Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Rivalry Defines Twins 2021

As the Minnesota Twins enter 2021 a new rivalry has emerged. With the Chicago White Sox looking like contenders a season ago, a full 162-game schedule should provide plenty of excitement between the two clubs.


Over the past couple of years Minnesota has been challenged at the top of the AL Central by the Cleveland Indians. They were a good team, with plenty of exciting stars, but unfortunately the fanbase never showed up. Ranking 21st in attendance during the 2019 season, Cleveland’s support system has always seemed relatively nonexistent. Maybe that’s why ownership felt the need to tear things down in the midst of a competitive window, but this ballclub has never seen the vocal support that the LeBron-led Cavs or Cleveland Browns have experienced.


Enter the Chicago White Sox. Yes, their attendance in 2019 was awful as well, ranking 23rd in all of Major League Baseball. However, as the organization has developed its young stars, there’s a vocal fan base in a very large market. The White Sox made the Postseason in 2020 for the first time since 2008. The time before that however, 2005, they swept the Houston Astros en route to a World Series title. This organization has seen success, even if it hasn’t been extremely recent.


Often times I’ve suggested that seeing a competitive club on a yearly basis is my desire as a fan. While winning a World Series is the ultimate goal, the stark reality is that 29 teams fall short every season. If the full 162-game schedule can provide some drama, meaningful October baseball can be played, and excitement be had along the way, I will have enjoyed roughly eight months of the year from a sports perspective. Include a rivalry that sparks debate, discussion, and intensified importance on any number of games throughout the week and you’ve put a cherry on top.


From guys like Barstool’s own White Sox Dave, or Twitter-famous ChiSoxFanMike, the White Sox have a well-represented fanbase. As with any situation there’s some rose-colored glasses type of takes, but it’s oddly refreshing to see banter and interaction each and every time Chicago’s South Side contingent is mentioned in the context of opinion.


It’s foolish to think that an improved White Sox team with another year of youth development will finish behind Cleveland again in 2021. The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox will battle all year at the top of the AL Central, and with both likely destined for the playoffs, it should provide plenty of must-see moments along the way.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

2021 AL Central Division Projection


As teams begin to kick off a more traditional Spring Training with the goal of completing it entirely this season, we’re now looking forward to a full 162-game slate. The Twins return as repeat AL Central Division champions, and they’ll look for a three-peat in 2021.


Shuffling has taken place throughout the Central with Chicago having had a strong offseason, Cleveland selling off, and Kansas City quietly making some noise. Last year I put this projection piece out in February, and then needed to come up with an amended version at the end of July.


Let’s hope for good health and as much baseball as we can handle this time around. Here’s how I have the AL Central going, along with PECOTA projections in parenthesis.


Minnesota Twins 97-63 (90-72)

It’s more than fair to suggest the Twins could’ve taken further steps forward this offseason, however they had the least to improve upon. Piece did depart, but none of them were substantial contributors and the addition of Andrelton Simmons should make a massive impact defensively. This team is going to go as far as a healthy Josh Donaldson and Byron Buxton allow them too. It’d be great if Miguel Sano were the Nelson Cruz aging insurance along the way. Expect additions at the deadline, and a stable of prospects are near ready to contribute.

Chicago White Sox 90-72 (82-80)

There’s no denying that the South Siders have closed even more of the gap. That said, I still think this club is in for some regression given the unpredictability of youth. They broke out in a big way during a shortened 2020 campaign that afforded them the luxury of small sample sizes. Thinking back to the 2018 Twins, a similar swoon could happen here. The talent level is too great to drift too far, but they should be considered a runner-up. Postseason expectations are a must however, and they shouldn’t have much problem achieving that.

Kansas City Royals 78-84 (72-90)

While the Royals are not yet there, and they are waiting on some offensive prospects to step up, they did a lot of nice things this winter. The Mike Minor signing was an underrated one, and Carlos Santana should provide a steadying veteran presence for them. I like Brady Singer and Kris Bubic in the rotation and think there’s a different trajectory here than in years past. This isn’t a Kansas City club yet ready to compete, but they’re substantially better than the bottom feeding Tigers and should have more firepower than Cleveland.

Cleveland Indians 77-85 (85-77)

Rather than load up for one last go with a strong rotation and a final year of Francisco Lindor, Cleveland decided to punt on 2021. The rotation is top heavy with Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale, but beyond that there’s more question marks with upside than anything. They’ve done a good job developing arms, and I’d expect that to continue, but it still needs to be proven. There isn’t much talent in the field or at the plate, and if they aren’t going to compete it makes little sense to hang onto Jose Ramirez. Assuming he’s dangled at the deadline, they could accelerate the rebuild they’re now destined for.

Detroit Tigers 65-97 (66-96)

A.J. Hinch has a tall task in front of him as this isn’t a club rich with talent akin to the Astros teams he’s used to having led. That said, there’s going to be a handful of prospects that filter into Comerica this year, and Detroit has one of the best systems in the game. I’d expect some of those kids to take their lumps, and even if they do produce, there’s just not enough on the roster to raise the overall water level. That said, this club isn’t far from turning the corner and adding pieces with a focus on competing once again.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Twins Holding Serve Spells Success


Yesterday the Minnesota Twins inked Matt Shoemaker to a one-year deal worth $2 million. He’ll be the favorite to fill out the starting rotation and likely puts a bow on a strong offseason. Without flash, it’s still exactly what was needed.


When looking at free agency it’s often the big signings or high-ticket players that draw all the fanfare. For a team like the Twins though, expectations have to be viewed through the lens of what is necessary. This isn’t to suggest teams shouldn’t spend money, or give them a pass for not doing so, but expecting good clubs to get exponentially better is a fool’s errand. Minnesota didn’t rock the boat, but they did more than necessary to three-peat as AL Central division winners.


Coming off two seasons with an average winning percentage of .600, the goal for 2021 should be to again make the Postseason and then make noise once you get there. Sure, the futility in the playoffs has been mind-boggling, but it’s ultimately not predictive of any future results. You’re dealing with incredibly small sample sizes, and while added together they look poor, viewed separately as they should be, they don’t indicate much.


The Twins won the division in 2020, just like they did in 2019. It wasn’t on them to go out and make up ground this offseason. They needed to replace a couple of bullpen arms and look to bolster their starting rotation. Short of signing Trevor Bauer, there was never a path for them to have an offseason quite like the Chicago White Sox or San Diego Padres. The former was a third-place team chasing down the hometown nine, and the latter is a club rich in prospects looking to make up ground between themselves and the World Series winners.


Obviously, there is any amount of talent that can be acquired to raise the water level for a 26-man roster. The Padres and White Sox are better positioned for 2021 than they were because of the talent they brought in. Both clubs had a need to make up a gap though. The Dodgers are spending a boatload of cash to run it back, with the one addition of the aforementioned Bauer. That’s a big splash, but one that only impacts a single roster spot.


With pitchers and catchers set to embark upon Fort Myers in the coming days, Minnesota has to be considered the divisional favorite. Then it’s on players like Josh Donaldson, Miguel Sano, and Mitch Garver to step up. Should the team fare as expected through the first half, betting on reinforcements being acquired at the deadline is also a good assumption. What it all boils down to is that World Series titles, and even Postseason victories, aren’t achieved in the offseason. The size of a winter splash doesn’t ultimately predict much in the way of October success.


Derek Falvey and Thad Levine made their big splash last offseason in the form of Josh Donaldson. They targeted a defensive upgrade that was otherwise unnecessary in Andrelton Simmons this time around, and his impact will be felt more on the diamond than it’s gotten credit on paper. Minnesota already was good and should’ve been expected to be so again in 2021. They then raised the water level ever so slightly, and here we are ready to go with a club that again will turn heads.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

PECOTA Projecting a Three-Peat


Today marked the unveiling of PECOTA’s standings projection from Baseball Prospectus. For the Minnesota Twins, things are looking great as the system sees 91 wins and a third straight AL Central division title. There are definitely some noteworthy revelations, however.


Of course, as Twins fans, the hometown club appearing atop the division once again is the most exciting development. 91 wins seems conservative in a division that should really be a two-team race, but PECOTA doesn’t see the breakdown working quite like that. Despite all of the fanfare, the projection system has the Chicago White Sox finishing third in the division and winning just 83 games.


From my vantage point, the White Sox coming in anywhere lower than second seems like quite the shock. Cleveland dealt away Francisco Lindor, should do the same with Jose Ramirez, and despite a stellar pitching staff, have little else to hang their hats on. The White Sox certainly could be primed for some regression though. They burst onto the scene a year ago, but the season was just a 60-game sample size. Looking back to the 2017 Twins, there was a Postseason appearance prior to a backwards slide that then set them up for the current run.


Trying to make some sense of what PECOTA may be seeing, I looked at the added WAR for Minnesota and Chicago through the lens of ZiPS from Fangraphs. Chicago has added just 6.5 fWAR while the Twins tacked on a tally of 7.2 fWAR. That’s largely a reflection of where both clubs added. The White Sox needed help in the outfield but responded with just Adam Eaton and Adam Engel. Lance Lynn is a solid addition if he keeps down the path of recent success, but even as good as Liam Hendriks is, Alex Colome was already stellar a year ago and a single reliever has just minimal impact. Both Nelson Cruz and Andrelton Simmons are seen as substantial additions for Minnesota, while J.A. Happ should be considered a steadying presence.


Even without the distaste for Chicago clouding my view, I still find it hard to believe that club will finish below Cleveland. I’ve written in this space that I’d hardly be shocked if the Royals end up third in the division, and for now I’m going to stick to that. Projection systems or otherwise, you can bet the South Side fanbase won’t take kindly to what will be viewed as disrespect.


One other area of note within PECOTA is the projection for the NL Central. That division is expected to be a dumpster fire, and the Milwaukee Brewers are slated to win it with just 88 wins. It’s worth making a note of considering the Central will serve as the interleague foe for Minnesota in 2021. Despite the regionalized schedule a year ago, the Twins face the same grouping of opponents in the National League. Being able to face off against a division that’s largely not trying should only provide additional opportunity to add tallies in the win column.


We’ll have to take a look back on these standings come October when the dust settles. Right now, though, another Twins division title and some shade towards the South Side is more than good with me.

Monday, February 8, 2021

2021 Minnesota Twins Roster Projection 1.0


With the Super Bowl now in the rearview mirror it is officially baseball season. This is the last week without the Minnesota Twins in action for the next eight months. Before the Spring Training action gets underway however, I’ll take a first stab at how Rocco Baldelli will utilize his 26 roster spots.


The Twins had a very strong offseason, and the front office did a great job once again allowing the market to play into their strategy. Key pieces were brought back, and new faces were added to the mix. Looking to go for a third straight AL Central division title, here is how I see the Twins breaking camp in Fort Myers as things stand now.


Starting Pitchers (5): Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ, Randy Dobnak


I think this is pretty set and don’t foresee anyone else threatening too much here. Minnesota could still bring someone in as a non-roster invitee, but Dobnak has earned the opportunity to have first crack. This is an area that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine can explore an upgrade during the season, and that could come internally in the form of top prospects Jordan Balazovic or Jhoan Duran. I still like Lewis Thorpe as a dark horse to throw meaningful innings this year, but that remains to be seen.


Relief Pitchers (8): Taylor Rogers, Alex Colome, Tyler Duffey, Hansel Robles, Jorge Alcala, Caleb Thielbar, Cody Stashak, Devin Smeltzer


If there’s a spot with change coming this is probably it. The first seven names on this list seem pretty straightforward to me and should make for a solid group. Including Smeltzer means that none of the waiver claims crack the Opening Day roster and that seems relatively far-fetched. Ultimately Smeltzer plays as a long-man, and that could be upgraded with the addition of another relief free agent acquisition. Given the number of names still out there, it’s probably a good bet that this group remains in flux at the back end.


Catchers (3): Mitch Garver, Ryan Jeffers, Willians Astudillo


This season Minnesota may have the best catching tandem in baseball. A resurgence for Mitch Garver should be expected, and Jeffers emerged in a big way during the 2020 season. Both should expect to get a ton of playing time, and that lends the roster towards inclusion of Willians Astudillo. Tortuga is still more gimmick than anything to me, and he shouldn’t see time behind the plate, but Baldelli is afforded flexibility by having him in the big leagues.


Infielders (5): Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Andrelton Simmons, Josh Donaldson, Luis Arraez


There shouldn’t be much surprise here as all of these guys are starters and going to get regular time. Don’t worry that Luis Arraez is now slated to come off the bench, he’ll still see north of 400 at bats this season. Travis Blankenhorn could be considered here, but I’d think Minnesota prefers Astudillo purely from a roster construction standpoint. Nick Gordon should be close to a now or never crossroads too, but I don’t see it happening on Opening Day.


Outfielders (4): Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Brent Rooker, Jake Cave


Much to the chagrin of Twins fans everywhere, I don’t think we see Alex Kirilloff out of the gate. Minnesota will likely play the service time game, while Cave and Rooker are more than capable in left field. I don’t think the uber-prospect stays down for long, but out of the gate this makes a good deal of sense.


Designated Hitter (1): Nelson Cruz


He’s back, that settles it.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Under the Hobby Hood: Baseball Cards


We’re now less than a week away from the release of 2021 Topps Series 1 baseball. Earlier this week I attempted a video Q&A session; it didn’t go well. Given that medium isn’t my forte, I’m hardly surprised. Looking to provide value and accomplish a similar goal, the focus turned to a mailbag instead.


Sourcing questions from readers and followers on Twitter, there should be a very good sample of talking points here. Without delay, let’s dive in.

If you aren’t interested in ponying up for a player’s 1st Bowman card (autograph or otherwise) the next best thing value wise would be considered their first Topps Chrome autograph. Kirilloff isn’t going to be in Series 1 Flagship, instead debuting in Series 2. He should have Chrome autos in 2021, so waiting for those to drop would be the next best thing. Obviously the most economical route will be his Series 2 base card (or any number of the parallels).

Hobby shops, along with a handful of online breakers, were how I got back into cards. Luckily, we have a handful of options in the Twin Cities area. My go to is Pal’s in Andover, but Real Breaks in Champlin has emerged as a new favorite as well. There’s a store in Golden Valley, and an option down near Woodbury. 2Bros is in Northtown Mall in Blaine, and Three Stars has locations in Bloomington and Little Canada. Hobby shops have the allure of immediate product, and many also sell singles for you to peruse through. There’s also the excitement or joy of just being in that type of environment with like-minded collectors as well. 

I have started to downsize my collection for a more focused approach. I only collect Twins, Mike Trout, and Shohei Ohtani. Rather than stockpiling a bunch of base cards I rarely look through, I wanted to make sure I could appreciate what I have. That process worked backwards too in that I had some very nice cards I didn’t display, and them sitting in a box wasn’t desirable to me. I have a new space I am going to be outfitting soon, so we’ll see how things display when I’m done.

Checking for retail has literally become a crapshoot. Pretty much any time I walk into Target or Walmart I’ll look and anticipate finding nothing. People have connections with distributors or simply wait for product to be put on the shelves. Wax isn’t that important to me since my PC is so narrowly focused. When I open, most of what I pull gets sold anyways. If I’m jonesing to rip something, I typically hit up a hobby shop.

That’s tough as I’ve not heard of water getting into a slab before. However, it’s probably a good reminder about buying the card rather than the grade. In this situation it’s free so you win either way, but not all examples of cards at the same grade have the same appeal. I’ve kicked around buying a 1986 Fleer Jordan in a PSA 1 for a while but wanting the right one to move me before I actually make the purchase.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Twins Earn Their “A”


And there was much rejoicing…Remember when the Chicago White Sox won the AL Central back in December 2020? Unfortunately for them, the Minnesota Twins have a few tricks still up their sleeve. Now days before Spring Training is set to commence, the reigning champs are positioned for a repeat.


After signing Nelson Cruz and Alex Colome to deals for the upcoming season, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have all but put a bow on their winter spending. I’d still think a pact with Tyler Clippard or a reliever in the $2 million range could make sense, as does a trade or non-roster invite for some starting pitching. No matter what happens from here on out though, the Fightin’ Baldelli’s are ready to go.


Continuing to view this organization through the lens of Terry Ryan and Bill Smith regimes has been a fool’s errand for some time now. It’s been the blueprint of Falvey and Levine to be calculated, risk averse, and strike where opportunity is deemed to match projectability.


Andrelton Simmons is not someone’s leftovers, and Josh Donaldson allowed Minnesota a new high-water mark in free agent history. Colome comes in above the bottom of the relief market, and both Happ and Cruz look like team-friendly deals in the landscape of their peers.


The Twins didn’t go out and sign George Springer or Trevor Bauer this offseason, but they didn’t need to. This is already a club that had all of the pieces for a deep run, and reality suggests they just need to get out of their own way. Anything can happen in a short series, which is why winning a World Series in incredibly tough. That said, you should continue to expect Postseason appearances often into the foreseeable future.


Today it was announced that 28% of Hammond Stadium will host fans for Spring Training, the players are just days from arriving, and we’re soon going to hear “play ball!” Minnesota is ready to make noise in the American League, and there isn’t a team in the National League that should be licking their chops come October either.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Minnesota’s Mysterious Fifth Starter


Recently the Minnesota Twins signed veteran starting pitcher J.A. Happ to bolster their rotation. He’d slot in as the 4th starter with where things stand currently, and Randy Dobnak would be the clubhouse favorite to round out the group. It remains to be seen whether or not another move is coming, but there’s a dark horse to eat someone’s lunch.


At the risk of sounding too punny, maybe he’s a dark kangaroo. Lewis Thorpe recently turned 25-years-old and is a former top-100 prospect. He couldn’t be further from that stature right now, but talent shouldn’t be the question. After battling back from Tommy John surgery, and then an extended bout of pneumonia, he put together impressive seasons on the farm. The past two years have been anything but, however he’s worth believing in under one key condition.


I liked Thorpe as a potential contributor to the big-league club when 2020 Spring Training kicked off. He was coming off a 4.76 ERA in just shy of 100 Triple-A innings, but it was largely reflective of the home run ball and his 11.1 K/9 paired with a 2.3 BB/9 was still plenty enticing. Then Florida happened.


No, for Thorpe, it wasn’t the Covid-19 related shutdown. Without divulging too many specifics or risking secondary information, what is publicly known is that he took an extended leave of absence from the team. His parents flew in from Australia and he needed to undergo a mental reset. Ultimately, he didn’t appear in a Major League game until July 26 and contributed just 16.1 innings for the Twins. His 6.06 ERA was ugly and giving up a homer in roughly 25-percent of his innings pitched was not going to play. Again though, the stuff has always been there.


Observing the offseason without having directly communicated with Thorpe, things appear to be trending in a different direction. The Twitter account has been dormant since his birthday in 2020, and his workouts have been shared on different forms of social media. What was at least an erratic presence a year ago has once again subdued as was the case previously.


Whether by his own doing, or a helping hand from the organization, if Thorpe has recalibrated himself, he can certainly be a difference maker on the bump. I was uncertain as to his place within the organization during periods of roster trimming, and there were times that his inclusion in a trade may have even made sense. The pitcher that forced his way into the big leagues in 2019 is a force to be reckoned with however, and Rocco Baldelli can make use of that.


Physically we saw Thorpe’s velocity diminish in 2020. He posted just an average of 90 mph on his fastball. It’s never that he’s been a hard thrower but losing nearly 2 mph at such a young age wasn’t a great development. It was clear that the lack of carry made a difference last season, and Wes Johnson unlocking the tank would be a great step forward for the Southpaw. The Twins ratcheted up his slider usage last season, and that trend could continue for 2021. Looking to regain the whiff and chase rates from 2019 form, tinkering will certainly be valuable as more data is collected.


There’s not reason to believe an ace is in the making here, but right now it’s not Dobnak or bust when it comes to the back end of the Twins rotation. Jhoan Duran and Jordan Balazovic may force themselves in eventually, but don’t count out the best version of Thorpe to make noise before the dust settles.