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Minnesota’s Historic Season Still Might Not Be Enough to Best Cleveland

The Twins closed the gap on the AL Central champs with an aggressive offseason, but allowed the Indians back into the race by failing to match their trade deadline haul. Without upgraded pitching, can they hit enough homers to hang on?

Getty Images/Associated Press/Ringer illustration

The Minnesota Twins are the favorites in the AL Central, or at least that’s how it looked for a while. After the defending division champion Cleveland Indians sat out the offseason, Minnesota zoomed into the Central’s power vacuum. At the Twins’ peak, on June 2, they were 40-18, playing at a 112-win pace, and 11.5 games up on the second-place Indians. Since then, the two clubs reversed fortunes. Since June 2, Cleveland has posted the best record in the league, while the Twins have continued to play winning baseball, but only just: After going 22 games over .500 in their first 58 games, the Twins went just four games over in their past 52.

The net result of this reversal is that the AL Central race, which looked like it was over by Memorial Day, is now very much back on. All the more so after the trade deadline, when Cleveland pulled off the season’s most innovative blockbuster by sending Trevor Bauer, a key member of their playoff rotation the past three years, to Cincinnati in a three-way deal that netted the Indians outfielders Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, as well as a few prospects.

Minnesota was involved in trade talks for most of the big-name pitchers on the market: Noah Syndergaard, Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman, and Mike Minor. But the Twins refused to part with top prospects Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff, or young cost-controlled big league roster players such as Byron Buxton and 22-year-old utility man Luis Arraez. The Astros also held the line on their two top prospects, but were able to work out a deal with Arizona for Zack Greinke anyway, while Minnesota GM Thad Levine admitted that the Twins were waiting for a last-minute price drop that never ended up coming. Minnesota walked away with only Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson, two solid right-handed relievers who were much bigger names in years past than they are now.

There’s a striking contrast between the two teams’ actions at the deadline, and that contrast illustrates the direction of the division race: The Indians, already closing fast, are finding creative ways to go on the offensive. Meanwhile, the Twins, having staked themselves to a huge lead, stood their ground and are trying to hang on. After spending decades as an upstart, and one of the definitive scrappy small-market successes of the 21st century, Minnesota finally has something to lose.

The Twins do have quite a bit to defend. Even after regressing during the past two months, the 2019 Twins have the best winning percentage of any Twins team since 1965, when Minnesota won 102 games and the AL pennant. They’re on pace for a run differential of plus-206, which would set a franchise record, including the franchise’s half-century in Washington.

Even when the Twins were good, they gave off a powerful whiff of the underdog. In 1987, the Twins won their first World Series in more than 60 years, but were lucky to even make the postseason at 85-77 with a run differential of minus-20. From 2002 through 2010, the Twins won six division titles and made the playoffs seven times in nine years with teams that were heavier on pitching and small ball than power and pizzazz. Their two best players of the 21st century were an undersized pitcher, Johan Santana, and an unassuming local catcher, Joe Mauer, who won three batting titles, made six All-Star teams, and inspired roughly 100 million angry words from guys named Carl and Doug about how he made too much money and didn’t hit for enough power.

Not even Hollywood could imagine a Twins team that relied on its brawn; though a successful Twins team was the subject of the 1994 cinematic masterpiece Little Big League, the Twins in question were upstarts buoyed by the leadership of a child with a preternatural command of modern baseball strategy.

On the surface, there’s a bit of Billy Heywood to these Twins. After lagging behind the state of the sabermetric art for a decade, the Twins installed former Indians executive Derek Falvey, who was 33 years old at the time of his hiring in 2016, as the team’s executive vice president and chief baseball officer. In Falvey’s first year in charge, the Twins caught lightning in a bottle and made it back to the playoffs for the first time in seven years before regressing to 78 wins in 2018. This year, the Twins’ front office overhauled the coaching staff as well, bringing in Wes Johnson from the college ranks to take charge of big league pitchers, and hiring former Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli to become baseball’s first millennial manager.

But the similarities to Little Big League end with the youth movement at the executive and coaching staff level. This is not a team of trick plays and slick montages; this is a team built to besiege opposing pitchers. In addition to hiring Baldelli and Johnson, Falvey and his staff brought some beefy ball players to the land of the meat raffle. Along with incumbent sluggers Miguel Sanó (6-foot-4, 272 pounds) and Max Kepler (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), the Twins added ageless DH Nelson Cruz and infielders Marwin González and Jonathan Schoop via free agency, and claimed first baseman C.J. Cron off waivers. All four of those newcomers have contributed at least 10 home runs this year, as have Sanó, Kepler, and five other returning Twins.

That makes 11 Twins with double-digit home run totals in 2019, which is one off the all-time record with almost a third of the season left to play. Among those 11 players is catcher Mitch Garver, who’d hit seven home runs in 125 big league games coming into this season, but has hit 20 in 60 games in 2019.

The 2019 Minnesota Twins are, in short, on track to be the best power hitting team in history. Not just in franchise history, in baseball history. Last year’s Yankees hit more home runs than any other team had hit before (267), and the Twins are on pace to smash that record by smashing 317 home runs. They’re also on pace to break the single-season team slugging percentage record and become the first club ever to slug .500. Some of that is the result of the current offensive environment—whether due to improved training methods, juiced balls, or the swing-plane revolution, 2019 is on pace for the second-highest leaguewide slugging percentage since 1900. But the Twins have 28 more home runs than any other team in baseball and are out-slugging the second-place Astros by 20 points, and the league average by 68 points.

Dominant as the Twins’ offense has been, their pitching staff needed improvement at the deadline. Johnson—the very model of a modern pitching guru—upgraded the team’s pitching with a new emphasis on biomechanics and breaking balls, and his efforts paid off at the start of the season. Martín Pérez, a below-average starter for seven years with the Rangers, posted an ERA of 2.95 in his first 11 appearances; veteran righty Jake Odorizzi made his first All-Star team; and 25-year-old ace José Berríos has been as ace-like as ever all year long, with an AL-leading ERA+ of 165.

But the magic’s worn off. In his past 11 starts, Pérez’s ERA is 6.21, and after Odorizzi briefly saw his ERA drop below 2.00 in June, it’s been north of 7.00 since July 1. Blake Parker saved 10 games for the Twins this year, but found himself designated for assignment after allowing four runs in a third of an inning against the Yankees on July 23. Parker cleared waivers, as no team would take on his modest salary of $1.8 million, and refused a demotion to Triple-A, so the Twins released him. The Twins headed into the thick of trade deadline season with ample prospects to move: five in MLB Pipeline’s top 100, including two (Lewis and Kirilloff) in the top 16.

Berríos could hold his own against anyone in Game 1 of a playoff series, but as other early-season contributors began to fade, the projected rotation started to look thin as early as Game 2. With so many attractive prospects and young big leaguers to trade, the Twins pursued just about every top pitcher on the market: Stroman, Syndergaard, Minor, and Ray … and they came away with two middle relievers.

In the days that followed, Dyson allowed six runs in two-thirds of an inning in his first two appearances for the Twins, then landed on the IL with biceps tendinitis on Sunday. There he joined center fielder Byron Buxton and pitcher Michael Pineda, who also hit the IL this weekend. Buxton is out with a shoulder injury that might keep him out for the bulk of the season; the Twins will re-evaluate Buxton in two weeks, but there’s no timetable for his return beyond that. That the injury-prone Pineda, meanwhile, has made 21 starts is more miraculous than Minnesota’s backup catcher suddenly turning into Jimmie Foxx, and his strained triceps shouldn’t keep him out long. But his absence, at this time, underscores the fact that the Twins didn’t bolster their rotation at the deadline.

As things stand, the Twins still have one of the best records in baseball, and a 97.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus. That’s due not only to the lead Minnesota built up early in the season, but the fact that Cleveland’s deadline plan, while audacious and exciting, comes with serious short-term risk. Cleveland could afford to flip Bauer not only because Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger were pitching so well, but because injured starters Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, and Carlos Carrasco were on their way back.

Kluber is due to return in the next few weeks, but Carrasco, who’s being treated for leukemia, still has no timetable to return. Salazar, who hadn’t thrown a big league pitch in two years, returned to action a day after Bauer was traded. He lasted four innings before going back on the IL with a groin strain. If Kluber comes back soon and pitches well, Cleveland will be fine, but that’s not a certainty. And if he doesn’t, the Indians will have plugged two holes in the outfield by creating one in the rotation.

Minnesota didn’t do anything that disruptive at the deadline—no other contender did—but adding Dyson and Romo is a finger in the dike, not a counterpunch to Cleveland’s late-July additions. Given the Twins’ head start, and how good their offseason acquisitions have been, that stop gap might be enough. Minnesota closed the gap on Cleveland by being aggressive this offseason, and through their relative inactivity at the deadline, allowed Cleveland to get back on level footing. If Minnesota does cough up its division lead and falls into the bingo cage of the AL wild-card race, the team’s relatively quiet deadline will stick out more than any untimely strikeout or blown save. Inaction carries its own flavor of risk.