Ask any Twins fan these days, and they'll tell you: Year after year, this team's fate so often seems determined by what it lacks. Sure enough, that could be the case again in 2023.
With one big difference.
"A lot is made that maybe we don't have a bona fide ace" to head the pitching staff, General Manager Thad Levine conceded, while pointing out that there may be only "eight to 10" of them in the game at any given time. "I believe the same assessment can be made this year that we don't have a fourth or fifth starter in our rotation, either."
In other words, having had no luck luring someone who dwells on the ceiling of MLB pitching, the Twins have decided to raise the floor. No more filling the rotation with a series of one-year what-the-hecks, from Matt Shoemaker to Homer Bailey, from Chris Archer to Hector Santiago, from J.A. Happ to Dylan Bundy.
Over the past three years, the Twins have aggressively traded for high-end starters to make over their rotation, acquiring Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers, Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle from the Reds, and Joe Ryan from the Rays. Last January, they sacrificed an AL batting champion, Luis Arraez, in order to acquire 27-year-old Pablo López.
The Twins believe they might not have the next Big Train in their rotation — though they're not ruling it out — but they aren't wasting starts on Big Sexy anymore, either.
"On any given night, we're going to the post with a legitimate No. 2 or No. 3 starter. And if some of those guys elevate their game, we may be in even better stead," Levine said. "At the very least, we should feel we're going to be competitive, if not have the better starting pitcher on the mound, on the majority of nights."
As proof, the Twins point to the fact that when López takes the mound Thursday in Kansas City, all five of the Twins' starting pitchers will have been given the honor of being an Opening Day starter since 2020. And that's with righthander Bailey Ober, who was perhaps the sharpest-looking starter in camp, biding his time in St. Paul.
"Just the psychology of that eventuality alone — I mean, if we're in every game night after night, that pays dividends up and down the lineup," Levine said.
And in the bullpen, too, where Minnesota's relief corps had to absorb a franchise-record 654 ⅓ innings of work last summer. If the starters live up to their pedigrees — and live up to Gray's exhortation over the weekend that "I don't think we're interested in going four innings and being happy" — a bullpen with Jhoan Duran, Griffin Jax, Caleb Thielbar and Jorge López at the back end has a chance to be even more rested and effective.
"It feels like the deepest pitching group that we've had for sure," said Derek Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations who, along with Levine, begins his seventh season in charge of building the roster. "It's not just pitching, though. We set out to add depth to the lineup, too, in order to be capable of withstanding whatever comes our way."
That's a euphemism, of course, because what "came their way," what triggered that new emphasis on depth, was an avalanche of injuries that afflicted roughly half the roster down the stretch of a pennant race and caused the Twins, in first place as late as Sept. 4, to limp home with a 10-20 record from that point on.
"Unfortunately, we were able to substantially answer the question, 'How many is too many injuries?' " Levine said with a rueful smile. "So our philosophy this offseason was, if in doubt, get one more player."
Especially if he can play more than one position. Six position players who weren't on the 2022 Twins dot the team's Opening Day lineup, and only catcher Christian Vázquez, signed in order to beef up the defense behind the plate, is limited to one spot on the diamond. Former Reds Kyle Farmer and Donovan Solano can play anywhere in the infield, Joey Gallo and Michael A. Taylor are available for any outfield duty (with Gallo an adept first baseman, too), and Willi Castro can handle either one.
Along with multi-position players like Jose Miranda and Nick Gordon, the Twins have far better insulated themselves from injury absences — though lingering soreness in Jorge Polanco's knee and Alex Kirilloff's wrist will test that right away.
"It sometimes felt like we not only exhausted our supply of major leaguers, but the second and third tier of depth behind them, too. There were days where there weren't any choices to be had about who would play, because there simply wasn't anyone else," Levine said. "Now we may have nights where guys who could be starters on many other teams, like Taylor or Farmer, are populating our bench."
Filling in the blanks
There are plenty of questions to be answered about the 2023 Twins, like whether Miranda, who has improved during every season of his eight-year pro career, can do it again and become an extra-base fixture in the middle of the order. Or whether Gallo and Kepler can put disastrous 2022 seasons behind them and become feared hitters again. Whether Matt Wallner or Edouard Julien can climb to the majors, Trevor Larnach can remove all doubt about his worthiness, and Duran can dominate late-inning hitters again.
But with Carlos Correa having signed on for six more seasons, giving the Twins one elite star, the biggest harbinger of success for the Twins in the winnable AL Central hasn't changed: It's the other one.
Byron Buxton is one of 11 players to own an OPS above .900 over the past two seasons, a list headed by Mike Trout and Aaron Judge, and populated by four other former MVPs and the sport's best young players. He also has played fewer games, just 153 in those two full seasons, than all but scandal-ridden Fernando Tatis Jr.
Altering that pattern is the Twins' obsession, as it has been throughout Buxton's career. His arthroscopic surgery in October may have repaired his knee, but it hasn't curtailed the Twins' perennial search for a way to coax more than 100 games out of the franchise's most valuable, and most fragile, player.
"Our latest pursuit in that endeavor is to DH him a little more at the beginning of the year when temperatures are lower. Time will tell if that yields the fruit we aspirationally pursue," Levine said. "We'll sacrifice a few weeks of defense on the front end for hitting and defense on the back."
Search for a ring
That's more important than his career-high 28 homers, Levine said.
"What fans probably don't appreciate quite as much is his uplifted spirit when he's playing, relative to when he's not," the general manager explained. "Even when he's going 0-for-4 but he's playing, he gives you that uplift in the clubhouse. It's really palpable. He seems electric to me in this camp."
Oh, he is, Buxton confirms.
He's electric for winning games, for leading this team along with Correa, for discovering if the improvement he sees is real.
"This team is unique. Everybody in here can do anything. It feels like everybody's utility, to be honest — that's how many guys play different positions," Buxton said. "This is definitely one of the best teams [I've played with], as far as spring training. More complete."
So is this the bust-out Buxton season that Twins fans have dreamed of since the day he was drafted in 2012?
"I don't know. I don't care. Our goal is to win a ring. I want something that's got diamonds on them," Buxton declared. "It's an itch in here. It's an itch."