Not a lot went right for the Minnesota Twins last season, and the pressure is on for things to go differently in 2023. With a new deal keeping Carlos Correa in town for at least the next six years, the Twins cannot afford to waste seasons trying to figure things out -- they're either in or they're out.
That goes for some players who had down seasons in 2022 who need to find a way to bounce back this year to ensure they have a place in Minnesota in the future. As good as a lineup can be with a healthy Correa and Byron Buxton in it, Minnesota is only as good as the sum of its parts allows, and some of those parts looked beyond rusty for most of last season.
Let's leave that in the past, though, and look toward the future. Not a single game on the Twins upcoming 162-game schedule has been played and there's still plenty of time for a few potential key players to get their mojo back and have a positive impact on this season that helps wash away the sins of their past.
Emilio Pagán, RP
This isn't a popular opinion, but Emilio Pagán isn't that bad.
Statistically he was awful last year, and it's very easy to make the case the he is, indeed, bad. But the Twins entire bullpen suffered to such an extreme degree that it's hard to see the same thing happening in consecutive seasons .
Does that mean the bullpen will go completely the other direction? No, but guys like Pagán represent the upside that some Twins fans are selling themselves on in terms of the relievers having a better year in 2023.
Let's be clear, Pagán got shelled in as many as 10 blown save opportunities last season which is obviously not great. But is that an indication of the type of pitcher he is or should how we performed in low leverage situations be considered just as much? If anything it's an indicator that he's not yet in the right role, as he's not a closer but could flourish as a middle reliever in the bullpen.
Just over a third of batters he faced put the ball in play on the ground, which was accentuated by sub-par infield defense that failed Pagán. The Twins are projected to be much better defensively this season, which could mean that more of those ground balls turn into outs. Ditto the 40 percent of fly balls that Pagán allowed to be put into play, as Minnesota's outfield has the potential to be the best defensive unit in the entire league with a trio of Gallo-Buxton-Taylor.
Pagán needs to settle down, but moving him away from the closer role and into a middle relief role could be the slight adjustment that unlocks the best in him.
He'll need it too, as there's the personal incentive for Pagán to have a great 2023 campaign, as he returned to the Twins on a one-year, $3.5 million. Pitching in a contract year, Pagán can hit the market next winter as one of the top relievers in free agency and cash in on a bounce-back season.
Max Kepler, RF
Once a fast-rising star, Kepler has regressed so badly over the last two years that he was a fan-favorite trade candidate over the offseason. When it was rumored that the Twins were looking to center a deal around him that would bring back Pablo Lopez it seemed like a win-win, but Kepler remains and all signs point to him being a part of the lineup this season.
With that comes the need for Kepler to shake out of the offensive rut he's been stuck in and return to the player he was during his rookie season.
A lot of Kepler's offensive eggs have been put in the shift ban basket, and it's a huge factor that his success will hinge on. Since his breakout season in 2019, Kepler slashed .220/.314/.392 and his 98 wRC+ is 2 percent below league average.
Don't dwell too much on Kepler's past at the expense of realizing what his upside in 2023 is. Ranking in the 60th percentile last season, FanGraphs ZiPS projects Kepler's 80th percentile WAR at 3.2, which means he just needs to be 20 percent better than he was last season to have a noticeable impact on the Twins this season.
He's already earning a spot on the roster with his defense, and the shift ban might mean the stars are aligning for Kepler to return to the type of star player he was looking like in 2019.