Despite being the only team in the majors to lose 100 games last year, the Minnesota Twins were actually a fairly average offensive team. They were one of eight teams in the AL to hit more than 200 homers, they ranked ninth in runs scored and walked in 8.2% of their plate appearances, good for fifth-best in the league.
The Twins have been one of the least active teams during the offseason so their lineup won’t look too different from the one they rolled out for much of 2016. There is however, a change behind the plate that may help to add a bit of extra offense, while they also managed to keep Brian Dozier around as their second baseman.
Brian Dozier, 2B: Hardly the typical leadoff hitter, Dozier has become much more of a power hitter who would be better off hitting in the middle of Minnesota’s lineup. Last season, the 30-year-old posted a .340 on-base percentage that was well above his previous career average of .314. 2016 was also a big year for Dozier as he led all MLB second baseman by hitting 42 home runs.
Dozier was hotly pursued by the LA Dodgers during the offseason before they eventually settled on acquiring Logan Forsythe from Tampa Bay to be their second baseman. It’s likely that the right-hander will continue to be the topic of much trade hype leading into the trade deadline. His spot in the team is unquestioned, but the Twins should start to look at other potential leadoff hitters to prepare for a future without Dozier.
Jorge Polanco, SS: Having spent time at shortstop, second base and third base in 2016, Polanco looks to be settling in for a long stint as Minnesota’s shortstop. The 23-year-old came up with the organization in 2014 but it wasn’t until last season did we see his potential. The switch-hitter owned a .332 OBP and a .282 AVG as he started getting some regular playing time with the Twins.
In 245 at-bats, he also had 15 doubles, four triples, and 27 RBIs while showing the preparedness to be active on the base paths. All of those qualities make him someone who looks to have the qualities as a solid hitter at the top of the lineup. He and Brian Dozier could even switch places in the order just to give the latter’s home run power a little more impact. 2017 is going to be an important year for this young man, but if he can continue to build on a strong 69-game cameo last year he’s got all the makings to be a quality major league hitter for years to come.
Max Kepler, RF: All of the odds would be stacked on Joe Mauer to be Minnesota’s third hitter in the lineup, but with the Twins looking towards the future I think 2017 would be a good time to give the kids the opportunity to prove themselves. Having three 23-year-olds as the two-three-four hitters in their lineup would be quite interesting and something I’m sure the fans would get excited about seeing.
The German-born Kepler enjoyed his first full season in the majors last year and was fairly consistent for much of the season. He hit .235 with a .309 OBP and .424 slugging percentage. Those numbers mightn’t be great, but they certainly provide reason to be optimistic. Kepler also showed his power stroke by racking up 39 extra-base hits including 17 homers while driving in 63 and having a strikeout-to-walk ratio of about 2-to-1. The right field job belongs to him, now it’s time to book himself a spot in the top of Minnesota’s batting order.
Miguel Sano, 3B: The third of our 23-year-old youngsters, Sano seems to be creating a career as a prototypical clean-up hitter who blasts a lot of balls out of the yard but also strikes out a ton. Last year was exactly that type of line, hitting .236 with 25 homers and 178 punch-outs. His .462 slugging percentage was good enough to be the second-best mark of any Minnesota hitter, well behind that of Brian Dozier.
After Trevor Plouffe penned a free agent contract with Oakland during the offseason, any competition Sano had for his job at third base seemed to go elsewhere. Utility infielder Eduardo Escobar did start 20 games at the hot corner last year and would be Sano’s backup should the youngster land on the disabled list, but Escobar is more of a middle infielder anyway and lacks the bat that Sano has.
Joe Mauer, 1B: Still the leader in the clubhouse, Mauer has achieved a lot in his 13 years as a Twin. He’s played in six All-Star games, won five silver slugger awards, three gold gloves and was the AL MVP in 2009. However, all of those accolades came prior to 2014 and in the last three years, Mauer has been a leader but nothing more.
Since moving to first base on a permanent basis, he’s hit .267 but Mauer’s slugging percentage has dropped from .468 between 2004 and 2013 to just .380 in the last three seasons. In that span, Mauer has hit just 25 homers and 170 RBIs, while his doubles are also down to an average of 28 each year. Sentimentally, Mauer is still very important to the state of Minnesota, but with the team in a youth movement perhaps now is the time for the Twins veteran to pass the baton along.
Kennys Vargas, DH: After signing with the Twins as an amateur free agent out of Puerto Rico in 2009, Vargas has gotten at least 150 MLB at-bats each of the last three years. In that span, he’s hit .251 while averaging 16 extra-base hits and 25 RBIs. The 26-year-old is yet to cement is place in the Twins lineup after Minnesota has used the designated hitter position to give a number of players rest throughout the year.
Given his notable increase in batting average against southpaws, it’s plausible that Minnesota could use a platoon partner with Vargas. The youngster has a career .302 average when facing left-handers, but that drops almost 80 points when he hits against righties. Despite being a switch-hitter, it seems as though the advantage hasn’t always helped Vargas. Having said that, given his youth and the fact that the Twins just placed Byung Ho Park on waivers (who hit 10 of his 12 homers last year off right-handers), it seems like Vargas is going to get at least 250 at-bats to prove himself this year.
Byron Buxton, CF: Once the top prospect in the organization, Buxton’s first two tastes of the majors have not gone according to plan. After hitting .209 in his first 138 appearances in 2014, Buxton struck out 118 times in 331 appearances last year, equating to a .225 average and .284 on-base percentage. During both years, the talented center fielder hit .305 in the minors and was able to show much greater discipline at the plate.
Though he started 88 games last year, the path is now even clearer for the 23-year-old to make center field his own in Minnesota. The Twins want Buxton to succeed and are clearly going to give him every opportunity to do so. However, should his struggles at the plate continue we may find ourselves looking at the next Aaron Hicks: a first round pick who promised so much and delivered so little. Hicks is now entering his second campaign with the Yankees trying to crack the team as their fourth outfielder. One hopes the same won’t be said of Buxton in a few years.
Jason Castro, C: While it was looking like the Twins would be moving forward with John-Ryan Murphy as their everyday catcher, the team went out and signed veteran Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million deal in late November. After putting together a solid year at the plate in 2013, Castro’s offensive highlights have been few and far between recently. He hit just .210 last year with 30 extra-base hits in 113 games, finishing the season with a .163 batting average in September.
While his performance at the plate is nothing to boast about, his work behind the dish has been much better. Castro had a near-perfect .996 fielding percentage in 2016 and is regarded as one of the best pitch framers in the game. While he only threw out 24 percent of all runners, the 29-year-old typically as a great rapport with his pitching staff and should be a great mentor for the young starters that will spend time on a big league mound this season.
Eddie Rosario/Robbie Grossman, LF: The Twins figure to use a platoon in left field, with Rosario getting game time against right-handers and Grossman against southpaws. Last season, the 27-year-old Grossman hit a combined .280 but his batting average went up to .344 against lefties. His career splits are a little less drastic, but Grossman’s average, on-base, and slugging percentages are all better when a left-hander is on the bump.
Rosario’s splits are a lot less obvious, but he’s going to see the majority of his playing time come against right-handers. With only about 10 percent of American’s being left-handed, one can expect Rosario to receive in excess of 300 at-bats just as he did in 2016. Last year, he hit a combined .269 with 17 doubles and 10 home runs. 2015 was the year when the 25-year-old Puerto Rican really made his mark, tallying a league-leading 15 triples.