Monday, April 4, 2016

The key to the Twins in 2016

Spring training went pretty well for the Twins. No significant injuries -- even the forearm tightness reported last week for prospect Nick Burdi is apparently sufficiently dissipated that he's throwing again -- no late PED suspensions a la Ervin Santana, plenty of exhibition game wins. The Red Sox are a popular pick to win the AL East, and the Twins beat them like a drum all month.

Of course, that was spring training. That was March. Today the aforementioned Santana takes the mound against another AL East team the Twins racked up wins against in Florida, but this time it's in Baltimore and it counts. Spring training will be relegated to the scrapheap of memory.

This week's Monday print column implies a fairly optimistic view of the 2016 Twins season, Byron Buxton and Byung Ho Park 1-2 in the Rookie of the Year voting? If they perform that well, the Twins ought to at least make the playoffs, right?

Well, maybe. The fourth of the four predictions is a warning sign. All those strikeouts.

I'm been writing at a distance about the Twins since 1989, and one of the long-time themes of my analysis has been what I call "the Kelly Virtues." What Tom Kelly demanded of his position players: Good defense, swing at fastball strikes, put the ball in play. Kelly's first team, the famous '87 Twins, had three 30-homer seasons and a fourth with 28; the Twins never had a 30-homer man again in Kelly's reign. TK's approach sacrificed power for batting average. In the peak of the steroid era, that was a bad trade.

We are not in the steroid era any more. Today's defending World Series champs are the epitome of the Kelly Virtues. Today's Twins, at least at the plate, are not. There comes a point when strikeouts are not merely the exhaust of a power-hitting lineup, but indicative of a deeper problem. That point is certainly at a higher level that Kelly believed it to be two decades ago, but this lineup may be past that point.

The Twins in 2014 had a productive offense. That production sagged last year; Minnesota scored 696 runs, 14 under the AL average and eighth in the 15-team league. Minnesota's on-base percentage (.305) was dead last in the AL. You need baserunners to score runs, and of the eight players listed by Baseball Reference as "regulars" for the 2015 Twins, only Miguel Sano, Joe Mauer and Aaron Hicks bettered the AL average in OBP. The 2016 Twins figure to get more at-bats from Sano, but Hicks is gone.

And that is the crucial question for this team. There's power in this lineup. There's some speed. But will there be enough baserunners to make that power be more than a one-run offense?

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