Friday, April 12, 2024

Twins 2024 season preview: Projected lineup, rotation and how healthy Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton could help

The streak is finally over. The Minnesota Twins snapped their North American pro sports record 18-game postseason losing streak last year, and they won a playoff round to boot. They swept the Toronto Blue Jays in the Wild Card Series before losing to the Houston Astros in the ALDS. It was Minnesota’s first postseason win since 2004 and first postseason series win since 2002.

The Twins followed their postseason win with a fairly low-key offseason. AL Cy Young runner-up Sonny Gray left as a free agent, as did Kenta Maeda, and stalwart infielder Jorge Polanco was traded for pitching depth. Payroll was slashed from $153.7 million last Opening Day to a projected $126.8 million in 2024 (per FanGraphs) in part due to the uncertainty of the Bally Sports situation.

“Obviously you miss the guys when you lose them, especially good players like Sonny and Kenta,” manager Rocco Baldelli told the Star Tribune last month. “They’re not guys that you’re just going to — in a singular sense — replace. But you have to find different ways to still win, and we have ways to do that.”

Even with those departures, the case can be made the Twins are the best and most talented team in an AL Central that perennially ranks as MLB’s weakest division. Are they as good as they could be? Almost certainly not given the payroll reduction, but the Twins should be a competitive club with a chance to repeat as division champs. Let’s preview their upcoming season.

Win total projection, odds

  • 2023 record: 87-75 (won AL Central)
  • 2024 SportsLine win total over/under: 87.5
  • World Series odds (via Sportsline): +2000

Projected lineup

  1. 2B Edouard Julien, LHB
  2. 3B Royce Lewis, RHB
  3. SS Carlos Correa, RHB
  4. RF Max Kepler, LHB
  5. CF Byron Buxton, RHB
  6. 1B Carlos Santana, SHB
  7. LF Matt Wallner, LHB
  8. C Ryan Jeffers, RHB
  9. DH Alex Kirilloff, LHB

Baldelli and the Twins figure to employ several platoons — Manuel Margot with Wallner and Kyle Farmer with Julien, most notably — and Minnesota has positional depth with Trevor Larnach, Austin Martin, and Jose Miranda ticketed for Triple-A. Brooks Lee, the No. 15 prospect in the game, figures to arrive at some point in 2024 as well. He is a natural shortstop who is working out at second base this spring. Lee’s arrival and a full year of Lewis, who performed at a star level after returning from a torn ACL last May, are reasons to believe the Twins will field a better offense than the one that finished tenth in runs and ninth in OPS+ in 2023.

Projected rotation

  1. RHP Pablo López
  2. RHP Joe Ryan
  3. RHP Bailey Ober
  4. RHP Chris Paddack
  5. RHP Anthony DeSclafani
  6. RHP Louie Varland

López has developed into an ace, otherwise everyone in the rotation is maybe a rung higher than you’d like. Things would look a bit better with Ryan at No. 3, Ober at No. 4, and Paddack at No. 5. As things stand, DeSclafani is favored to get the No. 5 spot over Varland, though he was slowed by an elbow issue early in camp. Varland impressed as a reliever late last season and would step into the rotation should DeSclafani miss time. Paddack returned from his second Tommy John surgery as a reliever in September and will now transition back into the rotation, and may require careful handling. Varland, Matt Canterino, and Simeon Woods Richardson are the primary depth options. Even with Gray and Maeda, the Twins wound up giving Dallas Keuchel six starts in 2023. The rotation depth will be tested. Always is.

Projected bullpen

Duran is Minnesota’s best reliever but no longer does being the team’s best reliever mean you are locked into closer duty. Baldelli has shown a willingness to use Duran against the other team’s best hitters in seventh or eighth inning, and then let someone else shut the door in the ninth. It’s an effective strategy overall, albeit one that leads to second guessing when it doesn’t work. Varland could work his way into the bullpen mix, ditto a now healthy Jorge Alcala. Relievers are unpredictable, but, on paper, the Twins have one of the better bullpens in the sport.

Can Buxton and Correa return to form?

The Twins won the AL Central last season despite getting a combined 2.2 WAR in 220 games from Buxton and Correa. Buxton had knee trouble that limited him to DH duty — he slashed .207/.294/.438 and that’s not going to cut it as a DH — and Correa was hampered by injuries all year, most notably plantar fasciitis. He became the first player to ground into 30 double plays since Casey McGehee in 2014, and he did that while playing only 135 games and slugging .399.

Buxton had knee surgery in October and feels good enough now that he’ll return to center field this season. He did not play a single inning in the field last year. The Twins traded for Margot to provide center field depth because Buxton’s long injury history means it’s unreasonable to expect him to play the field on an everyday basis. That said, Buxton has played center field in spring training and so far, so good.

“Great to see him flying around the field. He’s looked good all spring,” Baldelli told the Associated Press following Buxton’s first game back in center. “He looks strong and he looks explosive right now. Good day for him and a good day for all of us.”

As for Correa, who is still only 29, the plantar fasciitis subsided over the winter, and he changed some things with his swing after the worst 162-game season of his career a year ago. His exit velocity and overall contact quality were very good, but Correa posted his highest ground ball rate in a 162-game season since 2017, and that sapped his power and led to all those double plays.

Correa ($32 million) and Buxton ($15 million) account for more than one-third of Minnesota’s payroll. The teams has enough offensive talent to overcome Buxton and Correa getting hurt and/or underperforming, as we saw last year, but the Twins are at their best when these two are the dynamic all-around players they’ve been much of their careers. They’re both premium defenders at up the middle positions when healthy, and they can hit. At their best, Buxton and Correa are legitimate stars.

The difference between the Twins being a good team that gets steamrolled in the postseason and a very good team with a chance to win the pennant is these two players. If Buxton and Correa stay healthy and perform as expected, the offense and defense will be among the best in the sport. What are the odds that happens? History says not great, particularly with Buxton, but that’s what it will take for the Twins to be at their best. These two leading the charge along with Lewis, Kepler, et al.

How long until Brooks Lee arrives?

The Polanco trade with the Seattle Mariners, which netted DeSclafani and Topa (and others), was about more than replenishing pitching depth and reallocating money. It also freed up second base for Julien, who made major strides with his defense last year, and it helped clear a path for Lee, the No. 8 pick in the 2022 draft. The Twins still have a full infield with Correa, Julien, and Lewis, but at least now there is one fewer veteran potentially blocking Lee’s path.

Lee, 23, slashed .275/.347/.461 with 39 doubles and 16 home runs in 125 games split between Double-A and Triple-A last year. He played primarily shortstop with some third base, and this spring he’s working out at second. The idea seems to be that, when the time comes and Lee is ready for the big leagues, he’ll step in at second base and Julien will slide over to first. It’s also possible Lee will be a super utility infielder who plays every day while bouncing between positions.

“I’m ready for the challenge,” Lee recently told The Athletic about moving to second base. “Second base, I just need to get better at turning double plays. It’s not that big of a difference. It is a shorter throw, and I think I have a pretty good arm and I like to use my arm when I can, but I still enjoy it a lot. You’re in the middle of the field, so it’s still in my eyes a premium position. You’re involved a lot in relays and double plays, a lot of action.”

Our R.J. Anderson ranked Lee the No. 15 prospect in baseball and called him “an instinctual player and a near lock to become a solid regular.” That may not be the sexiest forecast, but solid regulars are very valuable, and Lee could give the Twins a nice shot in the arm at some point this season. Is that point April? May? June? Hard to say. Lee’s performance will play a role in the decision, as will the health and performance of the big league infielders. Point is, the Twins have an elite prospect coming very soon.

What would make for a successful season?

In the grand scheme of things, incorporating Lee into the lineup, Lewis cementing himself as a perennial All-Star type, and someone like Varland or Woods Richardson establishing himself as a rotation mainstay would qualify as a successful year for the Twins. At the same time, winning the AL Central only to bow out in the ALDS again would feel like a disappointment, no? Now that the postseason losing streak monkey is off their back, it’s time for the Twins to take the next step, and advance to the ALCS for the first time in more than two decades. Ownership may have reduced payroll, but that shouldn’t reduce expectations.

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