Zimmer: Twins have what it takes to contend in 2023
Flurry of offseason acquisitions has Minnesota positioned to challenge Cleveland for AL Central title
When last we saw the Minnesota Twins, they were limping to the finish line of what was one of the most frustrating seasons in franchise history.
They spent most of the season in first place, leading the AL Central by as many as five games and as late as Sept. 4. But repeated bullpen meltdowns and even more frequent injuries eventually caught up with them, and Cleveland caught, passed and ran away from the Twins to take the division. With star shortstop Carlos Correa expected to opt-out of his contract and sign elsewhere, there was little reason for optimism heading into the offseason.
But then Correa's megadeals with first the Giants and then the Mets fell through. Correa came back to the Twins on a 6-year deal, and everything changed.
Emboldened by getting their franchise player back, the Twins front office went about doing everything they could to make sure a repeat of last year doesn't happen.
They signed a No. 1 catcher in Christian Vazquez. They took a flier on Joey Gallo, a two-time Gold Glover with a pair of 40-homer seasons to his credit looking to bounce back from a bad year. They signed a pair of starting-caliber infielders (Kyle Farmer and Donovan Solano) to be utility men. They signed Gold Glove centerfielder Michael A. Taylor because at this point it's stupid to think Byron Buxton will ever stay healthy. And they traded reigning AL batting champ Luis Arraez for a frontline starter, 27-year-old Pablo Lopez.
The Twins are not without question marks, but there's a lot to like on this roster.
The starting rotation is as deep as it's ever been. Lopez and veteran Sonny Gray are a good 1-2, with Joe Ryan, who won 13 games as a rookie last year, looking like a possible future ace. Tyler Mahle and Kenta Maeda are the fourth and fifth starters and in most years would be the Twins' 1-2. That means Bailey Ober (3.82 ERA in 31 career starts) is starting the season in the minors to front a Saints rotation that will also include top prospects Louie Varland and Simeon Woods-Richardson, with Chris Paddack hoping to return from Tommy John surgery at some point. This year when injuries inevitably strike, the Twins will have credible reinforcements.
At the plate, Correa and Buxton will anchor the lineup, while corner infielder Jose Miranda looks like a future star. Vazquez is an upgrade behind the plate, and while Jorge Polanco and Alex Kirilloff start the season on the injured list, some combination of Nick Gordon, Trevor Larnach, Solano, Farmer, Gallo, Taylor and Max Kepler should keep the lineup steady until they return. Former No. 1 pick Royce Lewis could be back from his torn ACL mid-summer, last year's top pick Brooks Lee could be ready by then as well, while outfielder Matt Walner and on-base machine Edouard Julien, who will start the year at St. Paul, are knocking on the door.
Whether last year's injuries were bad luck, poor preparation and treatment (the trainer from last year was fired) or a lack of durability, you have to like the front office basically saying to the team, look, we know you guys can't go more than two weeks without hurting yourselves, so we signed more guys than we can fit on the roster for when it happens again. If the Twins are fortunate enough to stay even modestly healthy, they're going to be a very strong squad.
The one question mark is the bullpen, where they made the very odd and very unpopular decision to bring back explosives expert Emilio Pagan but made no significant additions. Their hope is that Jorge Lopez, an All-Star last year in Baltimore, can bounce back from a poor showing after the trade and pair with Jhoan Duran, Griffin Jax, Caleb Thielbar, Jorge Alcala and Jovani Moran to form a reliable relief corps. If that doesn't work out, perhaps they can dip into their starting depth to boost the 'pen.
The Central is probably the AL's weakest division, but Cleveland will still be tough to beat. They have the pitching, their young lineup should continue to improve and they added some power to address their biggest weakness. The White Sox should also be improved, especially if they, like the Twins, can avoid falling victim to injuries that did them in last year.
Before Correa re-signed, it looked like the biggest news of the Twins offseason was going to be their new uniforms. Now the new digs are an afterthought, but it's worth remembering — the last time the Twins underwent this drastic of an overhaul in their logo, uniforms and branding was 1987.
Anyone remember what happened that year?