The year after a season of exceeding expectations is a dangerous year.
One year after losing 103 games and finishing in dead last, the Minnesota Twins defied all odds and qualified for the 2017 postseason. The Twins won 26 more games in 2017, finished in second in the AL Central and snagged the second wild card spot. The rebuild leapt forward a few years and the Twins became consistent contenders. But as they currently sit 9.5 games out of first in their division with a 39-48 record, Twins fans wonder what went wrong.
As it stands, Minnesota’s best chance of playing in October lies with winning the division. The AL Central arguably holds the title of weakest division as only one of its teams owns a record over .500, the Cleveland Indians. No other division can claim that statistic.
That leaves the Twins contingent wondering: can Minnesota catch Cleveland and win the division? My answer: I do not see that happening. Despite the Twins’ success against the Indians, they lack the pitching and hitting to match Cleveland for 162 games.
At this point last season, the Twins sat 2.5 games back of Cleveland with a record of 45-42.
In 2017, Minnesota finished seventh as a team in hitting and 20th in pitching. The bats of the Twins carried them in the second half of the 2017 season. But in the current season, the Twins rank 22nd in batting and their pitching remains idle at 20th.
For the moment, I will blame Minnesota’s struggles on their hitting, or lack thereof. This three and a half month slump at the plate stems from a number of issues. The easiest area to place blame comes with injuries.
Migraines and a toe injury to center fielder Byron Buxton continue to keep him sidelined. Buxton boasted a 5.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2017, but has been limited to 28 games this season.
Shortstop Jorge Polanco recently returned from his suspension/injury stint which will provide more depth in the batting order, but only time will tell if Polanco can repeat his 2017 success without PEDs and after a finger injury.
Then there is Miguel Sanó. The third baseman is not technically injured, but he might as well be. In 37 games, Sanó, an All-Star in 2017, batted .203 with an OBP of .270. Sanó also struck out 44.5 percent of the time. The abysmal play earned him a ticket to Fort Myers, Fla. to play for the Twins’ advanced Class A minor league team.
That covers the guys off the field. Now for the ones on the field hurting the team. I will start with Logan Morrison. Once a highly sought-after free agent, Morrison hit a career-high 38 home runs in 2017 with Tampa Bay. That marked the most since he hit 23 for the Florida Marlins in 2011. This year, Morrison’s .289 OBP dropped from his career-average of .327. His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) went from a career-average of .754 to .646. He does not hit the ball much and when he does, the ball does not go far.
The most surprising slump comes from Brian Dozier. The second baseman became known for his power in 2016 and 2017 when he smashed 42 and 32 homers. Since 2013, Dozier’s first full season of play, he averaged a slugging percentage of .796, much higher than .402 in 2018. As far as oWAR goes, Dozier still offers a better option than the “average” MLB player, but the 1.5 oWAR in 2018 leaves much to be desired considering Dozier posted an average oWAR of 4.36 since 2013. Dozier strikes out this season as often as he has in his career and the is on pace to match his career average for walks in a season, but the lack of power hurts the most. With 2018 being his free agent year, some would suggest trading him, but the stock has dropped significantly since the 2016 offseason when the Twins asked for Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger in a trade that would have sent Dozier to Los Angeles.
Throughout the 2018 season, both Dozier and Morrison have batted in the top of the order. It does not take a baseball savant to discover batters at the top of the lineup bat more often. Considering the play of Dozier and Morrison, those two do not belong batting three, four or five. That blame goes to manager Paul Molitor. And if no better alternative is available, then that explains the team’s struggles in a nutshell right there.
The Twins front office most likely counted on their lineup producing like it did in 2017. So an obvious choice would be to bolster the starting rotation. The Twins hoped a trade for Jake Odorizzi and the acquisition of Lance Lynn would be a sharp combo to compliment the rotation.
Free agents and trades sound exciting, but Odorizzi and Lynn are not matching their career numbers, which are not that special to begin with. Mix their stats with not having All-Star Ervin Santana in the rotation and a staff ranked 20th suddenly makes sense.
Since 2014, the MLB ERA average is 4.06 and Odorizzi averages a 3.82 ERA since 2014 and owns a 4.28 ERA in 2018. Odorizzi’s WHIP since 2014 is slightly lower than the league average, 1.309, and his current WHIP of 1.417 is higher than both.
Lance Lynn has disappointed in his inaugural Twins season with a 5.21 ERA and 1.656 WHIP. Lynn missed the 2016 season due to a Tommy John injury and his ERA jumped from 3.03 in 2015 to 3.43 in 2017. With Lynn going through his worst statistical season of his career, missing an entire season could have been enough to derail his career.
For the moment, Minnesota needs to catch Cleveland to make the playoffs. The Indians traditionally start slow and take off after the All-Star Game. Cleveland sits one game better than they were at this point last season. The only difference: Minnesota is currently 9.5 games out of first rather than the 2.5 out at this point a year ago.
The Twins need to make up about 3.8 games per month to catch Cleveland, who rank fifth in hitting and 15th in pitching.
The Indians’ bullpen, in the early parts of the season, hurt their rank, but they possess one of the best rotations in baseball. A rotation Minnesota failed to match throughout 87 games this season.
When comparing Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco to José Berríos, Kyle Gibson, Lance Lynn and Jake Odorizzi, Cleveland wins all four as their ERA of 3.08 tops the 4.15 posted by the Twins.
Cleveland has expressed interest in adding a relief arm before the trade deadline and two-time All-Star Andrew Miller will return from the disabled list after the All-Star break.
The hole dug by the Twins, at the moment, appears to be too large to overcome. Minnesota is also in a unique situation with deciding to be buyers or sellers. Their record would suggest sellers, but with Joe Mauer, Lynn, Dozier and Eduardo Escobar as their notable free agents, Minnesota cannot expect much in return beyond Escobar.