker looks to be a good one. Trevor May continues to settle into a higher leverage role and Ryne Harper appears to be a diamond in the rough. If acquisitions are yet to be made, it’s here that the most obvious avenue for an upgrade is. Give some credit to Baldelli in the way he’s managed this group as well. Despite more length from his starters, initial burnout could be attributed in some degree to his deployment of the arms. In backing off and being more strategic, there’s been no instances of taxed throwers during a consistent stretch of action.

Looking at the schedule, the Twins have played a lot of good teams early. With so much action within the division still ahead of them, and some less than ideal road destinations out of the way, the remaining action tilts in their favor. Leading the AL Central at the end of April won’t vault Minnesota to the Postseason, but it keeps that possibility centrally focused ahead of them. This team is good, and I felt like I was out on a limb suggesting92 wins. At this point, coming up shy of that would probably be a disappointment.