Can the Twins finally catch up to the Indians for supremacy in the American League Central? The 2019 opening series at Target Field could set the tone for the season-long battle between the two teams that are expected to vie for the division crown.
Cleveland boasts one of the strongest, deepest starting rotations in baseball behind Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. But the Twins looked to close the gap during the offseason with the marquee acquisitions of Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Schoop to bolster an already productive lineup that scored the most runs in the AL among non-postseason teams last season.
The Twins don't have a clear-cut MVP candidate like the Indians' Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, but a healthy, productive season from Byron Buxton and continued steps forward from Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario could go a long way in helping Minnesota catch up to Cleveland's star power. Kluber is one of the game's premier aces, but the Twins hope that 24-year-old ace Jose Berrios is primed to take the next step into stardom.
However things shake out, first-year Twins manager Rocco Baldelli will face a tall order against his old skipper, veteran Terry Francona, who will look to guide the Indians to their fourth straight division title.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is scheduled for 4:10 p.m. ET/3:10 p.m. CT on Thursday. The game will be televised on both Fox Sports North and SportsTime Ohio, along with MLB.TV, and there will be radio broadcasts on the Treasure Island Baseball Network and the Cleveland Indians Radio Network.
The starting lineups
Indians: It’s not the Opening Day lineup fans were expecting at the beginning of camp, but injuries to Lindor and Jason Kipnis have caused Francona to have to turn to Plan B. Eric Stamets is slated to make his Major League debut on Thursday, getting the start at short, and the newly acquired Brad Miller (signed on Sunday) will be Stamets’ partner up the middle.
The Indians believe that Jose Ramirez will be back in the lineup on Thursday after suffering a left knee contusion on Sunday by fouling a ball off of the inside of his left leg. If not, Max Moroff will fill in. Barring any setbacks in Wednesday’s team workout in Minnesota, here’s how Thursday’s lineup against the Twins could shake out:
1) Leonys Martin, CF
2) Jake Bauers, LF
3) Jose Ramirez, 3B
4) Carlos Santana, 1B
5) Hanley Ramirez, DH
6) Tyler Naquin, RF
7) Roberto Perez, C
8) Brad Miller, 2B
9) Eric Stamets, SS
Twins: Kepler is expected to assume leadoff duties for the first time in his career after Baldelli installed him at the top of the lineup during Spring Training and was impressed with the quality of his plate appearances. He and Polanco will be counted on to set the stage for Cruz, who leads all hitters with 203 homers in the past five years and also ranks third with 522 RBIs in that span. Gonzalez will fill in at third while Miguel Sanó is sidelined with his right foot injury, while Buxton's game-changing speed and added power could be a force from the bottom of the order.
1) Max Kepler, RF
2) Jorge Polanco, SS
3) Nelson Cruz, DH
4) Eddie Rosario, LF
5) C.J. Cron, 1B
6) Marwin Gonzalez, 3B
7) Jonathan Schoop, 2B
8) Jason Castro, C
9) Byron Buxton, CF
Who are the starting pitchers?
Indians: Kluber will make his fifth consecutive Opening Day start, which is tied for the longest streak in franchise history with Stan Coveleski, who also made five straight from 1917-21. Kluber said that it's been the plan since the start of camp that he'd get the nod, but the team waited until he made his final spring start to announce the news to make sure he had a healthy camp. In 2018, the 32-year-old right-hander led the AL with 215 innings pitched and logged a 2.89 ERA with 222 strikeouts in 33 starts.
Twins: Berrios will make the first Opening Day start of his career at age 24, becoming the Twins' youngest pitcher to start a season opener since a 24-year-old Brad Radke started Opening Day in 1997. Berrios lowered his ERA to 3.84 last season and had a career-high 202 strikeouts as he was named to his first career AL All-Star team.
The Twins' young ace has worked this spring on the movement of both his two-seam fastball and changeup, and he has also started throwing two different curveballs -- one with more up-and-down break that he hopes to throw earlier in counts to complement his signature slurve-like strikeout pitch.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Indians: The Indians will carry seven relievers to start the season, including Brad Hand, Oliver Pérez, Adam Cimber, Tyler Olson, Dan Otero, Neil Ramírez and Jon Edwards. Hand will settle in as the team's closer this season after bouncing between different roles when the Indians acquired him at the Trade Deadline in 2018. Left-hander Perez and righty Cimber will likely share the setup duties.
Twins: The Twins will look to play matchups and remain flexible once they hand the game off to their four core back-end relievers in Trevor Hildenberger, Taylor Rogers, Trevor May and Blake Parker. If a starter has a short outing, Adalberto Mejía could step in as a long reliever, and the Twins will also look to get Martin Perez extended bullpen appearances to keep him stretched out as a starter. Ryne Harper has never pitched in the Major Leagues, but he will be an option to fill the gaps after he was named to his first career Opening Day roster following a strong spring in which he struck out 14 hitters without allowing a walk or an earned run.
Any injuries of note?
Indians: Injuries have followed the Tribe all spring. The bad luck began just before the team reported to Goodyear, Ariz., when All-Star shortstop Lindor suffered a moderate right calf strain while doing agility drills in Orlando. It continued at the end of Spring Training, just when his return was in sight. On Tuesday, Lindor suffered an ankle sprain while running the bases in a Minor League intrasquad game and will likely be out longer than originally expected. Second baseman Kipnis is working through a mild right calf strain that occurred in a spring game on March 20. He, too, will open the year on the injured list. His return date is still undetermined. All-Star third baseman Ramirez is currently day-to-day after being diagnosed with a left knee contusion from fouling a pitch off the inside of his knee on Sunday, but he’ll likely start on Opening Day. And both outfielders Bradley Zimmer and Danny Salazar are working their way back from right shoulder surgeries they underwent last season.
Twins: The Twins will likely need to wait until May to get their first look at Sano after he sustained a laceration to his right Achilles area during a celebratory parade for his Dominican Winter League championship. Relief pitchers Addison Reed, Matt Magill and Gabriel Moya are all expected to begin the season on the injured list. Reed will remain at the Twins' Minor League facility in Fort Myers to begin working his way back from a left thumb injury, while Magill and Moya have both begun throwing programs. Polanco dealt with fatigue in his right shoulder and upper arm toward the end of Spring Training, and though the Twins are feeling good about his progress towards Opening Day, Ronald Torreyes also traveled with the team to Minneapolis as a precaution.
Who is hot and who is not?
Indians: Edwards has been absolutely on fire this spring. In 10 Cactus League appearances (nine innings), he did not allow a run and recorded 10 strikeouts. Francona is not one to set expectations for players entering a season, but he has said a few times that he'd be surprised if Edwards didn't have a successful season. Hanley Ramirez could fall into the "not" category, but although he may have gotten off to a slow start this spring, he has shown signs of settling in at the plate. On Friday, Ramirez had a 3-for-4 night, including two homers and an RBI double. The 35-year-old has been out of Major League Baseball since May, when he was released by the Red Sox.
Twins: Buxton had a torrid spring after simplifying his swing and adding 21 pounds during the offseason, leading the Twins with four homers, 15 RBIs and a 1.349 OPS during Grapefruit League play. In fact, just about every projected Twins starter had a solid spring at the plate except for Gonzalez, who was a late arrival to camp after he was signed to a two-year, $21 million contract on Feb. 25 and struck out in 13 of his 26 at-bats. Among the pitchers, Berrios led the team with 17 strikeouts, while relievers Harper (14 strikeouts, 0 walks) and Parker (12 strikeouts, two walks) looked sharp all spring.
Anything else fans might want to know?
• Thursday's game is a sellout, but fans still hoping to attend Opening Day are encouraged to check back Wednesday night or Thursday, as limited inventory may become available.
• Perez will eventually become the Twins' fifth starter, but he will pitch out of the bullpen for the first three weeks of the season due to Minnesota's unorthodox schedule, which features five off-days within the first 15 days. Baldelli said that Perez would be available to pitch wherever needed at any point during the series.
• Although Naquin and Bauers have locked down the corner outfield spots, expect Greg Allen to still be a difference-maker. Francona has mentioned that the 26-year-old will not only mix into the outfield, but will also be an option to pinch-hit or run late in games. Allen had an impressive showing in Arizona, hitting .378 with five doubles and seven RBIs in 19 games.
• Harper should be in line to make a long-awaited Major League debut during the series. The right-hander, who celebrated his 30th birthday on Wednesday, spent three days on the Mariners' roster in 2017 but did not appear in a game before he was optioned back to the Minors.
Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.
Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.