With nothing expected of the majority of the AL Central teams in 2018, the Twins were the main hope for making Cleveland’s season inconvenient. Like a Star Wars prequel, this new hope failed to materialize in a satisfying way.
The Twins were one of the more successful regular-season teams in baseball during the aughts, making the playoffs in six of nine seasons, but also going 6-21 in the actual postseason. With the core of the team fading quickly after 2010, Minnesota spent several years wandering around as one of baseball’s few remaining (relatively) “pure” old-school franchises.
While the team assembled a solid stable of minor-league talent, the rebuilding phase seemed to proceed in fits and starts, the team mixing in rookies with veterans who signed cheaply and a collection of pitchers which seemed indicative of a front office unfamiliar with the FIP/DIPS research of the last 20 years. Minnesota occupied a state of decent irrelevance for six seasons without ever being too horrible — not unlike a second-tier show on The CW network — until Terry Ryan was cancelled in 2016.
In came Derek Falvey, former assistant GM of the Indians, as the team’s new executive vice president and Thad Levine from the Rangers. The new brain trust was charged with modernizing the team, not only by more fully embracing analytics but by updating the organizational structure, the latter challenge requiring the club, previously led by various satraps, to instead adopt a more cooperative style.
Then something weird happened: Minnesota started winning with the players they already had in 2017. Like the dog successfully catching the ice-cream truck, the unexpected improvement from 59 wins to 85 created a bit of a conundrum for the organization. For a club winning in the present, how is it possible to justify trading off players like Brian Dozier or Eduardo Escobar in order to build a playoff contender when those exact players just contributed to a playoff team?
In the end, the team decided to thread the needle, adding an assortment of players — Zach Duke, Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison, Jake Odorizzi, and Fernando Rodney — who could help the team win in 2018 while avoiding any gigantic trades that would bleed off the minor-league depth. The team was even in on Yu Darvish, which I endorsed, but fell short; this does not look like a bad thing at this point.
While the ZiPS projections had a good laugh about Lance Lynn and his 2017 FIP, the team did project to have a solid shot at the playoffs in 2018. The final projection at the start of the season was 85-77, with a 16% chance of winning the AL Central and a 49% chance of making the playoffs. The team’s approach in the offseason made sense in a division that featured only one other real competitor. The Twins wouldn’t need to catch lightning in a bottle to win the division.
Minnesota ended up with a 78-84 record, which, while not horrible, was especially dispiriting because of how it happened. Three of the team’s biggest contributors to the 2017 playoff run — Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and star second baseman Brian Dozier — disappeared in 2018 due to a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness. This trio combined for 10.9 WAR in 2017 and then 0.6 WAR in 2018.
Losing out on the production from those players was simply too much of a hurdle for the team to overcome. These weren’t 10 wins assembled in 2017 by some fluky BABIP players or a short-term veteran rental. Buxton and Sano were essentially the building blocks of the franchise, Dozier the veteran star, and they absolutely evaporated in 2018. While it would be natural to fault the team for not trading Dozier in 2017 when he certainly would have fetched more, I think it was reasonable not to do so, given the team’s specific competitive position.
That’s not to say the team didn’t have some successes in 2018. Jose Berrios solidified himself as a solid No. 2 starter, Kyle Gibson’s gradual improvement continued, and Trevor May pulled off the rare feat of coming back from Tommy John surgery and instantly becoming even more dominant, something I’m totally going to attribute to his training in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. The team also found some interesting complementary talent in players like Jake Cave and Mitch Garver… and which doughy middle-aged sportswriter is going to root against Willians Astudillo?
In the end, though, the missing wins production of the above triad was just too much to overcome. The 9.6 wins ZiPS projected from those players was hardly an unreasonable sum. When the team didn’t get any of them, there wasn’t really any way to find them elsewhere.
What Comes Next?
The team is in a tricky situation in that, sometimes, it’s easier to recover from a bad plan that goes bad than a good plan that does. When you do something mindbogglingly stupid, like place your hand on the stove out of curiosity, you’re given instant feedback about your choice. But when a good plan goes awry, it’s a bit trickier, because you then have to evaluate which of your assumptions was faulty and which ones were good.
The good news is that, only two years after the front-office remake, Minnesota probably still has enough goodwill to just take the mulligan and move forward. One important test is to see how Buxton and Sano are treated next spring. Sure, they were disappointing and injured, but in a sense, the team’s fate is still largely tied to the futures of these two phenomenally talented young players. I’m of a belief that the organization is too smart to do the whole “Let’s bring in mediocre veterans to make competition in the spring,” thing, which usually just ends up being decided on the basis dueling small sample sizes of spring numbers, but I’m not absolutely positive they’ll avoid doing that.
The team had the payroll flexibility to go after Darvish, and there’s really no reason they can’t go after a big free agents this winter. Nearly $40 million comes off the books with the departures of Joe Mauer and Ervin Santana (presumably). The supporting cast is actually quite good in Minnesota, and I think there’s a really good case for them to go after one of the top available players on the market. There’s enough upside minor-league talent that the addition of, say, Machado plus the resurgence of Buxton and Sano could actually make the Indians look a little nervous. It’s probably a long shot, but I think the Twins have to at least think about it. A minor-league starter or two graduating to the majors, a Stephen Gonsalves or Lewis Thorpe, would be warmly welcomed.
Way-Too-Early Projection — Miguel Sano
These numbers aren’t cause for celebration, but they do represent a recovery in 2019, even if it appears that some of the star upside has faded significantly. Stretch these numbers to a full season of health, and we’re talking a three-win boost from 2018, which the Twins will assuredly take.
This kind of thing is hard to capture in the stats, but looking at the large discrepancy in Sano’s contact rate over his career between zone and out-of-zone pitches of 36 percentage points (40.5% vs. 76.4%) compared to the league-average difference of 23 percentage points over the same timeframe, I suspect that any improvement in Sano’s plate discipline will result in large positive changes in performance than in most players. There’s also a good chance that the system is underrating him due to his various leg injuries this year (recovering from shin surgery, hamstring, knee). While ZiPS takes into account injuries in the general sense, it’s a blunt instrument, so it’s an additional source of error (and Sano did look at times like he was having issues driving the ball). In Sano’s healthiest month, his .204/.306/.430 August, his line wasn’t exciting, but that was with a .245 BABIP when ZiPS felt he was doing enough that he “should have” had a BABIP around .310 that month.
I don’t think that a star-level performance is the most likely outcome for Sano, but I think something just short of that is at least possible, and I’d probably take the over on the projections, even if he continues to struggle with health.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.