The Twins’ excellent regular season ends in another disappointing playoff exit

The Twins were eliminated from the playoffs by the Yankees on Monday night, extending their record losing streak in the playoffs to 16 games, dating back to Game Two of the 2004 ALDS. The Yankees are actually responsible for 13 of those losses, with the A’s contributing the other three. It is a disappointing result for a team that won 101 games this season, just two fewer than the Yankees.

The Twins were far from full strength in this series. They were missing Byron Buxton and Michael Pineda, the latter of whom was suspended as the result of testing positive for the diuretic hydrochlorothiazide. Eddie Rosario and Luis Arráez were playing through injuries. Who knows what would have happened if they were playing.

The Twins’ 101 wins are a bit deceiving, though, as they played in one of the worst divisions in baseball. The AL Central was historically bad last year, and it was not much better this year. They went a combined 41-16 against the White Sox, Royals, and Tigers. Furthermore, they went an astounding 23-12 in one-run games, which are basically supposed to be coin flips. An elite bullpen can help swing more one-run games in a team’s favor, but the Twins’ bullpen was merely good, with a 4.10 RA9 and 4.73 DRA. Even if it was elite, that would not explain such a lopsided record in one-run games.

When the Twins signed Nelson Cruz in late December, I applauded the move but cautioned that the Twins would need everything to break right in order to take the division from the reigning Indians. Well, for once I was right about something, because that is basically what happened. Moreover, that is what needs to happen for a team that PECOTA projected as an 81-win true talent team to win 101 games.

The Twins rode the juiced ball to a record 307 home runs—coincidentally beating out the Yankees by one—and that combined with Cleveland’s rash of injuries and regression of key players, as well as doing nothing in the offseason, led to the Twins winning the division handily by eight games. The aforementioned Cruz had his best season at the plate, despite turning 39 on July 1st. He hit .311/.392/.639 with 41 home runs over 120 games and 521 PA, good for a 163 wRC+.

After a season when everything went right, you don’t need to be an elite baseball analyst to see major regression coming, especially if MLB fixes the rabbit ball. I guarantee you that the projections will be underwhelming for a team coming off a 101-win season, even if they have a big winter. I can already see reporters going up to players and coaches in spring training to troll them with an underwhelming PECOTA projection.

(It really is trolling, too. Players and coaches don’t know how these preseason projections work, nor do they need to. Even if they did, they are never going to publicly support an unflattering projection. Ask better questions.)

Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda, and Jason Castro are free agents. The Twins are expected to pick up Cruz’s $12 million option, which is a no-brainer. There will be quite a few interesting options on the market this winter, but the Twins have never been big spenders. Their $124.8 million payroll in 2019 ranked only 18th in baseball.

There is really no excuse not to spend more this offseason. The Twins are worth over $1 billion, and that is before getting to owner Jim Pohlad, who is likely worth at least that much himself. I promise you that Pohlad can afford multiple high priced free agents.

The Twins’ offense should still be in good shape. Cruz is likely to see some major regression himself anyway, though he has not had a wRC+ below 130 since 2013. However, the rotation needs some serious fortification without Odorizzi and Pineda. Kyle Gibson is a free agent, too, but he was barely above replacement level by bWAR and WARP. José Berríos did very well this season, but he obviously can’t pitch every game. The lack of starting pitching depth was a problem this season, and it was exposed in the playoffs. At least the bullpen is pretty solid.

It is uncommon for a team coming off a great regular season to have a strong farm system, because those teams either promote those prospects to the majors or trade them for proven veterans, but the Twins are not one of those teams. Their farm system ranks eighth according to Jim Callis at MLB.com, with five players in the top 100, and Royce Lewis ranking in the top ten.

The White Sox should continue to improve next season, but they likely will not be good enough to challenge for the division. The less said about the Royals and Tigers, the better. The Twins’ main competition, Cleveland, has shown how vulnerable they are, and there is no reason to believe that their ownership will do anything in free agency to address these vulnerabilities. As for the rest of the AL, the Yankees and Astros will continue to be elite in 2020. The Twins’ window of contention is open now. They really need to execute this winter.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.

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