Key for Twins? Raising pitching to bats' level

September 20th, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- The path to October wasn't as straightforward as Minnesota had hoped, but the Twins believe that the best is yet to come after they punched their ticket to the postseason for a second straight year. They'll hope this trip will last longer than their last one.

The Twins certainly overcame their share of obstacles to get to this point.

The young core of the White Sox clicked, leading the South Siders to the top of the American League Central. The Twins lost six in a row in late August. Just about every starting position player dealt with injury, meaning the Twins' vaunted offense spent most of the season at far less than full strength. Two-fifths of the starting rotation was sidelined for most of the summer, pushing the bullpen into extended action.

Still, the Twins persevered -- and in some ways, thrived.

The offense never really materialized to the degree expected, but the pitching staff proved one of the deepest and most underrated units in the AL, with both the rotation and bullpen ranking near the top of the league in production. The relief corps in particular consolidated its depth around several unexpected contributors, giving the Twins the wiggle room they needed on the pitching staff.

With the lineup finally looking whole and the pitching staff seemingly primed to endure the rigors of a playoff schedule short on off-days, the Twins hope they can access another gear in October. But how did they get here in the first place?

How they were built:

International signings: , ,

Trades: (HOU), (NYY), (LAD), (PHI), (TB), (MIA)

Waivers: (SF), (SEA)

President of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have assembled a well-rounded roster with a well-rounded approach.

Long before they arrived, the historic 2009 international signing class of Sanó, Polanco and Kepler -- now all locked up to long-term contracts -- formed the base of this team. The Draft and the Twins’ player development system has produced several of their best pitchers and lineup fixtures. From stars like Cruz and Donaldson to under-the-radar Minor League finds like Thielbar, the Twins have been smart, resourceful and willing to take a deep dive when needed in free agency. Then, the savvy offseason trade acquisition of Maeda pushed the roster over the top.

Key offseason acquisition: Kenta Maeda

Only three Twins pitchers have eclipsed 100 mph in the pitch-tracking era, and one of them, top prospect Brusdar Graterol, was seemingly poised to be the long-term flamethrower the franchise had lacked for some time. That is, until Graterol was dealt to the Dodgers in February in a blockbuster deal that brought Maeda to Minneapolis. Maeda made it worth the steep price tag. Fueled by his mastery of the slider and split changeup, Maeda has been the most consistent and dominant starter in the rotation, on full display in his no-hit bid against Milwaukee in August. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in a start as a Twin and has completed six innings in seven of 10 starts.

Managerial decision: Caution with Donaldson's health

One of the biggest holes in the Twins' lineup for much of the season came as a result of a July 31 injury to Donaldson, who suffered another calf strain after losing significant time earlier in his career with injuries to both calves. In the past, Donaldson's competitiveness might have led him to push his recovery timeline. Instead, considering manager Rocco Baldelli's focus on rest and recovery, the Twins left their $92 million signing to recover for a full month before reinstating him on Sept. 2. Since his return, Donaldson entered Saturday with a .911 OPS with four homers, two doubles and 10 walks in 16 games, including 14 starts. He's fully healthy and clicking at the right time with the playoffs around the corner.

Defining season stretch: September starts with a bang

The end of August was a forgettable stretch for the Twins, to say the least. Mired in a six-game losing streak, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the Tigers, the Twins stood pat at the Aug. 31 Trade Deadline and chose to count on the talent on hand. Sept. 1 brought Buxton's return to the lineup and Pineda's return from suspension. Donaldson came back the next day. Spurred by the return of their stars, the Twins won five in a row and 10 of 12 to open the final month, including a three-game sweep of Cleveland at Target Field that sent their division rival into a tailspin and all but locked up a top-two finish in the AL Central for Minnesota.

Breakout players: Matt Wisler, Caleb Thielbar, Jorge Alcala

Did you know that Jeffers has played more games than either Mitch Garver and Avila this season? The Twins' No. 6 prospect more than proved his readiness for The Show with a .283/.365/.478 line, three homers and strong framing through his first 22 games. Still, the "breakout player" title needs to be shared by the surprising trio of depth options in the Twins' bullpen. Wisler was a waiver-wire castoff. The lowly 2019 Tigers refused to give Thielbar a shot. Alcala had electric stuff but was raw and inexperienced. Likely the seventh, eighth and ninth options in the Twins' bullpen, Wisler (1.21 ERA entering Saturday), Alcala (2.91) and Thielbar (1.69) have earned a level of trust in tight situations and give the Twins needed depth for the playoff sprint.

Calling card: Pitching depth

Who could have expected this? The lineup that set the single-season record for homers in 2019 added Donaldson during the offseason, but the offense slumbered for much of the campaign and took a back seat to the contributions of the pitching staff, which weathered injuries to Odorizzi, Homer Bailey, Hill and Stashak to carry the team for large stretches of the season. The Twins' bullpen depth in particular could prove important given the lack of off-days during the Wild Card, Division Series and Championship Series rounds. Oh, and don't forget the seven viable starting pitchers.

Memorable moment: Buxton returns with a vengeance

Maeda has been the rock of the pitching staff, but a healthy Buxton is the heart and soul of this team. The Twins are far more complete when Buxton is in center field, and he immediately showed that in his Sept. 1 return to the lineup from left shoulder inflammation. In the sixth inning of a tight game, he robbed Edwin Encarnación of a home run with a leaping grab at the wall -- and stayed healthy. One inning later, he knocked in the go-ahead run. Four days later, he turned a routine chopper into a walk-off infield single. He hasn't slowed down since.