Minnesota Twins 2018 season preview: No more surprises, time to start winning

The Minnesota Twins made history last season. In 2017, the Twins became the first team in baseball history to go from 100-plus losses one year to qualifying for the postseason the next. Minnesota went an MLB worst 59-103 in 2016 -- no other team lost more than 94 games that year -- before going 85-77 and claiming the second AL Wild Card spot in 2017.

The postseason trip was short last year -- Minnesota lost the AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium despite jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning -- and, truth be told, the Twins didn't expect to contend in 2017. Heck, they sold at the trade deadline! Closer Brandon Kintzler was traded for a prospect and lefty Jaime Garcia was acquired, then flipped a week later. 

Following the trade deadline the Twins went 35-24, the third best record in the AL, and they scored the most runs in baseball. For real. The runs scored leaderboard after July 31:

  1. Minnesota Twins: 346
  2. Chicago Cubs: 338
  3. Cleveland Indians: 312
  4. New York Yankees: 301
  5. St. Louis Cardinals: 292

The Twins were a surprise contender in 2017. They will not be a surprise contender in 2018. They're not sneaking up on anyone. The Twins were in the postseason last year and they aggressively made upgrades this offseason. Although their pursuits of Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish fell short, the Twinkies spent money in free agency (Zach Duke, Logan Morrison, Michael Pineda, Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney, Anibal Sanchez) and swung a noteworthy trade (Jake Odorizzi).

Those veteran reinforcements join a talented young roster, especially on the position player side. Knocking off the Indians in the AL Central will be tough, though at this time last year, it seemed impossible. At least now it is somewhat plausible. The Twins are definitely trending in the right direction. Let's preview their 2018 season.

The vitals

  • 2017 record: 85-77 (plus-25 run differential)
  • 2018 schedule: Click here.
  • 2018 depth chart: Click here.

Is this the year Buxton becomes a superstar?

It feels like center fielder Byron Buxton has been trying to establish himself in the big leagues for the better part of a decade now, but he turned only 24 in December, and last season was his first full year as an MLB player. The final numbers were solid -- Buxton hit .253/.314/.413 (94 OPS+) with 16 home runs in 2017 -- but not knock your socks off great.

But gosh, those tools. Buxton might be the best pure athlete in baseball and his speed is unreal. In fact, Statcast's sprint speed metric says he was the faster player in MLB last season with a top speed of 30.2 feet-per-second. Buxton went 29 for 30 stealing bases last year, and the one time he got caught, he beat the throw and was safe, but overslid the bag and was tagged out.

That speed and athleticism, as well as tremendous outfield instincts, have allowed Buxton to emerge as the game's best defensive center fielder. That's how he was able to put up +5.1 WAR despite a 94 OPS+ last year. Buxton was that good in center field. The 2017 defensive runs saved leaderboard among center fielders:

  1. Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins: +24
  2. Kevin Pillar, Toronto Blue Jays: +15
  3. Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox: +10

The glove is elite and the baserunning is elite. Will the bat ever be elite? Or even just above-average? Buxton was considerably better in the second half (135 OPS+) than the first half (61 OPS+) last year, which suggests things are starting to click. Not coincidentally, Buxton's offense began to tick up when his strikeout rate went down.

Byron Buxton was able to cut his strikeout rate as the 2017 season progressed. FanGraphs

Buxton still struck out in 29.4 percent of his plate appearances last season, the eighth highest rate in baseball. It's entirely possible he will always strike out a bunch. Baseball is hard. And if he does, it's still possible for Buxton to be a better than average hitter, and an all-around great player thanks to his legs and defense.

That said, it would not be unprecedented for a talented young player like Buxton to cut down on his strikeouts. Look at George Springer. He struck out in 33.0 percent of his plate appearances as a rookie in 2014. By last season, Springer cut it down to a better than average 17.6 percent. Mike Trout went from 26.1 percent strikeouts in 2014 to 17.8 percent in 2017. Giancarlo Stanton went from 28.5 percent strikeouts as a rookie to 23.6 percent in 2017.

Bottom line, Buxton is a supremely talented player and a flawed hitter. He strikes out a lot. So do lots of other guys. What separates Buxton from the pack is his defense, his baserunning, his athleticism, and his raw tools. This kid wasn't the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft by accident. Late last year Buxton seemed to figure some things out at the plate, and when a player like this starts to figure it out, great things tend to happen.

Questions about Sano

Does the Wild Card Game play out differently if the Twins have a healthy and effective Miguel Sano? Sano hit .264/.352/.507 (127 OPS+) with 28 home runs in 114 games last year before a foul pitch to the shin effectively ended his season in August. He did play in the final three games of the regular season to see whether he could be a Wild Card option, even as a pinch-hitter, but no dice.

Sano had surgery to treat a stress reaction in the shin over the winter, and good news is his rehab has gone well, well enough that he will make his spring training debut Wednesday. In the field, at third base. Not as a DH.

Sano is a large human and he did gain weight over the winter while rehabbing from surgery -- GM Thad Levine humorously said Sano showed up to camp with "generous carriage" -- and that's something he'll have to work to correct in camp. He's always going to be a big guy. But dropping some weight wouldn't hurt.

Getting back into game shape post-surgery is one thing. The larger issue with Sano right now is MLB's investigation into his alleged sexual assault. Over the winter a photographer accused Sano of assaulting her back in 2015. Commissioner Rob Manfred's office is very thorough with their investigations, and as of last week, neither Sano nor Manfred could provide an update. From Dan Hayes of The Athletic:

"I haven't heard anything that's going on in the investigation right now and I have no comments right now," Sano said through an interpreter. "I'm just waiting to see what happens." 


"Obviously, it has been our policy and will continue to be our policy that any allegation of this type we will carefully investigate and take appropriate action consistent with those policies," Manfred said at a Grapefruit League media event on Thursday. 

Manfred has the ability to suspend Sano under the league's relatively new -- and collectively bargained -- Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy, even without criminal charges. Thus far suspensions under the policy have been as small as 15 games and as large as 82 games.

It seems likely Sano will be suspended for some length of time -- every investigation under the domestic violence policy has resulted in a suspension -- though neither he nor the Twins know when a suspension will be announced. Between the potential for suspension as well as his return from shin surgery, the very good at baseball Miguel Sano will go into the 2018 season with looming questions about his ability to contribute, and how long he'll be able to contribute.

The rotation still needs help

The Twins tried and failed to sign Ohtani and Darvish -- give them credit for trying, not too many teams did that this offseason -- but they were able to reel in Odorizzi in a trade earlier this month. The bad news? Staff ace Ervin Santana will be out until late April or early May with finger surgery. The club's rotation depth chart looks like this at the moment:

  1. Ervin Santana (out with finger surgery)
  2. Jake Odorizzi
  3. Jose Berrios
  4. Kyle Gibson
  5. Adalberto Mejia
  6. Phil Hughes (returning from his second thoracic outlet syndrome surgery)
  7. Anibal Sanchez
  8. Michael Pineda (rehabbing from Tommy John surgery)
  9. Aaron Slegers
  10. Trevor May (rehabbing from Tommy John surgery)
  11. Fernando Romero

Pretty sketchy. Pretty, pretty sketchy. Gibson had a 5.07 ERA (87 ERA+) last season. Mejia had a 4.50 ERA (98 ERA+) last season. Sanchez had a 6.09 ERA (72 ERA+) from 2016-17. Slegers has 15 1/3 career MLB innings to his credit. Romero has never pitched in the big leagues. Then there are the four injured guys.

The Twins have, very clearly, room for another starting pitcher. And, fortunately for them, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn remain unsigned. Either guy would be an instant upgrade for Minnesota and all it would cost them is cash (and a draft pick). Can't beat that. Maybe Slegers or Romero emerges as the next great Twins pitcher in 2018. But with a postseason spot there for the taking, it would behoove the Twins to add more rotation depth, whether it's Cobb or Lynn or someone else entirely.

Probable lineup

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton will look to carry 2017's big second half into 2018. USATSI

Like I said, the Twins led baseball in runs scored the final two months of last season, and earlier this week they added Morrison and his 38-homer bat on a low-cost one-year contract. Manager Paul Molitor can now run this lineup out there on Opening Day:

  1. 2B Brian Dozier
  2. 1B Joe Mauer
  3. 3B Miguel Sano
  4. DH Logan Morrison
  5. LF Eddie Rosario
  6. CF Byron Buxton
  7. RF Max Kepler
  8. SS Jorge Polanco
  9. C Jason Castro

    Bench: C Mitch Garver, UTIL Eduardo Escobar, OF Robbie Grossman

That is a sneaky good lineup. A little too left-handed -- Mauer, Morrison, Rosario, Kepler, and Castro are all lefty swingers -- but quite good overall. Escobar quietly hit .254/.309/.449 (100 OPS+) last season and is a nifty little utility guy. 

It should be noted switch-hitter Kennys Vargas is out of minor league options, meaning he must pass through waivers to be sent to Triple-A. It's possible the Twins will try to slip Vargas through waivers to stash him in the minors -- one-dimensional sluggers aren't exactly hot waiver commodities -- otherwise he'll be on the roster as a bench bat. For now, the Morrison signing squeezed Vargas off the Opening Day roster.

Probable rotation

Again, the rotation is looking sketchy at the moment. This is the starting five the Twins are expected to use come the start of the regular season:

  1. RHP Jake Odorizzi
  2. RHP Jose Berrios
  3. RHP Kyle Gibson
  4. RHP Adalberto Mejia
  5. RHP Phil Hughes

Sanchez could push Hughes to the bullpen. I suppose the good news is Santana is expected to return within the first month of the season. That'll be a nice little pick-me-up.

Probable bullpen

The bullpen was a weakness at times last season, especially after Kintzler was traded away. The Twins addressed that weakness with a series of free agent signings this winter. Here is Molitor's tentative bullpen:

Closer: RHP Fernandez Rodney
Setup: RHP Addison Reed
Middle: LHP Zach Duke, RHP Trevor Hildenberger, RHP Tyler Kinley, RHP Ryan Pressly, LHP Taylor Rogers
Long: RHP Anibal Sanchez

Rodney is 40 years old now and he'll still make things interesting more often than not, but gosh, he was outstanding after April last year. He went 33 for 37 in save chances with a 2.38 ERA and a .154/.250/.192 opponent's batting line in 45 1/3 innings from May 1 through the end of the season. Can he do it again this year? The Twins are betting $4.5 million he can.

In Reed, the Twins have a bona fide ace reliever who could fill something of an Andrew Miller role, and get big outs regardless of whether they come in the sixth, seventh, or eighth innings. Hildenberger was quite strong last season -- he had a 3.21 ERA (137 ERA+) with 44 strikeouts and four unintentional walks in 42 innings -- and is the middle innings sleeper. Rodney, Reed, and Hildenberger are a nice little bullpen trio.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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