MINNEAPOLIS -- One of the most anticipated young prospects in baseball and one of the most stunning free-agent acquisitions of the offseason are on a collision course -- and their paths will meet on Friday in a Mariners-Twins Opening Day matchup at Target Field that now looks orders of magnitude more intriguing than it did even a month ago.
Julio Rodríguez is the No. 3 prospect in baseball and played himself onto Seattle’s Opening Day roster with an eye-popping spring that left president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais little choice but to let the dynamic 21-year-old immediately make his mark on the Majors. Carlos Correa shocked the baseball world when he agreed to a three-year, $105.3 million deal to join the Twins -- the Twins! -- on March 22, and he’ll form one of the most dynamic duos in the game alongside center fielder Byron Buxton, whose future in Minnesota is now secure after he agreed to a seven-year, $100 million extension this offseason.
Both of these teams enter 2022 with something to prove.
The Mariners added four All-Stars this offseason with the goal of building on the momentum of their surprise 90-72 record from last season, eager to finally snap a 20-year playoff drought after coming so tantalizingly close in ‘21 -- but can they once again prove the projections wrong? The Twins extended Buxton, landed Correa and overhauled their roster with the hopes of proving that their last-place finish from '21 was a blip on the radar -- but do they have the pitching to pull it off?
It’s time to find out.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is slated for 3:10 p.m. CT (1:10 p.m. PT) on Friday after the opener was postponed on Thursday due to inclement weather in the Twin Cities.
For Mariners fans, the game will be televised on ROOT Sports Northwest, and will air on the radio on Seattle Sports 710 AM. Twins fans can watch on Bally Sports North, with a radio broadcast on the Treasure Island Baseball Network. TV and radio feeds will also be available on MLB.TV.
The starting lineups
Mariners: The Mariners have a far deeper lineup than last year, when they collectively hit .226/.303/.385 for a .688 OPS that was fourth-lowest in the Majors. It all starts with leadoff man Adam Frazier, whose bat-to-ball skills led to a .368 on-base percentage, 19th best in the Majors, and should nicely set up contact-hitting machine Ty France, whose .321 batting average in the second half was fourth best in the AL.
The heart of the order should be fun to watch, too, with new additions Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez sandwiched around Mitch Haniger, who was one of just six players last year to hit 39 homers and drive in 100 runs. That threesome accounted for 94 homers last year. Rodríguez will be of obvious intrigue after playing his way onto the roster with an epic spring. Jarred Kelenic showed some life in camp and is coming off a strong September, in which he posted an .854 OPS. Tom Murphy packs power, but he’s coming off a down year. J.P. Crawford showed much improvement with his bat last year and should be a solid bridge back to the top of the order.
Twins: If healthy (and that’s a big if), this lineup has the potential to be among the deepest and most explosive in baseball. Every Twins regular is projected by FanGraphs’ ZiPS system for an OPS of at least .714 this season, and all but Gary Sánchez are expected to exceed .750. They’re led by the two-headed monster of Buxton and Correa, who both have troubled injury histories but can otherwise provide the most all-around upside of any duo in baseball not named Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.
The perennially underrated Jorge Polanco is coming off the best offensive season of his career (33 homers). The Twins hope to get a full season of future cornerstone Alex Kirilloff, and there’s hope that a change of scenery will do Sánchez some good following a tumultuous time in the Bronx. This lineup is deep enough that Luis Arraez, an annual batting title contender, doesn’t have a clear path to regular playing time behind Gio Urshela and Polanco. There’s some question as to who will catch and who will DH with a lefty on the mound for Seattle, with Ryan Jeffers, Sánchez, Urshela and Arraez all trying to cram themselves into three slots.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Mariners: LHP Robbie Ray
The Mariners signed Ray to a five-year, $115 million contract in December to be a big-game pitcher. Coming off a season in which he won the AL Cy Young Award with Toronto, this will be his first career Opening Day start. Ray led the Majors last year with 248 strikeouts, but K’s aren’t exactly what he’s hunting for.
“I don't try to strike guys out,” Ray said. “I'm trying to get deep into games. That's how you end up striking guys out. I get to the point where you know, 0-2, 1-2, I take a shot at it, and if I get it, great. And if I don't, I'm looking for contact. So early outs I think is what I preached to these guys, being in the zone.”
Ray pitched six innings or more in 23 of his 32 starts last year -- including a Sept. 25 win at Minnesota -- and he led the AL with 193 1/3 innings total. After a solid spring, in which he was stretched out to 90 pitches despite the abbreviated schedule, Ray’s limit on Friday will be roughly 100.
Twins: RHP Joe Ryan
Only two pitchers in MLB’s Expansion Era (since 1961) have made an Opening Day start within the first six games of their career: José Guzman of the ‘86 Rangers and Steve Busby of the ‘73 Royals. Ryan is set to become the third name on that list, having earned the nod from manager Rocco Baldelli after making only five starts as a September callup last season. Ryan will also be the first rookie to start Opening Day for the Twins since Tom Hall in ‘69.
Sonny Gray had been the presumptive Opening Day starter after his arrival in a trade with the Reds, but he and the Twins opted to take an extra day of rest following his final spring start, opening the door for Ryan. The Twins are confident the youngster will be ready, drawing on his big-game experience as the ace of Team USA at the most recent Tokyo Olympics.
How might the bullpens line up after the starter?
Mariners: How Servais deploys his relievers will be fun to watch all season. As is a growing trend across baseball, the Mariners don’t have a defined closer and instead use their leverage arms in specified “pockets” based on who is fresh and what analytics suggest as the best matchups. Everyone should be good to go on Friday.
“I don't get caught up in the inning they pitch in,” Servais said. “We don't roll that way, and it's worked out pretty well for us.”
Depending how deep Ray goes, Servais may not need to use many arms anyway. But the relievers who are likely to make an appearance are those with the best secondary stuff, given that the Twins hit .202 against breaking balls last year, eighth worst in the Majors. That would set up favorable matchups for Diego Castillo and Paul Sewald, who emerged as one of the AL’s best leverage arms last year. But there’s also a decent chance Servais wants to use his new weapon, Andrés Muñoz, who has consistently been sitting at 100 mph all spring.
“It's still not easy to get on that fastball,” Servais said. “It’s special. It’s just got ride. It’s 100. It’s hard to hit.”
Twins: Ryan could be stretched out to somewhere around four or five innings by Opening Day, and the Twins could take full advantage of the expanded 28-man rosters to carry the workload behind their rotation. The late-and-close group will feature closer Taylor Rogers and leverage relievers Tyler Duffey, Joe Smith, Caleb Thielbar and Jorge Alcala, with the young Alcala in particular hoping to consistently establish himself in such situations for the first time.
Everyone else in the bullpen is expected to be ready to throw multiple innings if needed. The most intriguing among that group is Jhoan Duran, the No. 6 prospect in the organization, who threw as hard as 100.7 mph this spring and features a devastating and unique “splinker” pitch that gives him a ton of potential upside as a reliever.
Any injuries of note?
Mariners: The Mariners got through spring mostly healthy but did lose key relievers Ken Giles (right middle finger tendon) and Casey Sadler (shoulder surgery), the latter being out for the year. Sadler finished the year on a franchise-record streak of 29 straight scoreless appearances and thrived in the “pivot” role between the starter and rest of the bullpen. Giles, a 2019 All-Star with the Blue Jays, spent all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery and is eager to return in the coming weeks.
As for position players, Evan White suffered a sports hernia that required surgery and he is likely months away from returning. And 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis is progressing from right meniscus surgery he underwent last June. Neither was expected to be on the Opening Day roster.
Twins: The Twins had a pair of injury concerns flare up at the end of camp, when Kirilloff dealt with mild left knee soreness and utility man Nick Gordon suffered a head contusion in an outfield collision, but both are expected to be fine in time for Opening Day. Cody Stashak would have been a candidate for a bullpen spot but was held back by biceps tendinitis. Otherwise, it’s a healthy roster with only Kenta Maeda (Tommy John surgery) and Randy Dobnak (right middle finger strain) out for extended durations.
Who’s hot and who’s not?
Mariners: Rodríguez might be the hottest hitter in baseball. He finished the spring with a 1.281 OPS, and reached that mark with incredible "wow" moments -- such as an inside-the-park homer last Thursday and finishing a triple shy of the cycle on Sunday. Spring Training numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, and who knows how J-Rod will fare against elite pitching on an everyday basis. But it’ll be fun to see if he can keep this up into the regular season.
Another consistent hitter this spring has been Abraham Toro, who will move into a super-utility role and still get everyday at-bats. He may not be in the Opening Day lineup, but look for Servais to inject the switch-hitter in a pinch-hit spot if the matchup is right.
As for who’s cold, Winker got off to a slow start with Seattle, going 2-for-30 in Spring Training.
Twins: If his spring numbers are any indication, Buxton has been ready for Opening Day for about a week now. At one point, he hit safely in seven straight plate appearances from last Wednesday to Sunday, a span featuring three homers and two doubles. He finished his spring 15-for-32 (.469), leading the team in hits, homers (5), RBIs (13), doubles (5) and runs (8). Correa had two homers and a 1.250 OPS in his shortened spring, and Arraez was unsurprisingly 12-for-30 (.400). Polanco (2-for-32), Sánchez (5-for-30) and Urshela (7-for-34) had slow Grapefruit League campaigns.
Anything else fans might want to know?
• The Twins and Mariners will meet on Opening Day for the fifth time, with the Mariners having won all four of the previous such matchups. The clubs last opened the season against each other in 2009, the final Opening Day at the Metrodome before the Twins moved to Target Field. The Mariners won, 6-1, with Félix Hernández outdueling Francisco Liriano.
• Ryan will be the Twins’ 13th different Opening Day starter in the last 16 seasons. Only Carl Pavano, Ervin Santana and José Berríos have earned multiple nods in that span. The starters in that stretch are, in order: Johan Santana, Liván Hernández, Liriano, Scott Baker, Pavano (twice), Vance Worley, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana (twice), Jake Odorizzi, Berríos (twice), Maeda and, now, Ryan.
• It'll be a cold one on Friday, with a forecast high of 43. The coldest Opening Day in Twins history occurred all the way back in 1962, with the mercury reading 33 degrees for an April 14, 1962, matchup against the Angels at Metropolitan Stadium.