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A Superb Rotation Led the Twins Back to the Playoffs in 2023

Pablo Lopez pitches at home for the Minnesota Twins against the New York Mets.

The Twins were clearly the best team in the AL Central, and they even broke their long playoff series drought.

The Minnesota Twins had reason to celebrate in 2023. After a couple years mired in mediocrity, the Twins improved to 87 wins and a comfortable division title. Backed by the best rotation in baseball, Minnesota breezed through MLB’s weakest division and won their first postseason series since 2002. The Twins peaked at the right time and held the Toronto Blue Jays to one run across two games in the Wild Card Round.

Since a significant portion of their roster entered free agency, the Twins are currently in an uncertain position ahead of the 2024 season. They are also potentially losing some of their media revenue. But even if they must take a step back this summer, they can still be proud of how they played last year. They accomplished more than any Twinkies team had in over two decades, and they did it despite a frustrating lineup and a pile of injuries.

Minnesota has plenty of corner types with varying levels of reliability and few solid middle-infield options. Working with a limited budget, it is hard to imagine the Twins improving much at this point, but they might trade OF Max Kepler and/or 2B Jorge Polanco. More importantly, they need to fortify their pitching staff after losing three starters, including the best one. Even so, the ’23 rotation is one worth remembering.

A Rotation for the Ages

The Twins did not have a rotation filled with Hall of Famers like the Atlanta Braves in the 1990s. What they did have, though, is a high number of very good starters, all of whom could rack up strikeouts. Twins pitchers led the Majors with 1560 strikeouts, and their starters accounted for 970 of those. The team also gave up the fewest runs in the American League.

The conversation starts with SP Sonny Gray, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Gray had one of his best seasons by pitching to a 2.79 ERA and finishing second in Cy Young voting. After the biggest trade of last offseason, SP Pablo Lopez developed a sweeper and served as the perfect complement to Gray. The two of them both made 32 starts, a feat Gray hadn’t accomplished since 2014. Even though SP Joe Ryan struggled down the stretch, he pitched well for large portions of the year. It is certainly possible he ran out of gas and will show up refreshed in Fort Myers. SP Bailey Ober had an under-the-radar breakout with a 3.43 ERA across consistently solid outings. That made SP Kenta Maeda an enviable #5 starter returning from injury.

Relative health in the rotation meant the Twins had a fighting chance in every contest, while most teams have “punt games”. But that may not be true in the coming season. Gray, Maeda, and SP Tyler Mahle left in free agency, and the Twins have not made any external additions. They must be counting on a step forward from the promising SP Louie Varland, who did a serviceable job as a rookie swingman.

Offensive Question Marks

The Twins had a lopsided offense in 2023, but it ended up not being as problematic as it seemed in the middle of the season. 1B Alex Kirilloff and 3B Royce Lewis had some long-awaited breakouts. After two underwhelming years of struggling to establish himself, Kirilloff had a 117 OPS+ in 88 games, which is better than what Minnesota was otherwise getting from their corner bats. Meanwhile, injuries are preventing Lewis from playing full seasons, but he has easily been the best hitter in the Twin Cities when healthy. He hit 15 home runs in 239 plate appearances and then a two-homer game in the playoffs. Even more exciting, in August and September, Lewis hit three grand slams in an eight-game span.

Those two youngsters should pace the lineup in 2024, but they need improvements elsewhere. Similar to the pitching staff, Twins hitters struck out more than any other team in baseball. There are many three-true-outcomes hitters in Minnesota, but that isn’t necessarily a sustainable formula. The Twins can be overly reliant on swinging for the fences when sometimes they just need a line drive. Walks are always good, but most MLB pitchers can limit free passes. 2B Edouard Julien shows this profile can work, but TTO can’t be the only approach.

The main concern for the Twins is SS Carlos Correa. In the first year of his contract, Correa had the worst full season of his career. With a sharp decline in speed and long-term injury concerns, Minnesota has to be worried how long he can anchor the lineup. In a similar vein, DH Byron Buxton was merely average and did not take the field at all, and he did not run much, either. A rebound is necessary to repeat as division champions. The same is true for 3B Jose Miranda, who had a solid rookie season in 2022 but fell off a cliff last year.

Looking Forward

The Twins should still be competitive this coming season, but they will have more competition than usual. The AL Central deserves its reputation as the worst division, but the baseline is improving. The Cleveland Guardians are always capable of overperforming, and the Detroit Tigers are clearly on the rise. The Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals are still bad, but they can’t be any worse than last year.

Minnesota will need some internal growth in order to get back to the playoffs with a smaller payroll. The front office and the development staff can pull that off, but some acquisitions would still be helpful.

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