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Baseball Prospectus last week released its PECOTA projections for MLB teams and players, and the news was about as neutral for the Twins as possible. They are projected to finish 81-81, not really within striking distance of meaningful contention.

Which Twins players are likely to exceed projections, which are likely to disappoint relative to projections, and on which side of .500 will the team finish?

First take: Michael Rand

Part of me wants to say the projected 81-81 is both good enough for second place in the AL Central and also the worst record in baseball. Nobody wants to be stuck in the middle, especially a Twins team for which that would represent only a three-game improvement over last season.

That said, PECOTA is a projection system heavily influenced by past performance and is naturally filled with outliers. To beat the overall projection, the Twins will need some players to overperform expectations.

A big one who jumps out at me is starting pitcher Michael Pineda. He hasn’t pitched in a major league game since July 5, 2017, after Tommy John surgery. Baseball Prospectus projects him for a WARP (wins above replacement player) of 0.0 and an ERA of almost 5. If he has a true bounce-back season, add two or three wins to the bottom line.

Phil Miller: Twins beat writer

See, you’re a glass-half-empty guy, right away noticing someone who’s supposed to underachieve. Me, I’m full of optimism. I note that PECOTA says that another newcomer is projected to be the Twins’ best player, and by a lot: Nelson Cruz, who, even if he delivers only the 28 homers and 86 RBI that BP expects (his lowest totals in six years), will provide 3.4 WAR, an Eddie Rosario level of production that the projections say would make him the team’s MVP in a rout.

Wait, maybe I’m not the optimistic one. Because if a 38-year-old Cruz, who plays no defensive position and showed hints of the coming decline last year (his .850 OPS was also his lowest since 2013), is the MVP of a team built upon developing prospects with star potential, then this group of Twins might as well be dismantled.

To me, Miguel Sano (.235 average, 23 homers projected) is the spot where the Twins must exceed projections if they’re going to contend.

Rand: PECOTA — which stands for “player empirical comparison and optimization test algorithm" — tells us a couple of interesting things from a team comparison standpoint.

First, there are 15 games separating the Twins and Cleveland (96 wins), but the bottom of the division is once again a trash fire, with three teams projected to lose 90 games or more.

Second, BP has the Rays slotted into the second wild card, but with just 86 wins. The notion of the Twins being within striking distance of that number might give fans optimism on one hand but pessimism over a tame offseason that could have narrowed the gap more.

Miller: And to add even more fuel to those what-could-have-been impulses: Francisco Lindor has a calf injury that may keep him sidelined for all of spring training. If Cleveland falters, the AL Central might be egging for the Twins to swoop in with a big step forward.

I know the Twins front office is skeptical that the so-called “window of opportunity” is open. But the value of turning an 81-81 team into a division champion seems worth the cost (and risk) of making a big upgrade.

Rand: I guess it depends whether you think a projection can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Final word: Miller

Or whether improving to an 81-81 record is considered success.

More Rand: startribune.com/RandBall

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