The Twins surprised many observers last year who picked them to finish near the bottom of the league in wins. Instead, the plucky Twins won 83 games, causing skipper Paul Molitor to finish third in "Manager of the Year" voting. This year, Minnesota will have some of the most exciting young players in the game on their roster. Whether or not they contend again depends in part on how quickly those players develop.
The young Twins lineup is now led by 22-year old slugger Miguel Sano. Sano came up in July last year, and in the second-half, he was ninth in the American League in home runs with 16. Sano is a "three-true outcomes" player, finishing third in the American League in walk-rate among those with 300 plate appearances, and leading the league in strikeout rate, whiffing 35% of the time.
Another promising player is 22-year old center fielder Byron Buxton. The 2012 second-overall pick was ranked the top prospect in baseball for two years in a row by Baseball Prospectus, but struggled in his debut Major League season last year. Buxton brings speed and pop to the lineup, but had little control of the strike zone, whiffing 44 times in 46 games, with just six walks.
The Twins overall had a very mediocre offense, finishing eighth in runs scored and dead last in on-base percentage. They were the worst-hitting road team in the American League last year, hitting just .231/.289/.375 away from Target Field. The lineup returns many of the same faces they ended last season with, although long-time veteran Torii Hunter retired, replaced by Korean free agent slugger Byung-Ho Park. The first baseman stands at 6'1'' and 236 pounds and slammed 53 home runs in Korea last year, although in much small ballparks.
*-numbers for the Nexen Heroes in the Korean Baseball Organization
The Twins are a below-average team defensively, with Miguel Sano as the biggest liability on defense in right field. The team did not swipe bases much last year, taking 70 steals at a 65% success rate, although the addition of Buxton to the lineup could help. Kurt Suzuki was the second-worst catcher in all of baseball at throwing out runners, nabbing just 15% of would-be basestealers.
The Twins spent over $52 million, or nearly half their payroll, on four starting pitchers - Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, and Mike Pelfrey. For that money, they got below-average service, as the quartet combined for a 4.45 ERA in 465.1 innings of work. Pelfrey is gone to the Tigers, but Santana and Nolasco will pitch this weekend, although some felt Nolasco should have been beaten out for the fifth-starter spot by Tyler Duffey. Nolasco missed most of last season with an ankle injury and has been a bust since signing four-year, $49 million deal with the Twins before the 2014 season.
Ervin Santana, who pitched for the Royals in 2013, missed half of last season after being suspended for using stanozolol. When he returned, he was throwing his fastball harder, and more often than he has in several seasons. He pitched just two innings on Opening Day due to a rain delay, to he will be available to throw again tonight. Soft-tossing lefty Tommy Milone has had some decent success against the Royals in his career with a 3.55 ERA in 11 career starts with a 5-2 record.
The Twins return much of the same bullpen as last year, when they finished tenth-in the American League in bullpen ERA, but were the worst in baseball at striking hitters out. Three-time All-Star closer Glen Perkins struggled mightily in the second half last year, giving up 16 earned runs in his last 19.2 innings. Trevor May will begin this year in the bullpen after striking out nearly a hitter per inning last year with a 2.87 ERA in 32 relief appearances. Right-hander Kevin Jepsen had a 1.61 ERA in 28 innings after being acquired by the Twins in July. Right-hander Casey Fien had the second-best walk rate out of any reliever in baseball last year with just 1.1 walks-per-nine innings.
The Twins began their 2016 season by dropping their first three against Baltimore, so they are hungry for their first win. Minnesota caught everyone by surprise by hanging around in the playoff race until the final week, but they won't be taken quite so lightly this year. They still have quality players like Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe, who, if complimented by some young superstars, could take this team back to contention. The key for the Twins will be getting some better pitching, but until they do, the Royals should take advantage this weekend and remind the young Twins that the division title still runs through Kansas City.