MINNEAPOLIS – A week ago when the Twins finished their veteran unloading at the non-waiver trade deadline, the casual observer of the team shifted focus and worry to the Vikings’ offensive line. Byron Buxton’s season was a lost cause; Miguel Sano was back but they were kinda-sorta done with him by that point, the story of his year was a demotion to Single-A Fort Myers for being out of shape and a strikeout machine.
There were some bright spots to this crowd, of course, but the predominant storyline was one that began with repeat postseason expectations and ended sometime in July with disappointment.
But for the Twins the final two months are not simply about playing out the string. It goes beyond audition time. This is learning time.
My personal opinion — despite the Indians currently running things in the American League Central and several great A.L. teams that should clog up the Wild Card race for years – is that the Twins can be competitive again in 2019.
With the immediate future in mind, here are 5 question the Twins need to try to answer the rest of the way.
Before we get into the critical analysis we should pause to say something that doesn’t get said enough: You’ve got to feel for Buxton over his extensive injury history.
Here’s a guy who could have used time and innings and plate appearances in the minors to really hone his craft. Instead he had large chunks of time wiped out by various injuries, seemingly at random, and he was rushed to the big leagues and asked to learn things on the fly. Then this year, after an apparent breakout last season, Buxton was back to struggling before migraine headaches forced him to the disabled list, where he broke his toe with a foul ball. He tried to play through it, couldn’t really get the job done, was sent out again to heal and to work on his swing – and then got laid up by a wrist injury that now threatens to end his season prematurely.
And yet, buried in all that is the simple truth that at 24 years old and with several years in the big leagues, the Twins still can’t say for certain whether Buxton represents a future all-star or fourth outfielder.
In what’s looking like a lost season, Buxton is hitting .156/.183/.200 with only 4 extra-base hits in 94 trips to the plate. As an added cause for concern, Buxton swung at way more pitches outside of the strike zone and struggled in general to making contact this year.
I still believe that the breakout superstar player from last year is still in there somewhere. The challenge for Buxton and the Twins will be to rediscover that guy in time for a run in 2019.
To get this out of the way: Miguel Sano looks like a different player this time around than he did before his moment-of-truth demotion to Single-A Fort Myers. He looks fitter, he’s moving around better defensively, he’s taking some tough pitches during what look like better plate appearances, and we’ve seen him bust it out of the batter’s box on a couple of occasions when balls find gaps in the outfield.
Call it progress.
Since there isn’t a long enough runway for us to trust the stats in his second stint, we have to rely a little bit on how he looks. Defensively, he’s made some nice charge plays, some nice arm plays to his back hand, and he’s fumbled at least one hot shot to his left and made some inaccurate throws to first base. I think it’s been a mixed bag in the innings that I’ve seen from Sano, but that’s a big step forward from a guy who earlier this season looked like a sure bet to be a DH.
Before the demotion: .203/.270/.405 with a 40.5% strikeout rate
In the 9 games since his return: .276/.382/.379 with a 35.3% strikeout rate
The jury is still out. But one important thing that will need to be settled is whether he can stick at third base. If he’s a first baseman in 2019, the Twins need to find a third baseman and decide what they want to do with Joe Mauer and Logan Morrison.
I’ll cut to the chase. I like Garver much more as a hitter than I do as a catcher. I haven’t been impressed with his work behind the plate this year, and it’s one of the reasons that I think Jason Castro’s season-ending injury was a bigger blow than many people realize. Castro wasn’t hitting, so I think Garver is an upgrade there, but I believe that he’s got a ways to go before he’s a slam-dunk starter in the Majors behind the plate.
After some early struggles offensively, he’s hitting .259/.338/.396 on the year, good for a .320 Weighted On-Base Average. That’s pretty much a league-average hitter, and for a catcher, that’s really a good thing. Garver is an intriguing player for the future for that reason. Behind the dish, though, I’ve seen too many passed balls and not enough control of the running game at times. I don’t know if we have enough information to call Garver a bad pitch framer or game caller, so we’ll leave those questions unanswered for the moment.
With Jason Castro’s knee getting repaired, the Twins say he’ll be ready for 2019. Will he, though? And can he handle a full starter’s load? And will he hit enough to welcome back with open arms his work behind the plate and with the pitching staff?
Those questions can’t be answered this year, so Garver gets the attention. In my opinion, he should continue to get the majority of playing time behind the plate for the rest of the season.
There’s a lot to like about Jorge Polanco’s bat. Last season he was one of a handful of hitters that propelled the Twins’ MLB-best offense to the postseason, despite long odds around this time a year ago. After August 1, the switch-hitting shortstop batted .316/.377/.553. And after serving an 80-game steroid suspension, Polanco is batting .286/.365/.384 this year. So far the power isn’t there but he’s still getting on base and there are some other good signs.
Rather than diving too deep, let’s get to the question at hand. Can Polanco be a good big league shortstop? If he can’t be a first-division type of player, then maybe it makes sense to move him to second base following Brian Dozier’s departure, and ask somebody else to play shortstop next year. If he can be that type of player, then the shortstop question is solved and the Twins will get to work to find a second baseman for next year – which figures to be a much simpler task, in my opinion.
When he was younger, Polanco didn’t look like a great bet to be a shortstop. Not to my novice eyes, anyway. He doesn’t have a great arm, and like a panicky quarterback in the pocket, Polanco seemed to cost himself by misjudging that invisible clock in his head. He’d rush throws and skip them in the dirt, or he’d wait a beat too long with a speedy runner and not get the routine out.
At this point I don’t think anyone expects him to become rangy like Andrelton Simmons, but he seems to me to have cleaned up the simple plays, and that’s a good sign. If that continues or even improves, the Twins might not have to go shortstop shopping this winter.
The question that’s been in everyone’s head since at least last November is whether this will be the last season for Joe Mauer in a Twins uniform. Already solidified as one of the greatest Twins players of all time, some even see Mauer as worthy of Cooperstown. That might be a stretch depending on how the second act of his career is received by voters. And in any case it’s a question for another day.
The first act of his career will ensure that his No. 7 is hung up on the limestone out in left field with the other Twins legends of years past. And the only question is how long it will be before that ceremony honoring his Twins career. Will that career extend in Minnesota? Will it extend with another team?
For his part, Mauer has said that he’d like to keep playing as long as he’s productive. But he’s stopped short of saying that he will not retire at the end of the season. It seems pretty clear that he’s comfortable in Minnesota, and from there the question would be twofold: 1) Will he still be productive?; and 2) Could the Twins do better with the roster spot and salary?
Twins owner Jim Pohlad apparently told the Star Tribune’s Sid Hartman that Mauer will be back next year if he and his family want that to happen. Well, if the owner and the player make the call without the input of the front office, that’s that. But it would eliminate a lot of interesting baseball discussions and that would be too bad.
Mauer’s hitting .273/.354/.364, with his customary low power output and good on-base skills. That’s a decent batting line but it doesn’t stand out at first base, even Mauer’s terrific glove skills at the position. A recurrence of concussion symptoms this year cost him a trip to the disabled list, and it could cloud the outlook of his playing future.
So, the question to me is whether or not Mauer will return for another contract in Minnesota. In the meantime, the chase of Harmon Killebrew is on. Earlier this season, Mauer collected hit No. 2,000. He’s reached base 3,021 times in his career, which is 51 shy of Killebrew in his Twins career. Mauer could get there this season.