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Terry Ryan’s two-plus decades as Twins general manager ended in the middle of a franchise-worst 103-loss season, as the team topped 90 losses for the fifth time in six years and failed to win a playoff game for the 12th consecutive season. Minnesota’s famously old-school approach had grown woefully stale, on and off the field, and ownership finally realized that outside help was needed to turn around the majors’ most insular team. Year 1 of the new Derek Falvey/Thad Levine front office regime represents a fresh start for a Twins organization that desperately needs one.
Falvey replaced Ryan as Front Office Boss in September and hired Levine as GM a month later, but they made surprisingly few infrastructure changes. Rob Antony, long Ryan’s right-hand man, remains assistant GM. Paul Molitor was retained as manager, with much of his coaching staff intact. Several key members of the player development hierarchy were unaffected and role changes occurred as often as firings in the scouting ranks. Rather than a top-to-bottom tear down and fresh start, it's more like Falvey and Levine moved into Ryan’s house and opted for new carpet, modern furniture, and a fresh coat of paint.
It’s unclear if that lack of full-scale change is permanent or if Falvey and Levine simply wanted more time to evaluate the organization before taking further steps to bring in more outside help. Their first offseason at the helm was also surprisingly uneventful from a roster standpoint. The lone move of any significance was signing catcher Jason Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million contract early in free agency, as months of trade talks with the Dodgers for Brian Dozier fell apart when the Twins insisted on more than just Jose De Leon in return.
Regardless of the Twins’ record—Las Vegas sets the over/under at 74.5 wins, PECOTA projects 78 wins, and my gut says 72-75 wins because the pitching staff remains terrible—2017 will always be remembered as the year Minnesota turned the page on Ryan and started down a new path with Falvey, Levine, and an attempt to build a modern organization. We’ll also look back on 2017 as the year the Twins found out, for better or worse, what their next batch of stars look like. High-profile graduations have depleted the Twins’ farm system, but few teams can match the 25-and-under talent and upside in Minnesota.
Despite seemingly being a top prospect forever Byron Buxton is still just 23 years old, with fewer than 500 career at-bats in the majors, and by the end of this season the Twins should have a much firmer grasp on whether he’s going to be an elite defensive center fielder with an erratic bat or an all-around stud. Miguel Sano is the thunder to Buxton’s lightning, but took a step backward as a sophomore and must now prove that he’s more than just a high-strikeout, low-average slugger. Sano will begin the year playing third base, where he’s logged a grand total of 991 innings in the majors and the minors since 2014.
Max Kepler’s timetable was sped up last season, as he arrived in the majors after just a handful of games at Triple-A. He mostly held his own at age 23 and showed glimpses of big offensive potential, including a three-homer game against the Indians on August 1. Jose Berrios very much did not hold his own, looking totally out of place in his big-league debut despite back-to-back dominant seasons at Triple-A. He’s even younger than Buxton, not turning 23 until late May, but Berrios may spend another birthday in Rochester after failing to secure a rotation spot this spring.
There’s little doubt that the Twins will be improved this year, maybe even significantly, but more important than whether they win 70, 75, or 80 games is how many long-term building blocks emerge from the pile of young, raw former top prospects. If, by the end of 2017, the Twins feel confident that at least two of those four will be the stars around which a consistent contender can be constructed, then the season will have been a success in the big picture. Toss in secondary pieces like Jorge Polanco (23), Eddie Rosario (25), and Tyler Duffey (26), and there’s a lot of wet clay to be shaped into art over the next six months.
I believe Buxton will lead that charge, building on a monster September performance to establish himself as one of the best all-around outfielders in baseball with speed, power, and limitless range. As his career 162/29 K/BB ratio makes obvious there’s still a ton of work to do in smoothing out his rough edges at the plate, but 23-year-old center fielders who hit 450-foot homers are worth dreaming on and Molitor spent the offseason admitting that the Twins made a mistake by constantly tinkering with Buxton’s pull-heavy, leg-kick approach.
They wanted to turn Buxton into a prototypical leadoff man, which isn’t surprising given his jaw-dropping speed, but his game is much more suited for table clearing than table setting and the repeated attempts to force him into a mold magnified the early struggles. Buxton’s defense is so spectacular that he can star without hitting much—PECOTA projects him as a three-WARP player despite a modest .244/.296/.434 line—but there’s 25-homer power in that skinny frame if the Twins can just unlock it on a consistent basis. Buxton is no sure thing and certainly not without red flags, but he’s tantalizingly close to breaking out.
Sano resides at the opposite end of the spectrum from Buxton in that his power and plate discipline are already established—he’s averaged 35 homers and 85 walks per 150 games—but nearly everything else about his game is a potential weakness. His strikeout rate of 35.8 percent is the highest in modern history and makes it difficult for PECOTA to even find viable comps. Sano’s most similar players through age 23 features Kris Bryant, Eddie Mathews, Giancarlo Stanton, Reggie Jackson, and Harmon Killebrew, but also Mark Reynolds, Sam Horn, and Pedro Alvarez. And that’s about right.
Sano is destined to become one of the most extreme Three True Outcomes hitters ever, but can he make even slightly more contact without sacrificing the upper-deck thump and deep-count hunting responsible for making him so dangerous? And can he contribute anything in the field? As a .265 hitter with plus-plus arm strength and enough short-burst quickness to be a passable third baseman, Sano’s upside would be immense. As a .235 hitter for whom the DH spot proves to be the only long-term home for his bulk, Sano would be at risk of topping out as just another all-or-nothing slugger.
There are no shortage of interesting storylines in Minnesota this season. Falvey and Levine taking over for Ryan. Molitor trying to convince the new front office that he’s the right manager. Dozier’s follow up to an incredible second-half power surge and the lingering cloud of trade rumors. Glen Perkins’ comeback from injuries derailing his career. Joe Mauer’s ongoing struggle to finish out his contract as a productive regular. The now-annual attempt to cease having the league’s worst pitching staff, this time with the help of pitch-framer extraordinaire Castro behind the plate.
And yet when it comes to the Twins’ hopes of climbing out of this hole before two decades pass between playoff wins, nothing is more important than the development of Buxton, Sano, Kepler, and Berrios. One way or another, this season will be remembered for how many of those four prospects who are too old to still be “prospects” emerge as impact big leaguers. Falvey and Levine have a lot of work and heavy lifting to do at nearly every level of the organization, but by the end of 2017 we should know whether the Twins’ young core is structurally sound enough to build around.
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