Sheehan: The Twins Are The Sleeper Of 2019
It’s been a long, cold winter without baseball, made worse by a Hot Stove League that ran tepid for far too long. The offseason was dominated not by talk of trades and signings, but rather whether enough teams were trying to win, and what that meant for a potential strike or lockout in three years. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two of the most desirable free agents, based on age and ability, to ever hit the market, were unemployed well into February.
It’s almost spring, though, and in Arizona and Florida, we have actual baseball games to draw focus, to inspire optimism.
March is when everyone has a chance, even the Orioles, when almost everyone has a chance. This rookie is going to explode on the league. That veteran is in the best shape of his life. The new manager hasn’t gotten blasted on sports radio yet. The new GMs moves haven’t blown up. We know, in this era of superteams, much of the playoff field. The Astros and Dodgers seem like locks to win their divisions. The Yankees or Red Sox will win the American League East, and the other will host a Wild Card Game. The fun is in figuring out who will surprise us.
Last year it was the Athletics, assembling a rotation from spare parts on their way to 97 wins and a wild card. In the National League, the Braves—pegged in this space as a sleeper—watched their young talent explode on the league. Ronald Acuña Jr. won the NL Rookie of the Year award, and Ozzie Albies joined him to create one of the best young duos we’ve ever seen.
This year, the team to watch is the Twins. They were in the postseason just two seasons ago, winning a wild card slot with an 85-77 record. Last year, injuries to center fielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano, combined with an 80-game suspension for shortstop Jorge Polanco, combined to bury them early. The Twins started 9-16, and never got back over .500, much less into contention. Coming into 2019, though, they still have that impressive core of homegrown players at peak ages that gives them a chance to improve quickly.
Buxton is 25 and still struggling to put it together offensively (.230/.285/.387 career), but he still ranks among the fastest players and best defensive center fielders in baseball. Sano, 26, had a lost season in which weight issues and the perception of his effort led the Twins to send him back to high Class A to get right. The Twins have been trying to build a winning team around these two for years, and their chance to overtake the Indians in the AL Central depends largely on getting eight to nine wins of value from the pair.
Think of the 2015 Royals, who won the World Series in the only year in which Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon were all good. Their opponents that season were the Mets, who peaked when Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard combined to make 83 starts, the most they ever would as teammates. Great young talent staying healthy and playing well is a powerful thing. Buxton, Polanco and Sano, combined with righthander Jose Berrios and right fielder Max Kepler, could form a championship-caliber core.
The Twins have some depth around that core, too. They’ll miss Joe Mauer’s on-base ability, but bringing in DH Nelson Cruz on a one-year deal will soften the blow. Left fielder Eddie Rosario is coming off a .288/.323/.479 season at 26. Jonathan Schoop replaces Brian Dozier at second base, a buy-low play with some power upside. Internet sensation Willians Astudillo, a catcher/third baseman, hit .355 as a September callup. The Twins scored 738 runs last year, sixth in the AL, and that’s likely their floor in 2019.
The amazing thing about the Twins under general manager Thad Levine is that they’ve finally begun missing bats. For years, the Twins sat out the strikeout revolution, and combining low-whiff pitching staffs with poor defensive teams killed their run prevention. Last season, thanks in part to Berrios’ development and a rebuilt bullpen, the Twins set a franchise high with 1,377 strikeouts and a rate that was right around league average. Righthander Kyle Gibson followed up back-to-back 5.07 ERAs by showing up with an improved slider, and he rode that to a career-best 3.62 mark. Rookie righty Fernando Romero showed flashes of dominance. Lefthander Adalberto Mejia’s elbow problems limited him to five appearances, but he’ll be back this season.
Finding a sleeper team isn’t about projections, which push everyone to the muddled middle. It’s about finding the team that has a group of players with untapped upside. There are few teams who have as much of that as the Twins do. Throw in a weak AL Central, one in which only the Indians are a threat—and even they took the winter off—and you see the Twins’ path not just to another wild card, but to a division title. Buxton, Sano, and Polanco combine to play 400 games. Berrios takes another step forward. The homegrown bullpen, featuring righty Trevor May and lefty Taylor Rogers(^), holds down the late innings. The new guys, Cruz and Schoop and C.J. Cron, hit 80 dingers.
It’s spring, and it’s time to be optimistic. The 2019 Twins are going to surprise everyone and win the AL Central.