The 2018 Minnesota Twins were a paradox.
The 2017 iteration had made it to the Wild Card game, and while it was yet another loss to those damn New York Yankees, the vibes around the team were generally good.
They brought back most of the team heading into spring training that year. Lance Lynn — a perennial innings eater and solid No. 2-3 starter — fell into their lap on a one-year deal. So too did Logan Morrison, who had hit 38 home runs the year before and was frankly a bit surprised he didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Twins traded from a spot of depth in their farm system, moving infielder Jermaine Palacios — who actually eventually found his way back to Minnesota’s system — for another proven, solid starter in Jake Odorizzi.
Fernando Rodney entered the fold as a solid, if a bit erratic, late-inning reliever and the Twins also handed out the first multi-year deal to an external reliever in recent memory in Addison Reed, who also had a long track record of success. Zach Duke was expected to be a solid left-handed reliever.
Things went sideways almost right away. Jorge Polanco tested positive PEDs and was suspended for half the season. Ervin Santana underwent surgery on his right middle finger in February and provided next to nothing for the team when he returned late in the season. Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton — the two cornerstones on which the foundation of this team was supposed to be built — combined for 99 games of wretched production.
Sano started the season under the cloud of allegations of assault from a few years prior, and never got on track as injuries and the team’s general disappointment with his conditioning set his season even further into a tailspin. He even spent time back at Low-A Fort Myers, re-working his body in addition to his swing — one year removed from playing in the All-Star Game.
Jason Castro dealt with a serious knee injury. Max Kepler hadn’t quite broken out yet. Brian Dozier’s play took a step back.
And when the dust settled, this disaster of a season resulted in a record of….78-84.
The Twins head into Wednesday’s game with the Seattle Mariners sitting at a wretched 26-41 — 16 games out of first place, 12.5 out of a Wild Card spot and for all intents and purposes, dead in the water.
So why is this team dead in the water with a .388 winning percentage while that team scratched and clawed to within a whisker of finishing .500?
It wasn’t as though that season was much less disastrous than this one on the surface. Who can forget the disaster of a game at Wrigley Field in late June — almost exactly three years ago now — which resulted in an outfield of Morrison-Willians Astudillo-Robbie Grossman?
It’s not unfair to point to injuries as a big reason why this team has played so poorly. Mitch Garver, Buxton and Kepler are all on the 10-day injured list as of this writing. Rob Refsnyder came up, did his best Lew Ford impersonation for 18 games and hit the injured list. Luis Arraez just returned from the injured list. Kenta Maeda came off the list just in time for Michael Pineda to take his spot there.
Sano has missed time but has also missed a lot of baseballs — enough to fan 79 times in 203 plate appearances. Josh Donaldson injured his hamstring in the first inning of the season. Alex Kirilloff dealt with a wrist injury that cost him multiple weeks.
Generally, the only players who’ve really stayed healthy are Polanco (slow start), Jose Berrios (good!), J.A. Happ (bad) and Matt Shoemaker (BAD).
A lot of it comes down to times when the Twins completely fall apart at the worst possible instant. They were on the verge of closing out a win over the A’s when Travis Blankenhorn flubbed a routine groundball and Arraez followed it up by overthrowing a ball into the vast expanse beyond first base — allowing Oakland to walk off victorious.
There have been dropped fly balls, missed ground balls, terrible baserunning and strikeout upon strikeout when the game was on the line — all coming at the worst possible time.
Yes. Injuries have played a role.
An analysis of the team’s roster compared to others would likely say the Twins haven’t spent an extraordinary amount of time on the injured list compared to others. The counter-argument to this is that the Twins have probably had more talent on the injured list over the course of the season than most teams.
But again — 15 games under .500 and it’s not even summer yet? FIFTEEN?
Look no further than the division leader in the Central to see why every attempt to justify why the Twins have struggled falls immensely flat.
The White Sox are an astonishing 17 games over .500, and virtually guaranteed to make the playoffs. Nick Madrigal is out for the year. Andrew Vaughn is being force-fed left field and it’s not going great. Zack Collins hasn’t taken the step forward they might have hoped for.
Oh, and Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez have missed huge chunks of time with serious injuries — leaving the team, at times, to play with some combination of Vaughn, Leury Garcia, Billy Hamilton and Adam Eaton in the outfield this season.
Talent-wise, that is markedly worse than what the Twins have had to work with even with Buxton and Kepler sidelined — and you can’t convince me otherwise.
The Twins can’t go toe-to-toe with the White Sox starting staff — and there’s plenty of room for regression. Carlos Rodon threw a no-hitter, almost threw another and is looking like he’s back at North Carolina State again. Dallas Keuchel is doing exactly what he does. Lucas Giolito has looked much better of late. Dylan Cease is taking that next step forward.
Oh, and Lynn — that’s right, the former Twin — has a 1.51 ERA as he pitches for the immense payday he missed out on twice in his last two free agency forays.
But again, even if you can’t compare the pitching talent between the two teams, it’s more than fair to say the Twins have had a healthier offense and haven’t come even close to closing that gap.
The White Sox keep trucking along, injury after injury to their key cogs, and are poised to run away with this thing.
Meanwhile, the Twins look — at times — like they’ve never played the game. There’s no reason for it.
The canceled 2020 minor-league season has clearly affected the Twins in terms of pitching development, but it was still inexcusable to not have a plan beyond Happ and Shoemaker in the rotation. Randy Dobnak was an acceptable piggyback for one or the other in theory, but he’s completely fallen apart under the stress of the most unpredictable role he’s held as a big leaguer.
Sure, Jordan Balazovic, Jhoan Duran and even maybe Blayne Enlow would have been in the mix to help this team out this year if they’d have gotten to play any meaningful ball last year.
But that’s still something that has to be accounted for. Letting Homer Bailey, Jake Odorizzi and Rich Hill walk wasn’t that controversial of a concept. Bailey remains unsigned, Odorizzi has struggled with the Astros and Hill, again, seems to have found the Fountain of Youth — something that couldn’t have been reasonably expected, though again the Rays are reaping the rewards here.
And as we’ve noted, the offseason pitching marketplace was full of landmines. But why is Rick Porcello still unsigned? He could have eaten innings for this team, if healthy.
The Mets are another team to look at in the same light as the White Sox. Sure, the Twins don’t have a Jacob deGrom — nobody else does — but they’re leading the NL East with an outfield anchored by guys like Billy McKinney. Their shrewd offseason pickup — someone who was on the Twins’ radar at one point in a prior offseason — has been Taijuan Walker (2.12 ERA/2.76 FIP in 68.0 innings).
But in reality, all that has given the Mets is a solid trio with deGrom, Marcus Stroman and Walker. The Twins came into the season expecting to contend with a trio of Maeda, Berrios and Pineda — which was not an unreasonable thought.
And they tried to protect those guys early on, much to the angst of fans every single time one of those guys came out with 82 pitches in the sixth inning.
And that also blew up in their faces.
So too has the bullpen, which was built on the foundation of what they expected to be four solid relievers — Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Hansel Robles and Alex Colome — of whom really only the southpaw can lay claim to having a respectable season.
And again, the blowups have been staggered just enough to completely undermine when the other guys are throwing well. Robles struggles to throw strikes about every other time out. Duffey has been decent but no better. Colome has been an unmitigated disaster after posting more than a half-decade in a row with a sub-3.50 ERA in each season. Dobnak didn’t take well to a long role. Cody Stashak has gotten smoked. Jorge Alcala is still a bit susceptible to lefties. Caleb Thielbar has struck everyone out — but had a few blowups at the worst possible times.
All of this is to say that the team’s 5.05 ERA is bad enough before considering what the rest of the league was doing prior to this crackdown on foreign substances.
Through the end of May, MLB starters had a collective ERA of 4.03. The Twins checked in 21st with a 4.48.
In June, that MLB mark has swollen to 4.55 — again, not unexpected because of the crackdown — and for the Twins, it’s an AL-worst 7.69. That’s not a misprint. Talk about a sliding scale.
The Twins have enough offense to keep up with just about anyone. They’re a top-10 offense by wRC+, and for as much as it seems like they strike out, they’re not especially prone when compared to their peers (23.3 percent, 20th highest in MLB).
But it’s all come down to execution. The old saying goes that you can’t make a play with your hands around your throat, and it just feels like the Twins have withered when things mattered most this season. It’s been almost an entire season of playing the Yankees in the playoffs.
And it’s inexcusable. This is almost an identical version of the teams that won games in excess of a 95-win pace over Rocco Baldelli’s first two seasons. Yes, 40 percent of the rotation has been wretched — but plenty of other teams have overcome this.
It’s not a scientifically founded position, but I find it hard to believe this team — with all they’ve been through injury-wise — wouldn’t, or rather shouldn’t, be around .500 right now.
But they just haven’t performed. And that sucks. Twins fans have been waiting for a summer to get back out to the ballyard and cheer these guys on for way too long. Now, they’re faced with going to Minnesota’s largest open-air bar where a baseball game just happens to be going on at the same time.
And with CBA negotiations looming, how much longer will Twins fans have to wait to again see good baseball on the field?
The whole season has just been one baffling, mind-bending failure from top to bottom. There’s enough talent in place even with all the injuries for this to be a respectable team while waiting for guys to get healthy.
They just haven’t done that — and it sucks.