The Minnesota Twins are the team to beat in the AL Central

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 04: Max Kepler #26, Miguel Sano #22, Eddie Rosario #20, Nelson Cruz #23 and Jorge Polanco #11 of the Minnesota Twins look on prior to the game against the New York Yankees on October 4, 2019 in game one of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 04: Max Kepler #26, Miguel Sano #22, Eddie Rosario #20, Nelson Cruz #23 and Jorge Polanco #11 of the Minnesota Twins look on prior to the game against the New York Yankees on October 4, 2019 in game one of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Twins are the frontrunner to come out on top in a relatively weak AL Central competition and they’re set to continue succeeding in the future.

Rightfully or not, Tigers fans have looked to two main sources of inspiration when examining the Detroit rebuild – the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. Unfortunately, neither club looks like the best example any more after the Cubs missed the playoffs and have performed at a mediocre level after their historic 2016 victory. There’s also extremely public skepticism of the Astros’ successes in light of the cheating that took place over the course of the last three years. Perhaps the most underrated rebuilding effort of them all, though, has been the Twins’.

Minnesota was the worst team in baseball in 2016 and was able to win over 100 games in 2019, only three years later. When the Tigers finally come out of the rebuilding endeavor they’re engaged in, the Twins will almost certainly be the monster they have to slay in order to rule the AL Central again.

So what should Tigers fans expect from Minnesota in 2020? We teamed up with TJ Gorsegner, managing editor of SB Nation’s Twinkie Townto create a preview of the team for Tigers fans.

Motor City Bengals: Are the Twins a true-talent 100+ game winning team? In other words, will they do it again in 2020?

TJ Gorsegner: 101 wins was an overperformance for last season’s club–but they’ve gotten better. I’d put a 50% confidence at around 95 wins this season, and they could easily exceed it. MLB has nerfed the ball a bit, so I don’t know that we will see 307 dingers again, but most of those no-longer-home-runs probably drop in for doubles, or enough at least. The Twins did also add an offensive upgrade in Josh Donaldson, which should help keep the scoring up, while also boosting their pitching. Remember how nasty the Twins bullpen was in August? They flew a little under the radar, but they were legit, and we’ll have a whole season of that group, plus an improved rotation. 100+ wins is very doable this season, especially because we still get to beat up on Gardy & Co. for 15 games, and the Royals for another 15.

What can Tigers fans expect from CJ Cron and Jonathan Schoop?

Cron was actually really good last year, until a nagging thumb injury slowed him down. He played through part of the season with the injury, so I suspect the first bit of 2019 is more accurate to his true talent level, at least while healthy. Take a look at his splits last season by month, and it tells the whole tale. Slow but passable April, on fire for May and June, and then awful from July on. In the first half combined he hit .266/.326/.495, with 17 home runs; and I believe that is very likely his healthy outcome this season as well. My prediction: he starts 130 games, hits roughly .260/.320/.480 and around 30 homers.

As for Schoop, he was pretty reliable for the Twins, and will be an upgrade for you. He just got squeezed out by a rookie with a great plate approach in Luis Arraez, who draws comparisons to the great Rod Carew. He hit .256/.304/.473 with a little power. The batting average is spot-on for his career average, and the OBP is pretty close, so its believable for him to do the same thing this season. The slugging percentage was up a little–but who’s wasn’t in the juiceball era of 2019. My prediction is that he gets the start in roughly 120 games, and hits .250/.285/.450. You might get 20 dingers out of him, but the defense will be slightly above league average.

In other words, both were good pick ups as veteran placeholders for a rebuilding team.

Which new Twins player should we be most nervous to face?

The “easy” answer here is Josh Donaldson, and I do think he’ll feast on a Detroit pitching staff which is basically “Matthew Boyd and some dudes,” But I’ll give you another answer. Not so much one guy, but I think that you should be very, very nervous if the Twins can bring a lead into the 6th inning of a game. Taylor Rogers has become a very good lefty closer, in the mold of Glen Perkins. Leading into him, the Twins have a choice of nasty right-handed arms.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – JUNE 26: Trevor May #65 of the Minnesota Twins (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – JUNE 26: Trevor May #65 of the Minnesota Twins (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images) /

Trevor May, specifically is a guy who has been criminally underrated. After Tommy John a couple years ago interrupted his transition to the bullpen, he put up very, very solid peripheral numbers in 2018, and very, very solid results in 2019. Personally, I think he might be the most underrated player in baseball. His counterpart is Tyler Duffey, another “failed” starter who found another gear in 2019 and put up disgusting second half numbers. The Twins also have Sergio Romo, who has been consistently good for years and Tyler Clippard (who you probably remember from the Spiders and Yankees,) as late-inning guys with experience.

Adding to that core is a couple young guys that came up and showed results in the second half of last year, Zack Littell and Cody Stashak.  Matt Wisler was a waiver claim who has great peripheral numbers, but never quite put it together, and perhaps a change of scenery is all he needed. Two of those three will likely start the year in Minnesota, and the final bullpen spot will probably go to a NRI lefty. The Twins have three choices there — Caleb Thielbar, who had a good rookie year in Minnesota in the past, but spent the last couple years in indy ball, veteran Danny Coloumbe, or a player you know well, Blaine Hardy. Not really a single guy, but certainly something new and scary for the AL Central.

Did the Twins do enough to strengthen the starting rotation?

The guy who started game two of the ALDS is probably on the outside-looking-in, if that tells you anything. Jose Berrios changed his off season routine to focus on rest and recovery, in the hopes of avoiding his annual second-half skid. That should help, because when he is on, he is the ace we need, he just hasn’t been consistent. Jake Odorizzi is back after a career year, but he is young enough that his “career year” could become a “five-year-peak” and even if he is down a bit, he is still a decent starter.

The third spot will go to Kenta Maeda, who the Dodgers have bounced back-and-forth between the rotation and the pen not due to performance, but due to an embarrassment of riches. He’s motivated, and he’s good. Homer Bailey will start the season as the fourth starter, hoping to continue the career resurgence he found last season. He’ll be on a short leash though, because the Twins have a plethora of other options coming up.

The fifth spot in the rotation started the spring as a four-way competition, but is likely down to two already. Jhoulys Chacin was a very-good pitcher in Milwaukee as recently as 2018, but got rocked in 2019, got cut, and just had everything go wrong. The Twins are looking at him as a veteran reclamation project, and as the only contender with no options, had the inside track entering camp. He is being challenged by Randy Dobnak, the former Uber driver who went undrafted just a few years ago, and went from A-ball to starting in the ALDS in one season. He was a bit of a desperation call-up last season, but performed very well in his cameo. He’s done nothing but put up great results this spring, and should absolutely be evaluated as a part of the Twins future. He’s also received a ton of praise for his unflappable mentality.

Lewis Thorpe and Devin Smeltzer were also in the fifth starter conversation a few weeks ago, but Smeltzer has had a rough spring and Thorpe missed time due to personal reasons, so both lefties will probably start the season in Rochester, where they’re a short plane ride away in case of early injuries. The Twins also have a couple of very good midseason reinforcements lined up. Michael Pineda will be returning from a suspension due to a masking agent (not a PED) in May, and was quite likely Minnesota’s best pitcher in July and August last season before being suspended. He’s now in his third year since TJS, and is absolutely a guy to watch.

Rich Hill has been one of the best pitchers in baseball when healthy the last few years, but “when healthy” is a huge caveat there. He’ll be back from an alternative to TJS somewhere around June or July, and could give the Twins another playoff-caliber arm. And that’s not even looking at a potential trade deadline deal–the Twins have plenty of prospect capital to make that happen.

Finally, as mentioned above, if the starters can just get the Twins through the fifth inning without blowing up, they’ll be handing things off to a nasty bullpen. Bottom line, the Twins may not have the best top five in baseball, but they have plenty of depth, and given their offense (even with a little regression) I think they did enough with the rotation to be a competitive team in October.

Which Twins prospect should Tigers fans pay more attention to?

Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff get the press for a reason, they are a clear class of two at the top of the farm system. Behind them are a few arms that should be watched. Jordan Balazovic has the stuff to potentially be a top-of-rotation starter for a long time. Jorge Alcala may transition to the bullpen, but also has very good stuff. Lewis Thorpe looks to be more of a mid-rotation guy, but he’s also basically at the MLB level, so we’ll see him soon. The one guy you should pay the most attention to though is already with the Twins. After being overlooked through the minors, where he just kept hitting, Luis Arraez brought his disciplined plate approach to the majors last year, and ended up supplanting Schoop at second. He’s the number one guy you should watch this year. He may yet end up a bust, but he also has the tools to be one of the all-time greats at the plate. Several projection systems are suggesting he could be the MLB batting champion this year. I’m not saying it will happen, but boy would that be fun.

Which Tigers prospect are you most likely to wish played in a different division?

This question has an obvious answer — Mize and Manning. [ed. I said one prospect but whatever, TJ] If both pan out, a couple years from now facing the Tigers could be like facing the Spiders when Kluber-Bauer-Clevinger was a fearsome top three. If even one pans out, it’ll be like having to face the Tigers with Verlander a few years ago. Not fun. You can theoretically pitch around an elite batter, but if you face an elite pitcher, that’s tough. I have nightmares about a potential future where Matthew Boyd is your third-best starter.

NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 05: Max Kepler #26 and Jorge Polanco #11 of the Minnesota Twins. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 05: Max Kepler #26 and Jorge Polanco #11 of the Minnesota Twins. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images) /

Is your team set up for a long window of contention or has the front office punted the future somewhat in an effort to win now?

There is no punting going on, for sure. The future is always murky, but the Twins have very little payroll committed out past 2022, even with the record-setting Donaldson deal on the books. The Twins have the ability to extend anyone on the roster. Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco are both on incredibly team-friendly deals. The farm system is loaded as well, so there is a wave of reinforcements coming up in the next couple years–or the ability to trade for anyone they want. The Twins have prized payroll flexibility under the Falvey-Levine (Falvine) regime, so I don’t expect that to change. We’ll wait to see if they can get over the hump of true contention, or if this will be like the 2002-2010 Twins, consistently in the playoffs, but unable to capitalize.

If you could change something about how the Twins were run, what would you do?

Lots of fans would suggest spending more money, but personally, I don’t think that is a major issue. They built a great, young roster as it is. Under Falvine and Rocco Baldelli, the Twins have embraced and invested in modern analytic technologies and methods, so we are good there too. As a humble blogger, the best thing I’d like to see is more engagement. The old TC Bear was fairly active on social media, but the team less so. The new mascot handlers are still an unknown commodity. A few players are interesting and engaged. Most notably Trevor May, who also produces music and streams video games on the side. Lewis Thorpe has done a great job of it this spring as well. Too many players are a little invisible though, there are some fantastic personalities on this team, and rising stars, and the league has an infuriating inability to market that.

Are here any projects or articles at Twinkie Town you’d like to plug here? 

A specific project? That’s so hard. We just brought on a bunch of new writers though, and we have a great team. This post was a great primer on projection systems, and I actually learned a lot from it. This is the AL Central projections from a really, really humorous series. We do a lot of satire, here is a recent piece in that category. We have a long-history of Ron Gardenhire satire, which you can find with a little google-fu, and we still do those pieces from time-to-time. From top-to-bottom though, I’m really proud of my staff and what they do, basically as a total passion project. Honestly, if your readers want to keep up on whats going on with the Twins, I’d just suggest coming by, we don’t bite. Lurk if you want, but we’re always receptive to opposing fans as well, so feel free to jump into the comments.

Thanks again to TJ Gorsegner and Twinkie Town for teaming up with us on the project. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @badcoffeetwins for more Twins content!