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2021 AL Central Preview: Minnesota Twins

The AL Central’s defending champs aren’t going anywhere

Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

As a wise man once said: “If you wanna be the best, you gotta beat the best.”

For Cleveland and the rest of the AL Central right now, the best remains the Twins — a team coming off back-to-back AL Central wins and looking to slug their way to a third. Only the Yankees have hit more than the Twins’ 398 home runs in the last two seasons, and only the Yankees and Dodgers have scored more than their 1208 runs.

For the third year in a row, Minnesota will roll out much of the same lineup. It features an ageless Nelson Cruz, former MVP Josh Donaldson, noted James Bond villain Max Kepler, and the oft-injured, but still dangerous, Byron Buxton.

The biggest change this year? One of the most notorious Cleveland killers, Eddie Rosario, has made the jump to Ohio, where he will get to rack up runs for the home team at Progressive Field.

The Twins have also focused on improving their pitching and defense the last couple of offseasons. They brought in a pure defensive specialist in Andrelton Simmons this year and a couple of promising pitchers to add to their addition of Kenta Maeda last offseason.

Unfortunately for the Twins, if they want to win their first World Series of this century it will probably involve beating the Yankees in the postseason. Last year they changed things up by losing to the Astros, 0-2, but they are in the midst of losing to 13 straight playoff games to New York, dating back to 2004 (with a 0-3 sweep against the Athletics in 2006 sprinkled in).

2020 in review

The 2020 Twins lagged a bit behind in home runs, “only” hitting 91, good for sixth in the majors.

Nelson Cruz continued to slug at 40 years old, with 16 home runs, tied for fifth in baseball. He also finished with a .595 slugging percentage, the third-highest SLG of his career. After signing a one-year deal with the Twins earlier this offseason, we’re just going to have to admit he’ll keep hitting home runs until the end of time and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Mitch Garver, who accounted for 31 home runs in 2019, took a nosedive following his breakout, 155 wRC+ season. He played in just 23 games in 2020, slashing .167/.247/.264 with two home runs. The equivalent of a clean-up hitter on Cleveland, but on the Twins, it resulted in him likely losing his starting catcher job to 23-year-old Ryan Jeffers.

Byron Buxton finally started to show some of the potential that had him as baseball’s top prospect before his debut in 2015. Injuries and bad luck have slowed his ascension to superstardom, but he finished 2020 with a 118 wRC+, 13 home runs, and playing great defense in center field until yet another injury (should inflammation this time) sidelined him at the end of the season. When he’s not hurt, Buxton is one of the fastest, hardest-hitting players in baseball, according to Statcast measurements. The idea of him keeping up the production he started to show in 2020 over a full season is terrifying.

In addition to lighting up the scoreboard, the Twins also featured some lights out pitching in 2020. As a staff, they finished second behind only Cleveland in pitcher fWAR at 9.8. Kenta Maeda and his splitter led the way with a 2.70 ERA and 2.63 xFIP, while Michael Pineda pitched well in his five starts after he returned from a PED suspension.

Additions and subtractions

Key addition: SS Andrelton Simmons
If you’re looking to improve your defense, you can’t go wrong with Andrelton Simmons. Once a staple at shortstop for the Braves, and for the last several years the Angels, Simmons is a premier defensive shortstop who can occasionally carry a league-average bat. At his best, in 2018 with the Angels, he was a 5.3-fWAR player, slashing .292/.337/.417 and winning a Gold Glove.

He’s not a hard hitter at all, but Simmons consistently has one of the league’s lowest strikeout rates. It ballooned in the shortened 2020 campaign to 12.6% as he chased pitches more than ever (30.6% outside swing rate). As expected, projections don’t really care about a weird shortened season and ZiPS has his strikeout rate going back down to 9.9% in 2021.

Simmons has been in the league for nine years now, but he’s only 31 and on a one-year deal with the Twins. He’ll serve as a stop-gap until their top prospect, Royce Lewis, is ready in 2022.

Other additions: RHP J.A. Happ, RHP Hansel Robles, DH Nelson Cruz, RHP Alex Colome, RHP Matt Shoemaker

Key subtraction: RHP Jake Odorizzi
I would list Eddie Rosario here, but they seemed to have non-tendered the veteran outfielder because they are ready to move on to 23-year-old Alex Kiriloff as their everyday left-fielder. They probably won’t miss Rosario too much.

Odorizzi, on the other hand, could have further stretched their rotation if he came into 2021 healthy. That’s clearly what the Astros think he can do, having given the 30-year-old a three-year, $23.5 million deal to bring his wide array of pitches to their rotation.

Other subtractions: RHP Trevor May, OF Eddie Rosario, 3B Marwin Gonzalez, RP Sergio Romo, LHP Rich Hill, RHP Tyler Clippard

Projected lineup

  • RF: Max Kepler
  • 3B: Josh Donaldson
  • DH: Nelson Cruz
  • 2B: Jorge Polanco
  • 1B: Miguel Sanó
  • LF: Alex Kiriloff
  • CF: Byron Buxton
  • C: Ryan Jeffers
  • SS: Andrelton Simmons
  • Bench: Mitch Garver, Luis Arraez, Jake Cave, Kyle Garlick
    Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

Mitch Garver and Luis Arraez as bench players is all you need to know about this ridiculous lineup. Max Kepler doesn’t have Trevor Bauer to terrorize anymore, but he still hits the ball well, and sported a 121 wRC+ in 2019, with a career-high 36 home runs and solid defense in the outfield.

Health will be the biggest question for Josh Donaldson, who turned 35 in December and has hamstrings made of wet tissue paper. It should also be a question for Nelson Cruz, set to turn 41 in July, but at this point, I think even Father Time is scared of asking him about when he’s going to slow down. His aging curve simply doesn’t exist right now — in 2019 he slugged a career-high .639 and hit 41 home runs. ZiPS mercifully projects him to finish with only a 133 wRC+ (down from 163 in 2019 and 164 in 2020), but even that feels low.

Projected pitching staff

  • SP1: Kenta Maeda
  • SP2: José Berríos
  • SP3: Michael Pineda
  • SP4: J.A. Happ
  • SP5: Matt Shoemaker
  • Bullpen: Alex Colomé, Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Cody Stashak, Caleb Thielbar, Hansel Robles, Jorge Alcala, Randy Dobnak
    Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

The addition of J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker probably won’t turn them into a front-line rotation, but they were already sneaky good last year with Kenta Maeda, José Berrios, and Michael Pineda. Shoemaker hasn’t started more than seven games since 2017 with the Angels, but Happ has remained a solid mid-rotation starter even into his late-30s.

Projections don’t particularly love this group — the lowest projected ERA, according to ZiPS, is Berríos at 3.89 over 180.3 innings. That might be fair, but Maeda should have no problem beating his projected 4.12 ERA.

Alex Colomé, who was non-tendered by the division rival White Sox, brings over a crafty four-seam/cutter combination that doesn’t strike a lot of guys out but induces a lot of weak contact. Last year with Chicago he had a career-low 0.81 ERA, and over his eight years in the majors he has a 2.95 ERA and 3.99 xFIP without any overpowering stuff.