The Twins’ 2018 Has Been a Mess

It would be an exaggeration to say that nothing has gone right for the Twins since the 2018 season began. After all, they’ve won 35 games, which is more than the Orioles, Royals, or White Sox have done. They finished June with their best record of any calendar month (13-14, .481). Their big-league pitchers have avoided Tommy John surgery this year, Target Field has not burned down, and the last time we checked, none of their players has been sucked into an interdimensional vortex.

Still, yuck. This was supposed to be a much better and more interesting team, with 24-year-old center fielder Byron Buxton its centerpiece in the wake of last year’s second-half breakout (.300/.347/.546, 130 wRC+, 2.7 WAR). Buxton was a promising part of a Twins group that become the first team to rebound from a 100-loss season with a playoff berth.

The Twins were also one of the most active and intriguing clubs the winter, exploring the possibility of trading for the Rays’ Chris Archer, making free agent Yu Darvish a credible nine-figure offer, and taking advantage of the weird slowness of the market by buying bargains in bulk. They signed Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison, Michael Pineda, Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney, and Zach Duke, all without committing more than two years or $16.75 million to any of them.

While they may have avoided falling knives when it comes to Archer and Darvish, the Twins were swept by the Cubs at Wrigley Field this past weekend and fell to 10 games below .500 for the first time since the end of 2016. Their playoff odds, which stood at 28.7% at the start of the season, were down to 1.2% entering Tuesday. They’re a big reason the AL Central is on track to be the worst division since 1994 realignment; at 18-33 in games outside that division, their .353 winning percentage is right on target with the entire division’s collective .354 mark in such games.

Some of what’s gone wrong for the Twins can be chalked up to dubious decision-making, but more of it is just bad fortune — particularly in the form of injuries and a PED suspension. In all, the team entered Monday — their 81st game of the season — with just two position players and two pitchers who have been worth at least 1.0 WAR this year — namely left fielder Eddie Rosario (3.6), infielder Eduardo Escobar (1.9), and starters Jose Berrios (2.2) and Kyle Gibson (1.6). Let’s take a tour around the diamond…

Catcher

Starter Jason Castro, a solid contributor on both sides of the ball (93 wRC+, 1.6 WAR last year), particularly where pitch-framing is concerned, played in just 19 games and hit for a 39 wRC+ before suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee. When the injury turned out to be significantly worse than initially thought, Castro’s season was done. While 27-year-old rookie Mitch Garver has been similarly productive at the plate (92 wRC+), he just hasn’t been Castro’s equal behind it, and new backup Bobby Wilson hasn’t hit a lick. So it goes.

First Base

Joe Mauer collected his 2,000th career hit on April 13, clearing the way for an eventual Hall of Fame berth, but he was sidelined for four weeks by a cervical strain and concussion-like symptoms stemming from a May 11 dive for a foul ball. Last year represented his best offensive showing since moving out from behind the plate following the 2013 season (.305/.384/.417, 116 wRC+). This year, though — the final one of an eight-year, $184 million deal that has turned the St. Paul native into a lightning rod for criticism — he’s hit a meager .266/.368/.356 (104 wRC+).

Second Base

Dozier was the game’s most valuable second baseman this side of Jose Altuve in 2016-17, compiling 11.2 WAR while hitting for a 128 wRC+ with 76 homers, 34 steals, and solid defense. A popular trade candidate thanks to a team-friendly contract extension that expires this year, he nonetheless has remained a Twin, but Minnesota’s reward for keeping him has been a .221/.311/.397 (94 wRC+) showing, with 12 homers but just 0.9 WAR. He’ll fetch something in trade if the Twins choose to deal him, but the package won’t approach what it might have been 18 months ago.

Shortstop

The strong second half to Polanco’s 2017 season, which helped the Twins claim a Wild Card spot, was apparently too good to be true. He drew an 80-game suspension after testing positive for Stanozolol this spring; on Monday, he was reinstated to the roster. Though the Star-Tribune‘s La Velle E. Neale III called the suspension “the first sign that this just might not be the Twins’ season,” Ehire Adrianza, Eduardo Escobar, and others have combined for a solid 102 wRC+ and 1.0 WAR in Polanco’s absence. In keeping with the bad luck streak, Adrianza just landed on the disabled list due to a left hamstring strain.

Third Base

Miguel Sano’s 2017 ended badly, both on the field and off. A stress reaction in his left shin limited him to three games after August 19 and required surgery, and in late December, he was accused of sexual assault by a team photographer. MLB’s investigation ultimately yielded no disciplinary action, and while Sano began the 2018 season back at third base, he struggled in April, then missed 24 games due to a left hamstring strain. After further struggles (.203/.270/.405, 95 wRC+ overall), he was demoted to High-A Fort Myers to rework his swing and improve his conditioning. The silver lining is that Escobar, who has made 54 starts at third in addition to 20 at shortstop, has filled in well (.277/.332/.527, 127 wRC+ overall), helping the team to 1.3 WAR from the hot corner. But without Sano’s typical power, the team has slipped slightly from ninth in the league to 12th in homers, and from sixth to 10th in slugging percentage.

Left Field

Here’s something that’s gone completely right for the Twins: Rosario is hitting .313/.354/.570 for a team-high 148 wRC+ and 3.6 WAR, tops among all left fielders. He’ll be a fine choice to represent the team at the All-Star Game.

Center Field

If Rosario’s performance has been one of the happiest outcomes thus far, then Buxton’s has been the opposite. The 24-year-old flychaser has been limited to 26 starts and 94 plate appearances by migraines and a hairline fracture in his left big toe, through which he tried to play. Thus far, he’s “hit” .156/.183/.200 for a -3 wRC+, and the Twins chose to activate him from his rehab start and option him to Triple-A Rochester. Max Kepler (26 starts), Ryan LaMarre (22 starts, but just DFA’d), and Jake Cave (six starts) have filled in during Buxton’s absences, with Cave bopping three of the four home runs the team has received at the spot.

Right Field

Though he’s just 25 years old, Kepler is now in his third full season of subpar production for an outfield corner, hitting just .221/.306/.390 for an 89 wRC+. As noted, he’s spent a good chunk of time in center field, as well, which has only exacerbated the situation in right, as Robbie Grossman (.234/.319/.337, 81 wRC+) has been even less productive while splitting time between right field and DH en route to his team-worst -0.8 WAR. If Buxton ever returns, it’s probably worth giving Cave a longer look.

Designated Hitter

Despite setting career highs with 38 homers, 130 wRC+, and 3.2 WAR last year, the 30-year-old Morrison found a limited market for his services due to the glut of first-base/DH types and an industry-wide slowdown in spending. In late February, after camps had already opened, he signed a one-year deal for $6.5 million plus incentives and a club option that converts into a vesting option. The late start and cold weather may have been factors in Morrison’s abysmal .145/.253/.250 (41 wRC+) performance through the end of April, but then he was terrific in May (128 wRC+) and dreadful again in June (53 wRC+). Though Sunday, he’d hit .191/.292/.353 with nine homers, a 78 wRC+ ,and -0.3 WAR overall.

Rotation

While more has gone right within the Twins’ rotation than anywhere else on the club, their season’s troubles began here. Even before Polanco’s suspension, in the first week of February, projected Opening Day starter Ervin Santana needed surgery for a middle-finger issue — capsular release/debridement, it’s called. The 35-year-old righty was initially projected to miss 10-12 weeks, but he’s still on a rehab assignment due to his failure to crack 90 mph in either his bullpen sessions or his first two rehab outings.

Elsewhere in the rotation, the 24-year-old Berrios is striking out more than a batter per inning while delivering solid ERA (3.52) and FIP (3.57) numbers, and the 30-year-old Gibson is striking out a career 8.8 per nine en route to a 3.48 ERA and 3.87 FIP. Rookie Fernando Romero, who ranked fourth on the team’s prospect list this spring, has done solid work, with his ERA and FIP (both 4.38) distorted by one dreadful 1.2-inning, eight-run start on May 30 against the Royals; he was just optioned after a couple of shaky outings but presumably will be back after the All-Star break.

In less happy news, Phil Hughes was DFA’d and traded with $22.6 million remaining on his contract after he failed to bounce back from his second surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome. Neither Jake Odorizzi, who was acquired from the Rays in February, nor Lynn, who signed a one-year, $12 million deal early March, has panned out beyond eating a combined 166 innings. While each is missing plenty of bats — a skill all too often in short supply for this franchise — the former is serving up 1.5 homers per nine while the latter is walking 5.6 per nine.

Bullpen

The 41-year-old Rodney, who was signed to a one-year, $4.5 million deal that includes a club option, has been surprisingly serviceable as a closer, which should allow him to add another crooked cap to his collection by the end of this month. Reed, whom the team signed to a two-year, $16.75 million deal, has been shaky (4.26 ERA, 4.69 FIP), Duke pretty good, and Ryan Pressly is striking out an eye-opening 32.6% of batters. At the risk of glazing those now-opened eyes, I’ll spare you the details about Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger et al.

*****

So yeah, that’s a mess. If you’re scoring at home, call it five positions affected by injuries (catcher, first base, third base, centerfield, one rotation spot), and five by significant underperformances that have little to do with injuries (second base, rightfield, DH, two rotation spots), with shortstop (despite Polanco’s suspension), left field, two rotation spots, and closer the only real successes. While an optimist can point to last year’s Twins going 51-55 through August 3 before turning things around, it seems highly unlikely lightning will strike twice. If there’s good news, it’s that getting to 85 wins is more likely to yield a division title than a Wild Card spot.

It remains to be seen what kind of approach CEO Derek Falvey and GM Thad Levine take as the July 31 deadline approaches. Aside from the ever-fungible Rodney, they have a number of players who could be viewed as buy-low guys — namely Dozier, Reed, Lynn, Odorizzi (who still has a year of club control left), and Morrison — if they can at least show signs of life over the next few weeks. On the other hand, between their various contractual options and the ability to make Dozier a qualifying offer, they could try to keep the band together for one more shot, knowing that, in Mauer, Dozier, and Lynn alone, they’ll have $44 million coming off the books that they can spend elsewhere. Or maybe they get crazy, trade for Manny Machado, and take aim at the underachieving Indians. Probably not, though. Instead, they’re likely to be just one more team playing through a forgettable season.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

Sano, Buxton back in the minors. Kepler hasn’t broken out as expected. Those are some really costly busts and a pretty damning as far as player development goes. This team should be in the same breath as the Mariners for prospect futility.