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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Who would have guessed the ballot in race for Twins MVP?

MINNEAPOLIS –When Eddie Rosario was passed over for a spot on the American League all-star roster, it left him with something to prove. He was wrapping up an all-star caliber first half of the season, and looked under normal circumstanes like he’d make a good candidate.

And if he becomes the Twins’ 2018 MVP, it’ll be because he was a good candidate for that, too. But it’s hard to glance over the make-believe ballot for Twins MVP and ignore the names of players that are not on the ballot. That sentence helps explain the Twins’ season in a nutshell.

When Rosario returned this weekend from a strained quad muscle, it set up a compelling September race. Right now, the title of Twins 2018 MVP belongs to him. And it would take a lot to knock him off that pedestal. Manager Paul Molitor said around the time of the mid-summer break that Rosario was not going be hung up on the perceived “snub” of the all-star game; Rosario was out to prove that no matter the recognition, he was going to show he can be that player every single day he puts on a uniform.

Rosario has some competition when we’re sorting through this sort of individual award. And the first guy that should be mentioned is the other Twins hitter that carried the team through adversity across the first 3 months of the season…

Eduardo Escobar

Before the deflating concession ahead of the trade deadline, Eduardo Escobar was the spirit of the Twins. Rosario added talent and offensive output, but no players seemed as universally well-liked by Twins fans (and teammates?) as Eduardo Escobar.

We’re suckers for the underdog story, and Escobar’s tale fits the script. He was seen as a small utility infielder when Terry Ryan traded Francisco Liriano to the White Sox and got Escobar as one of two players back from Chicago. In the time since then, he’s won and lost starting infielder jobs a handful of times with the Twins, and every time he’d smile and say he was ready to be patient and work for his next opportunity.

He grabbed it and ran this time around.

Escobar could have been a bench player if things went to plan this year for the Twins. But of course, it’s the 2018 season and very little has gone according to plan in Minnesota. Jorge Polanco was suspended, and Escobar could have taken over as the shortstop. But then Miguel Sano got hurt and wasn’t playing much third base so Escobar filled in there instead. In both spots, he crushed it.

Escobar made power a part of his game, cleaned up the defensive side of things, and hit .274/.338/.514 with the Twins before they traded him to Arizona for at least two very intriguing prospects. If not for his shorter stay in Minnesota, the 29-year-old, smile-a-minute infielder might have been in the running for this team MVP award.  As it stands, it looks like a breakout year for a soon-to-be free agent, and he’ll have to settle for a playoff chase with the Diamondbacks.

Once teased for having ‘no pop,’ could Eduardo Escobar really set a doubles record?

J.O. Berrios

Berrios earned his first trip to the all-star game this year, and if the season’s first half is any indication it won’t be his last trip. Berrios was great and certainly a worth nod at the time of the game, as he admirably filled the Staff Ace void left by Ervin Santana’s eventual season-ending finger surgery.

Berrios has already hit a career-high with 173 2/3 innings, and he’s got a good 3.83 ERA going. He’s leading Twins starters with a 24.5% strikeout rate and he’s cut the walks this year, too. The Twins should feel pretty good about the pitcher Berrios has become and can continue to be. And they’d likely feel even better about that prospect if Berrios’ recent run of starts had gone more smoothly. He got back on track with a good start over the weekend in which he had the fastball for strikes and missed barrels with his breaking ball. But before that outing he’d pitched to a 5.24 ERA in his previous 9 starts, dating back to the outing before the all-star break. That led me to wondering if the noted workout enthusiast was wearing down during a long season, so Saturday’s good outing opposite a perfect game bid was a good sign for Berrios and the Twins.

He could get 4 more starts in September. Let’s see what he’ll do with them.

Kyle Gibson

Gibson is having the best year of his career. A raise is in his immediate future, even before he can expect to get that big contract the following season in free agency, Gibson is due an arbitration raise in 2019. And he’s certainly earned it. For all the accolades that Berrios has earned, Gibson has the better ERA this season.

As of this writing, Gibson has made 28 starts, with a few more to go before his season concludes. His 171 innings are the third-most in his MLB career, and he will have a shot to surpass his personal best and even touch 200 if he stays healthy in September. He’s got a career-best (and Twins-best) 3.74 ERA, and he’s still getting groundball outs about 50% of the time. That’s always been Gibson’s game, dating back to his days as the ace of the Mizzou Tigers.

Only now, Gibson has unlocked a new level. He’s throwing more strikes, using his 4-seam fastball to work up in the zone, which has opened up his breaking ball as a swing-and-miss pitch.

As a result, opponents are whiffing 11.5% of the time, a new career-high for Gibson. And he’s running a 22% strikeout rate, which is slightly better than league-average, and represents a big step forward for Gibson, who has long been a contact-oriented starting pitcher.

He’ll get a handful of starts the rest of the way. Maybe he can make this team MVP race a little more interesting.

Kyle Gibson’s new approach to fastballs may be key to his late-season breakout

Fernando Rodney / Taylor Rogers

Fernando Rodney was probably the most well-known reliever to many ballpark goers earlier this season. He had the strikeouts, the drama — the walks — and importantly he had the pantomime archery arrows. Rodney was pretty good in a Twins uniform, although he wasn’t the best Twins reliever this year. That distinction belongs to Taylor Rogers, who has been the most consistent and best reliever over the long haul.

Either way, it’d be impossible to hand out this team MVP award to a one-inning reliever on the 2018 club.

Rodney had a rough April and then recovered nicely. He always seemed to make things interesting in the 9th inning – walks or base hits always seemed to introduce a traffic jam for Rodney to wiggle his way out of. All told, he finished his brief Twins career with a 3.09 ERA and a 50:19 strikeout-to-walk ratio with a big fastball, shaky control and a terrific changeup. Now he’s shooting fake arrows in Oakland, where he’s already predicted he’ll win a World Series with the A’s.

Taylor Rogers actually has made a case as the best reliever on the Twins this season. The lefty has stealthily put together another strong year. He’s added a slider to go with his fastball-curveball mix, and the strikeouts and scoreless innings are piling up. We’ll have more on Rogers later this week. The fact remains that a setup lefty more or less can’t be the team MVP, even if he’s the team’s best reliever in 2018.

Eddie Rosario

Rosario missed a little time recently with a minor hamstring strain. He returned over the weekend, serving as a DH and taking it easy when he runs so as not to reinjure the muscle. He’s hit .289/.326/.482 with 23 home runs, which is basically a continuation of the strong offensive season he had last year.

He was the Twins’ best player at the time the front office gave up on the season and traded away a handful of veterans with an eye toward the future. Like Berrios, Rosario’s production has tailed off quite a bit since the end of July (.250/.259/.402), but when you look at the totality of the work, Rosario has been the team’s best player this season.

Who would have thought it a year ago? If somebody asked you at spring training which player would be the team’s MVP in 2018, how many would you have named before Rosario? Byron Buxton, you might have said. Or Brian Dozier. Miguel Sano, maybe. J.O. Berrios would get some votes. Or how about Joe Mauer or Ervin Santana?

None of those players have had the season that Rosario has had. And the fact that he’s under team control for years to come means that he wasn’t in danger of getting shipped out at the trade deadline. Rosario has become a piece around which the Twins can build. Three young outfielders showed promise last season, and looked like the start of a great future in the pastures of downtown Minneapolis. Only one of them has backed up that promise with a really good 2018 season.

And for that, Rosario now looks like one of the bright spots when forecasting the 2019 season.

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