Even the most optimistic Twins fan would have struggled to predict the turnaround first year manager Paul Molitor facilitated in 2015, after four seasons of abject misery. A number of key players in Minnesota’s vaunted farm system made their big league debuts, with varying degrees of success. Miguel Sano was spectacular, and Eddie Rosario was excellent. Others has less success: Byron Buxton came up, struggled and was injured (a worryingly repetitive pattern), Alex Meyer was obliterated; while Kennys Vargas and Danny Santana did little to allay fears they could be one-year wonders.
The Twins find themselves in an eerily similar position to the 2013 Kansas City Royals, who finished the season at 86-76. After several consecutive drafts with top 5 picks, 2013 was the year the Royals began to perform in a manner which was indicative of the potential of their young group. The Royals drafted Mike Moustakas in 2007 and Eric Hosmer in 2008, both of whom were entering their second full season of contributions in 2013, along with Lorenzo Cain. This triad has come to be the identity of this fundamentally sound Royals franchise, not to mention the heart of their batting lineup.
For the Twins part, they have their own batch of hitting prospects following a similar five year trajectory to big league success. Miguel Sano was signed as an international free agent in 2009 for a then record $3.75 million dollars. Eddie Rosario was drafted out of Puerto Rico in the 4th round of the 2010 draft, and Byron Buxton was taken a pick after Astros rookie sensation Carlos Correa in 2012. In addition to making up the core of the Twins young lineup, Rosario and Buxton will significantly improve the Twins’ defense, another calling card of the Royals since their turnaround.
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Most Twins fans would be quick to laud Paul Molitor as a major factor in their 2015 turnaround. Kansas City has certainly benefited from the Dayton Moore, Ned Yost, Dave Eiland combination, in spite of questionable decisions, such as Yost keeping in Ryan Madson to face the heart of the Blue Jays lineup in game 6 of the ALCS. While Molitor is renowned for his baseball acumen and a more progressive line of thinking than Ron Gardenhire, another enormous factor in the Twins improvement is pitching coach Neil Allen. Terry Ryan deserves to be commended for this move, Allen’s track record helping pitchers like David Price, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer through the Rays system speaks for itself.
The Twins starting pitching was actually better than the Royals in 2015, ranking 16th in the league (as opposed to 22nd for KC). The real disparity between the team lay in their respective bullpens.
The Twins bullpen was pretty bad in 2015, ranking 21st of the 30 major league clubs and looked even worse to the eye test. Looking at the teams that made the playoffs yields a few noteworthy areas of commonality, great bullpens. Of the teams that made the playoffs, all but two had a top twelve bullpen. Pittsburgh (1st), Kansas City (2nd), St. Louis (3rd), Houston (6th), Chicago (8th) all made the top ten. Only two clubs, the Dodgers and the Rangers (whose bullpen had a remarkable second half after an equally dreadful first) were outside the top 12.
Given the Twins limited financial ceiling (AKA the Pohlad family), the Twins easiest push may be to improve its bullpen. There are already a bevy of young explosive arms in the lower levels of the minor leagues. The Twins will be hoping names like Zach Jones, Jake Reed and Nick Burdi can emerge as MLB ready late inning options. All have HUGE arms. The Twins relief corps ranked a league worst 6.9 K/9, 24th in FIP, 28th in xFIP and 27th in SIERA. Whether you want to examine the Twins’ bullpen through an old fashioned lens or a more modern one, their bullpen sucks.
In 2015 the Twins showed fans and the MLB their highly touted farm system is capable of turning around the franchise. Minnesota has a blueprint for mid-market success in Kansas City, who is returning to their second consecutive World Series, on the back of its incredible bullpen. Based on the Twins 2014 draft, Terry Ryan may be a step ahead in replicating the success of the Royals major league roster.