The Cleveland Indians over the weekend clinched their third consecutive American League Central division title. The Twins have a long ways to go to catch up to the champs.
In the next breath and with a straight face we can say that it’s entirely possible that Minnesota is right back in the mix next year. Closing the gap will take a good offseason, some positive development internally, and probably some good fortune.
Right now the Twins (68-81) are about to assure a sub-.500 season, and there’s an outside chance that the club could lose 90 games despite an easy home-stretch schedule. So how can we reasonably expect Minnesota to close the 15-game gap that currently separates them from the Cleveland Indians?
Since division relevance is the next step on their path to perennial contention, it’s a question that demands deeper examination. We’ll spend a lot of time on each of these subjects between now and the time the Twins report to Fort Myers for spring training. This column presents 5 thoughts on how the Twins can close the gap with the Indians.
This to me is the most glaring and obvious difference between the Twins and the Indians. Cleveland just has a better starting rotation, both in terms of depth and top-end quality. It’s also fair to say that the Indians have had better luck with keeping their guys healthy.
The Indians have asked 7 different pitchers to start a game for them this season. Their top-4 guys have all made at least 25 (Trevor Bauer got hurt with line drive), and a “depth” option like Shane Bieber has made 17 starts and been really good.
The Twins meanwhile have used 16 different starters if you count the late-season “openers.” Only 3 pitchers have started more than 25 games (although Lance Lynn – 20 – would have hit 25 if the Twins had wanted him to; They did not).
Fernando Romero was impressive out of the gates but faltered, was sent to the minor leagues, and then sent home in September along with Byron Buxton. Ervin Santana’s disaster final season in Minnesota helps to explain the surprising instability within Minnesota’s rotation. They counted on him for 30 starts and he made 5 uneven starts.
All told, Twins starters have patched together a 4.59 ERA to date, while Indians starters are second in the American League with their collective 3.41 ERA. There’s a significant gap to be closed in the starting rotation if the Twins want to dethrone the Indians next year. Free agency? Trade?
Last winter you might have had this circled on the wall-mounted calendar as an opportunity. Cleveland had just lost Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith in free agency, and in 2019 they’ll face the possibility of losing Cody Allen and Andrew Miller.
But for all the talk centered on how bad Cleveland’s bullpen has been this season, the Twins have been worse. Together the relievers in Minnesota have posted a 4.75 ERA to Cleveland’s 4.60, and we’re ignoring some of the bad outings Twins relievers have had as openers in recent weeks. Only the Orioles and Royals have been worse than the Twins in the bullpen.
Cleveland might still lose those good pitchers from their bullpen next season, but they swung a big trade with the Padres to land Brad Hand, who is under contract for the next few years. That should help offset any losses realized in free agency this winter.
The Twins on the other hand have several nice pieces that will look good in the 2019 bullpen picture, but they don’t have that top-end relief ace that the Indians boast in Hand and Miller (when healthy). The Twins have some good options in Taylor Rogers, Trevor May, Trevor Hildenberger and Fernando Romero, although they lost Ryan Pressly and Fernando Rodney to trades, and Addison Reed hasn’t been very good. (Pressly’s departure in particular is a bad look for the Twins now that he’s excelling in Houston’s bullpen.)
I think Minnesota will need to count on some of its internal options coming through for the club in 2019, and the front office will also have to go shopping to improve the late-inning options.
The Twins currently have a “maybe” designation next to the names of their two prominent stars-in-waiting. There’s no maybe when it comes to Cleveland’s superstar players.
Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are two of the best players in baseball this year, and they’ve launched the Indians to the top of a division that is otherwise lacking for superstars. The two players in the Twins’ organization with the best chance to be superstars — whatever you think of them right now — are Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton.
If you were the forgiving type, you’d chalk up 2018 as a lost season due to injury for those two players. If you were a little more skeptical in nature, you’d count this as a full step backward for each player, and you’re much less sold on the prospect of each one realizing his superstar potential.
There’s no doubt in my mind that each player is capable of that still, given their age and the story behind the numbers in both cases. But if you’re just looking at the numbers and the recent injury track record its not a promising picture for the Twins. The Twins could contend without Buxton and Sano arriving as consistently great players. It’s just a whole lot easier to imagine that happening if both of those guys establish themselves like the two stars in Cleveland.
At times this year you’ve noticed Buxton’s absence in centerfield. Last year he routinely turned would-be doubles into highlight-reel catches. When doubles turn to outs the pitching staff looks much better. This year we’ve seen some should-be outs turn into base runners. You’ve also noticed a step back behind the plate from Jason Castro to Mitch Garver (although I’ve seen progress from Garver defensively this season in a learn-on-the-job environment).
The Twins offense was one of the best in baseball down the stretch last year, even without a healthy Miguel Sano. That’s when Buxton was on fire. So was Jorge Polanco. Same for Eduardo Escobar and Brian Dozier. This year it’s been a much different picture.
Last year the Indians scored 818 runs to the Twins’ 815, thanks to a late charge in Minnesota. This year the gap is nearly 100 runs, in favor of Cleveland. And the Twins have allowed 135 more runs to cross the plate than the Indians have this season. Let’s oversimplify things to say that Cleveland’s bullpen has triggered a step back in the run prevention department despite a great starting rotation; the Twins have taken a big step backward when it comes to scoring runs and they might allow more runs this year, too.
You could look at these numbers and think that the gap between the Twins and Indians is actully greater than the current standings show. For the purpose of this column let’s just call it 15 games and see how the rest of September plays out. In any case, Minnesota will have its work cut out this winter.
That brings us to an important point. Both teams have some notable players set to hit the market in November. I’d expect this winter will be a lot more free-spending than the slow-to-move market that we saw last year.
For the Twins, Joe Mauer, Ervin Santana (option), Logan Morrison (option), Logan Forsythe and Chris Gimenez will be free agents. For the Indians, it’s Allen and Miller, along with Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Josh Tomlin, Rajai Davis, Melky Cabrera and Oliver Perez.
The optimistic Twins fan looks at this picture and says there’s a lot of money coming off the books for Minnesota and the Indians will be hurt by some key departures. But a word of caution.
All the Indians did last winter was sign Yonder Alonso to a modest 2-year deal to play first base. They lost Carlos Santana, Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith. The Twins had a pretty bad go of free agency, even though we all agreed they did well as bargain-shopping opportunists last winter/spring.
Knowing what you know now, how many of these deals would you do again?
Logan Morrison, 1 year and $5.5 million. Handed out in spring training and includes an option for 2019.
Addison Reed, 2 years and $16.5 million.
Lance Lynn, 1 year and $12 million. Bad April but the Twins got two interesting prospects when they traded him to the Yankees.
Michael Pineda, 2 years and $10 million. Too soon to say but could be good for the Twins next year.
Zach Duke, 1 year and $2.15 million.
Anibal Sanchez, spring invite. The Twins signed Sanchez and then cut him loose in camp so he could go have a great year for the Braves. Can’t even blame the Twins for that. Honestly, Did anybody see that one coming?
Here’s a hot take. The Twins will have to do much better this time around in free agency if they want to make good on their plans to topple the Indians in 2019.