Since the signing of Justin Upton by the Detroit Tigers, the general consensus has been that the Central Division has become a two team race, reminiscent of 2014 with the Royals and Tigers fighting for the title with the Indians and White Sox dark horses for a Wild Card. What everyone has forgotten in this is while these other teams may have been spending more and making more moves, the Minnesota Twins were the team that actually contended late into 2015, finishing in second in the division and just three games out of the Wild Card with 83 wins.
A large reason for the Twins’ success was the surprising play of some rookies, who, like the Twins as a whole this offseason, were overshadowed by an incredible rookie class that included Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson, Carlos Correa, and Francisco Lindor. Despite all these incredible athletes around the league, the Twins may have had the top group of rookies on a single roster, and it should only be better in 2016.
Because home runs sell tickets, the rookie most non-Twins fans are probably familiar with is Miguel Sano. He finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year race, far behind Correa and Lindor, but likely would have won the award in almost any other season as he knocked in 52 runs in just 80 games and went yard 18 times. An all or nothing hitter, Sano struck out in 35% of his at bats, but still managed a slugging percent of .530 and a wRC+ of 151. Even if he suffers a fall back in his sophomore season, Sano should be a solid slugger for the Twins for years to come and will likely be their top power hitter in the upcoming seasons.
There is a problem with Sano, however, in that he played almost exclusively at DH last year and was generally a poor third baseman in the minor leagues. Since there’s a greater chance of the NL gaining a DH than the AL losing one, that should be fine except that the Twins are kind of locked down with poor defenders. Joe Mauer is the primary first baseman and eventually may not even be able to play there.
A 2016 rookie is also in the way as Korean free agent Byung-Ho Park was signed by Minnesota and can is essentially limited to playing either DH or first bae. With Trevor Plouffe locked in at third, Sano is listed as the starting right fielder on the Twins’ depth chart despite never logging an inning at any outfield position during his entire professional career.
Even if they have to get creative, the Twins will find a way to get Mauer, Park, Plouffe, and Sano in the lineup every day, but there is much more beyond them. Much further under the radar, a player who actually did play in the outfield and did so well was Eddie Rosario. He played 118 games in the outfield last year and was a solid defender in both center and left, particularly the latter where he played most of his time and finished with a 13.9 UZR/150.
Perhaps surprisingly, Rosario had a better WAR than Sano (2.3 to 2.0), mostly because he played more games and made a positive difference on defense. In addition, while Sano’s .396 BABIP may be unsustainable, Rosario should still be a consistent hitter in 2016 as his BABIP was just .332, he struck out less (25% of at bats). He should also be able to maintain value better as his defense and base running prowess are less likely to decline. In addition, the chase for the playoffs should help all these young players by providing valuable late season experience for the division races in the future.
In all, four Twins rookies accrued a WAR above 1.0 last year, but their top prospect, Byron Buxton was not one of them. There was a possibility that Buxton, the number one prospect in all of baseball going into 2015 according to MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, could have broken camp with the team, but he didn’t make his debut until mid-June after spending time in both AA and AAA. Once he did break through, he was less impressive than his rookie counterparts, batting .209/.250/.326. However, this linecould be misleading as he really started to catch on in September, batting .273/.314/.515 from September 8th on.
Like Rosario, Buxton also provides significant value on defense, playing errorless center field for 44 games. UZR doesn’t like his range (he had a -8.4 UZR/150 because of it), but he doesn’t make mistakes and has a great arm for a center fielder. More than any of the other Twins rookies, he should be expected to improve greatly in 2016 and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if by the end of the season he is a top of the lineup hitter on a play-off contending team.
With all this talk about hitters, it would be unfair to not mention the eight rookies the Twins used on the mound last year, particularly three who made a difference in 2015 and could be even bigger in 2016 – Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, and Michael Tonkin. In the past few seasons, the Twins have signed a lot of starting pitchers to a lot of money, but when the season was on the line at the end of 2015, it was May and Duffey who were handed the ball in 26 combined starts.
May was an expected asset, but Duffey came out of nowhere, never being ranked in the top 100 MiLB prospects after being a fifth round pick in 2012. He joined the rotation early in August and finished out his ten starts with a 3.10 ERA, leading the Twins to wins in his final four starts including two games against Detroit and one against Cleveland.
While this experience was limited, the only time Duffey allowed more than three runs in a game was against the offensive juggernaut Blue Jays in his MLB debut. After that, he pitched at least five innings in each start and only gave up three runs one more time. At the moment, he is slated to be the Twins’ fourth starter with May in the bullpen, but considering how disappointing Ervin Santana has been so far in his four year, $55 million deal, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see a rotation for the Twins full of youngsters with Kyle Gibson, Duffey, and May following the veteran leadership of Phil Hughes up front.
This lineup and rotation may not be as exciting or as expensive as the Tigers with all their new additions, but it is much more likely to stay healthy and to improve upon their 2015 numbers rather than begin their declines. Relying on young players is a risk, but with a few veterans still around, like Mauer, Hughes and Brian Dozier, the Twins should be able to stay on course through the season.