Reinforced Twins eye AL Central three-peat

March 29th, 2021

It won't be an easy road for the Twins to three-peat as American League Central champions for the first time since 2002-04 -- and then, if they get there, to finally end the 18-game playoff losing streak that extends back to '04.

The White Sox, offseason darlings of the AL, made several impact additions to their talented young core. Cleveland parted ways with Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco Carrasco, but the Tribe still boasts a formidable starting rotation. The Royals made a handful of under-the-radar acquisitions and appear poised to take the next step in the coming years.

But will that be enough to unseat the Twins?

Minnesota still returns most of the core that won back-to-back division titles in 2019 and '20, including Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sanó, Byron Buxton, Luis Arraez, Nelson Cruz, Mitch Garver and José Berríos. The Twins have added Andrelton Simmons to shore up their defense, and they hope to keep their stars healthy. Alex Colomé and Hansel Robles are in the fold to reinforce a depleted bullpen, and the Twins hope that J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker can do enough to bridge the gap to the next generation of starters.

"Obviously, we still have a great lineup with great hitters," Berríos said. "But also, we have a great pitching staff, and we got new people to help us and build on what we've got already. We're a great team overall. If we do this on both sides, hitting and pitching, and also defense, we're going to earn and complete our goal: to make it through to the World Series."

That next generation, by the way, is knocking on the door, from outfielders Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach to pitchers Jhoan Duran and Jordan Balazovic, who should all be ready to impact the team soon.

It's a roster built on depth, not necessarily star power -- but that's been a tried and true formula for manager Rocco Baldelli and company, and one they hope will endure in the face of their toughest challenger yet.

What needs to go right?

The first key for the Twins is, as always, health. That's a common refrain around the league, but Minnesota's roster has been particularly brittle over the last two years. Chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have built considerable depth on both sides of the ball, but there's no way to fully replace the upside of some of the club's star players -- say, Cruz, Buxton or Josh Donaldson.

The other major component is that the Twins will need bounceback seasons from several of their core contributors. While the White Sox added big pieces around their roster, Minnesota is largely counting on rebounds from the likes of Garver, Polanco, Taylor Rogers and Hansel Robles to serve as its improvements. The Twins have maintained that they're not considering 2020 performances too strongly in light of all of the challenges to players, but those numbers will still need to pick back up in '21.

Great unknown: Can Donaldson and Buxton stay healthy?

The health of all others on the roster is obviously important as well, but Donaldson and Buxton take up roles on the Twins’ roster that are particularly hard to fill -- and their pockmarked history of injuries make them the most significant risks as well.

Donaldson was held to 28 games in 2020, the first season of his four-year, $92 million contract, due to recurring right calf issues that have plagued him throughout his career. Buxton just couldn’t catch a break again, missing time following a left shoulder injury and a hit-by-pitch to the helmet. Both players can provide MVP-level production when healthy, and both are particularly important to how the roster fits together and performs defensively. The Twins need that kind of power in their lineup and on the field to not only secure another playoff berth, but finally take a shot at ending their 18-game postseason skid.

Team MVP will be... Buxton

This essentially goes hand-in-hand with the "bold prediction" below. If Buxton stays healthy, he has the highest upside on the team -- especially after flexing the most home run power of his career in 2020 and showing up to Spring Training this season with his body looking like that of a slugger.

He almost certainly won't slug .577 again, as he did last season to blow the roof off his old career high, but it's not hard to see him hitting 20-25 homers over close to a full season. His walk numbers were troubling in 2020 and he'll have to get on base more to use his exemplary speed, but even without a complete offensive game, he should easily provide enough value with his defense, baserunning and energy to be a focal point of the team.

Team Cy Young will be... Kenta Maeda

Last season, Maeda pitched like the closest thing the Twins have seen to a true ace since the days of Johan Santana. He isn't going to overpower anybody with his fastball-slider-changeup mix, but his command of his offspeed pitches helps him miss a ton of bats and generate lots of weak contact -- and that was a recipe for a 2.70 ERA, an MLB-best 0.75 WHIP and a runner-up finish in AL Cy Young Award voting last season.

What Maeda now needs to show is that he can pitch at that elite level for the duration of a full-length season. Even casting aside the shortened 2020 campaign, Maeda's innings counts have been on the low side throughout his career, largely because the Dodgers would push him into the bullpen in September and October. But the peripherals largely back up his stats from last season, and he left little doubt of his upside with 22 strikeouts and one walk in Spring Training -- even while working on his curveball and sinker.

Bold prediction: Buxton plays 140 games

There. We said it. It's fair to be skeptical, but Buxton showed up to camp this season with an additional 10-15 pounds added to his frame, and he’s now another year removed from the torn labrum that ended his 2019 season. The associated soreness in the area following his surgery cost him a few more games in ‘20.

Buxton's frame is much more filled out than when he debuted in the Majors, which should better protect him from collisions and the rigors of the schedule, and 140 games isn’t an unrealistic target, considering he hit that mark in 2017 when he won his Platinum Glove Award. With free agency slowly ticking closer following the 2022 season, he has every reason to be careful on the field and put together a full season.