The Twins Are Running Out of Time

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that 2021 hasn’t gone exactly according to the plans of the Minnesota Twins. In the American League Central standings, the club currently ranks dead last, looking up at the hindquarters of even the Detroit Tigers. Only the Orioles and Rangers have worse records in the AL this season, and neither of those teams was expected to be even remotely relevant come October. This isn’t a case of a team starting off 0-3 and the standings looking funny; clubs are passing the one-third mark of the season this week. Like most good teams that are struggling, the problem is a multifaceted one and not easily repaired. But at 12 games behind the White Sox in a weak division, urgent measures are required if the Twins aren’t ready to go 2022 calendar shopping.

Twins diehards would tell you that injuries share a lot of the blame, and they definitely have a point here. If you take a peek at our Injury Report, you’ll find 10 players currently on the Injured List; the team has had 22 total IL stints this season. By contrast, the Royals have had only 10 players on the IL at any point this season, with the Tigers at 12, the White Sox at 13, and Cleveland at a minuscule five. At some point or another this season, the majority of the team’s desired starting lineup has been on the shelf with an injury. Opening Day was the only game where Twins managed to have a starting lineup consisting entirely of the players initially expected to get the majority of the playing time at each position. The Twins have been decimated by injuries, and that is naturally going to have a significant effect on the bottom line.

Case solved, case closed? Hold on there, take those books out of your backpack; we’re not done here. The injuries have affected the team, but they only explain part of the win shortfall. To get a rough idea of this, I went back to what the ZiPS-projected record for each team at this point would be after the games of June 3, then re-did the projection with the preseason projections for players while reflecting the actual distribution of playing time.

AL Central Roster Shortfalls vs. Projected Roster
Team Projected Wins At This Time Projected Wins with Actual Rosters Difference
Chicago White Sox 30.7 29.6 -1.1
Minnesota Twins 31.5 28.1 -3.4
Cleveland 26.3 27.3 1.0
Kansas City Royals 26.7 26.2 -0.5
Detroit Tigers 24.2 25.1 0.9

With perfect knowledge of who played so far this season, ZiPS would have expected the White Sox to be in first place rather than the Twins. But even with this very specific advanced knowledge of the future given to us by the Ghost of Memorial Days Yet to Come, we’d still expect the Twins to be in second place. Now, this methodology can’t be perfect — roster decisions aren’t only based on injuries, and injuries can also affect performance — but three missing wins isn’t nine-and-a-half wins, so a lot in there has to be simple underperformance.

Running ZiPS this morning for the AL Central yields a much bleaker division outlook for Minnesota than two months ago.

ZiPS Projections – AL Central (After 6/3)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago White Sox 93 69 .574 90.3% 2.4% 92.7% 12.4%
Cleveland 81 81 12 .500 4.7% 7.1% 11.7% 0.8%
Kansas City Royals 81 81 12 .500 3.7% 5.5% 9.2% 0.6%
Minnesota Twins 78 84 15 .481 1.4% 2.4% 3.7% 0.2%
Detroit Tigers 68 94 25 .420 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Let’s start with the good news, though there’s very little of it. ZiPS projects that the Twins will escape the Central cellar, but not much more than that; the first-place preseason prognostication has transmogrified into a fourth-place one.

ZiPS only projects the Twins to have a 3.7% chance of making the playoffs and has them as 73-to-1 underdogs to finish the season atop the division. What should be especially concerning is that it didn’t even take a moribund evaluation of the team’s state to reach this verdict; ZiPS expects a .514 winning percentage the rest of the way, approximately an 83-79 pace over a full season. That’s worse than the preseason but certainly represents far more competitive baseball than they’ve actually played.

But since I get to tell ZiPS what to do, let’s display sunny optimism, a trait for which I’m well-known (also, lying, apparently). Let’s assume that we can snap our fingers, and the Twins will be the team we expected them to be at the start of the season from here on out.

ZiPS Projections – AL Central (Twins Preseason Strength)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago White Sox 93 69 .574 88.2% 3.6% 91.8% 12.4%
Cleveland 81 81 12 .500 4.3% 8.4% 12.8% 0.8%
Kansas City Royals 81 81 12 .500 3.4% 6.6% 10.0% 0.6%
Minnesota Twins 81 81 12 .500 4.1% 8.0% 12.0% 0.7%
Detroit Tigers 68 94 25 .420 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Being as strong as we thought two months ago is a big help, but still only gets the Twins up to 12%, with the best prize, winning the division to skip the Wild Card game, still a long-shot.

How good do the Twins need to be to make the playoff scenarios rosier or even as strong as the preseason projections? Let’s start by getting the Twins to one-in-six. Why one-in-six? Well, somewhat arbitrarily, in that those are the odds of rolling doubles in Monopoly in any given turn so that you can get out of jail without paying $50. Fifty dollars is a lot of money; you have to finish second in five beauty contests!

To get to a one-in-six chance of making the playoffs, you have to believe that the Twins, as currently constructed, are a 92-win team on a seasonal basis; for a one-in-three chance, you have to think the Twins are a .597 team, a 97-win pace, better than any AL team’s preseason projection. A coin flip proposition involves Minnesota needing to have the best roster in baseball; in other words, they could swap rosters with the Dodgers this afternoon, and they would project as a slight underdog to make the playoffs.

Minnesota cannot afford to wait until the trade deadline to decide how much to chase a playoff appearance in 2021. If they’re still going for it, the realities of time mean they need to make additions now, and those additions have to be significant ones, not just adding role players to the periphery of the roster. There are a lot of ways they could go here. They could talk to the Orioles about Trey Mancini or, a likely much more expensive proposition, John Means as a long-term rotation pickup. They might roll the dice on Joey Gallo and/or contemplate a reunion with Kyle Gibson, and be willing to pick up the Khris Davis contract if it comes to that. They could convince the Pirates that they’re totally going to trade Bryan Reynolds anyway and offer a better return than the Bucs would get in July or December. I think Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach are terrific prospects, but if you want to compete now and have good odds next year before Byron Buxton, and José Berríos hit free agency, you may very well not be able to keep both.

If you’re not willing to do what it takes to improve the roster significantly and you want to hang onto the crown jewels of the farm system, then it’s time to retool with an eye towards contention in 2021. Now, that doesn’t mean a complete fire sale — you don’t have to send Buxton to the Yankees and Berríos to the Braves — but it does mean parting with some of the short-term players on the roster. Nelson Cruz is as valuable a 40-year-old DH as can exist in baseball. Andrelton Simmons still has value to a team in need of shortstop help, and someone might want to take a chance on Alex Colomé pitching better. Should Michael Pineda’s forearm soreness be a simple ache rather than something more sinister, what team doesn’t want pitching help?

Whatever path the Twins take, the worst one would be hunkering down and hoping for the best; it doesn’t help them win now, and it doesn’t help them win later. The time for patient half-measures ended about a month ago, and the clock is ticking for the Twins to save 2021 from being a complete loss.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for 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.

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2 years ago

Nice analysis Dan. As always interesting article