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Take note, Twins: The 4 teams still chasing World Series rings got better with unexpected stars

Last week I was struck by the fact that some of the best teams in baseball have gotten to where they are with star players that were not widely projected to be stars. All-stars sometimes emerge from the woodwork. The 4 teams left chasing the World Series trophy all have at least one of these “unexpected stars.” That ought to be heartening news for the Twins.

Minnesota was sent home earlier than it would have liked this year. They dismissed their manager, Paul Molitor, and are working the phones to try to find a replacement. In the same space and time, they’re trying to figure out the best way to close the gap that exists between them and the Cleveland Indians.

They could sit back and count on regression (the good kind!) for their projected starters from a year ago. They could dive into the free agency or trade markets and start flexing some of that financial muscle that they always knew they’d have this winter.

There’s one other way that the four teams still standings – the Dodgers, the Brewers, the Astros and the Red Sox – built a championship-caliber club. Those teams all had stars emerge from unexpected places. Each one has at least one really good player that was not always widely projected to become one.

So, a great redemption year for someone like Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano would be great for the Twins. They kind of need it, frankly, unless they’re planning to go bananas in free agency. An extra ingredient to a spectacular bounceback season that vaults the Twins to the 2019 postseason might just be an unexpected star emerging.

Consider:

DODGERS

Max Muncy was the Dodgers’ best player this season, as measured by Fangraphs’ version of WAR. Muncy, 28, sprinted out from relative anonymity this season in Southern California to hit .263/.391/.582 and 35 home runs for the Dodgers.

Or how about Justin Turner? By now you’ve heard the story about how he joined the Dodgers and, along with Josh Donaldson, became one of a few posterchildren for baseball’s “Revolution” with the credo Hit-It-Hard-And-In-The-Air. He finished top-10 in the N.L. MVP voting in each of the past two seasons.

Muncy and Turner were stars for the Dodgers this year. If you projected that at the beginning of their respective careers, why are you spending time reading this column? With those amazing predictive powers you already know what I’m going to say.

BREWERS

Have you heard Josh Hader’s story? A former 19th round pick who went through Baltimore, Houston and finally ended up in Milwaukee. Now he’s a relief ace. Earlier in the year smart people were legitimately  talking about his odds of getting some Cy Young consideration.

Travis Shaw doesn’t really count. People thought he’d be good when the Red Sox moved him.

Jesus Aguilar, though, was DFA’d by the Indians winter of 2017. The Brewers claimed him off waivers and one season later he hits 35 bombs. He’s not a star-star but he fits the bill of what we’re talking about here. He’s made big contributions to the Brewers this year and I don’t think they’d be here without him.

ASTROS

By now Jose Altuve’s story is sort of legendary, so there’s no need to include him here as an “unexpected star” – even though he fits that bill. (Go back to old Houston Astros prospect lists from reputable publications and you’ll find lists top by Jason Castro or Jonathan Singleton, with Altuve sparingly mentioned as an honorable mention.)

It’s the pitching side where this club has been really impressive lately. Some people thought Justin Verlander was cooked at one point with the Tigers. Gerrit Cole allegedly wasn’t going to live up to the prospect hype. The Astros also get points for Dallas Keuchel, the free-agent-to-be. They drafted the lefty in the seventh round and he never appeared on the top-10 prospects lists for Baseball America – a veritable prospect authority.

Should we keep going? Houston bet on Charlie Morton before any other team was willing to make a multiyear bet; in hindsight that looks a little light after he helped them win a World Series and had another good season this year. Even Ryan Pressly was a trade-deadline pry from the Twins and he turned into an apparent relief ace in his home state.

RED SOX

The Red Sox are the toughest club to come up with an unexpected star. Who didn’t think early on that Chris Sale and David Price would thrive on the mound? J.D. Martinez’s emergence as a star was surprising at the time, but Boston got him this year in free agency, so like Sale and Price, you can’t exactly call his performance out-of-nowhere.

But how about Mookie Betts? He was a fifth round pick in 2011 and now he might win the A.L. MVP over that guy in the conversation for greatest baseball player of all time. There’s the famous story about how the Red Sox under Theo Epstein were pushing “neural scouting,” and the legend has it that they fell in love with Betts because of his high scores on these sort of video games that tested his mental skills.

Here’s my point: Twins GM Thad Levine talked two weeks ago about the Twins closing the gap with the Indians by helping Minnesota’s young players to develop to the top of their capabilities. He’s not just talking about the stars. That’s the strong implication, though, with guys that Twins have expected to become stars for a while now: Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco.

But what if the Twins get over the top with the help of a couple players who weren’t expected to be stars? Who would they be? The candidates to consider based on 2018 would be Willians Astudillo or Jake Cave. Taylor Rogers had a quietly great year. I’ll keep pounding the drum of Trevor May. I don’t know, it sort of seems like people have forgotten about Michael Pineda. If he rocks out next year I think it would surprise a lot of people, but he’s not exactly the mold we’re looking for on this kind of list because, well, he was a prospect you definitely heard about in his day. (Maybe this would make a good column for another day: Who are the candidates to be the next unexpected star in Minnesota?)

I could see the gap closing with Cleveland in any number of ways. I think the path of least resistance is for the Twins to have their expected stars become actual stars. Another helpful avenue would be for an unexpected star or two to emerge. It sure helped for the four teams left standing in the League Championship Series.

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