I had the Twins at No. 28 in my Power Rankings this week, which is bad because there are only 30 teams in Major League Baseball. I guess they didn’t take too kindly to that.
There are four remaining undefeated teams in MLB. The Twins are one of them. Yes, the same Twins that started 0-9 and won a league-low 59 games last season.
If you compare them to last year, the Twins are more than a week ahead of schedule. Thursday’s 5-3 triumph over Kansas City was their third win of the season. Last year the Twins didn’t win their third game until April 17.
I wouldn’t waste much energy trying to rationalize all this. The Twins are beyond explanation. Here are their win totals over the last three seasons: 70 in 2014, 83 in 2015 and 59 last year. I guess it only makes sense that the team that plays in the same city as Mall of America would be the baseball equivalent of a rollercoaster.
Could this be real? Perhaps. Rather than chasing a title, the Twins have spent much of the past half-decade gathering prospects in a concerted rebuilding effort. It was only a matter of time until a few of those prospects sprouted into big league stars.
Miguel Sano has been a productive power hitter since the day he arrived in Minnesota but has really turned it on over the past week. The 23-year-old has gotten off to a blazing start with four hits including a home run in his first nine at-bats. Among big league hitters, only George Springer, Francisco Lindor and Mark Reynolds have plated more runs than Sano this season (five).
It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Sano took the next step and became a legitimate superstar this year, though his game still needs polishing in several areas. After hitting a respectable .269 as a rookie in 2015, Sano saw his average drop to .236 last year while continuing to strike out in bunches. Even Baltimore’s Mark Trumbo, who has embraced his role as the game’s preeminent “three true outcomes” player, owns a lower strikeout rate than Sano. For his career, Trumbo has struck out in 27 percent of his at-bats. Sano’s career K rate is 41.1 percent (298 strikeouts in 725 at-bats).
Though he’s only whiffed once in his first nine at-bats this season, it would be naïve to assume Sano has turned over a new leaf. Sano’s free-swinging ways were plenty evident in the Grapefruit League where he punched out in 22 of his 50 at-bats with four homers and seven RBI. At his best, Sano can be a juggernaut on par with Giancarlo Stanton and the league’s other elite power hitters. At his worst, he’s an undisciplined mess, striking out at a rapid clip.
Sano deserves credit for the Twins’ hot start, but not all of it. Jason Castro has been just as pivotal to the team’s success. The 29-year-old has been a surprising source of offense for the Twins, contributing a .500 average through his first three games. But here’s what will really knock your socks off: through his first 12 plate appearances, Castro carries an astronomical .750 on base percentage. Castro has drawn a league-high six walks including four in Wednesday’s lopsided 9-1 victory. As one of the veterans on a team full of raw but talented youngsters, Castro is setting a good example by waiting for his pitch. Max Kepler, who broke onto the scene with 17 homers last year, is also off to a solid start with four hits in his first 12 at-bats.
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Imagine how good the Twins will be when Brian Dozier gets going. The 29-year-old had the year of his life in 2016, coming out of nowhere to blast 42 homers, third-most in the American League behind Nelson Cruz and the aforementioned Trumbo.
However, the Royals mostly kept Dozier in check, limiting him to just three hits in 13 at-bats (.231) for the series. In the rare instances when he did reach base, Dozier wreaked havoc by logging three steals. Fading veteran Joe Mauer also had a tough series, going just 1-for-11 with three strikeouts. The former MVP used to be a lock to hit .300 every year but hasn’t reached that mark since 2013. That was also the last time Mauer made the All-Star team.
Obviously a three-game sweep to begin the year doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. We still have more than 98 percent of the season to go, which gives the Twins plenty of time to revert to their losing ways. But if the Twins do make the leap from cellar-dweller to a respected contender in the AL Central, it will have to come on the shoulders of Byron Buxton. The 23-year-old was a prolific talent in the minors and was once billed as the top prospect in all of baseball. But so far the big leagues have not been kind to him.
After going 0-for-4 on Thursday, Buxton’s career average now sits at a lowly .215. He’s struck out almost as frequently as Sano (38.3 percent K rate) but with none of the power (12 homers in 441 career at-bats). Hailed as a five-tool player coming up through the minor leagues, Buxton hasn’t done a whole lot of stealing either. He’s produced a negligible 12 thefts over 141 big league outings. Buxton is far too young to be considered a bust but it’s discouraging to see how little progress he’s made since debuting in 2015.
The Twins have nowhere to go but up after last year’s debacle and the future seems bright with Sano, Kepler, Buxton and Jose Berrios (currently in Triple-A) leading the youth (or “yout” if you prefer the way Joe Pesci pronounces it in My Cousin Vinny) movement. The same could not be said of the team they just swept. It’s alarming to see how far the Royals have fallen in such a short amount of time. This regression is a frequent pitfall of small market clubs, as the Rays and Athletics can both attest to.
After years of harvesting homegrown talent, Kansas City finally hit the jackpot with a solid young core featuring Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez. Cain and Escobar technically started their careers in the Brewers’ system (they arrived in the Zack Greinke trade) but their formative years came in Kansas City. Now four of those five are headed for free agency at the end of the year with Perez being the lone exception. After winning two straight AL pennants and the 2015 World Series, the Royals fell to .500 last season and could be in for an even steeper drop-off this year. All four of Kansas City’s impending free agents could be dealt before July 31 and that uncertainty has already cast a dark cloud on the Royals’ season.
In baseball, there’s no rest for the weary. After losing three straight in embarrassing fashion, the Royals will now walk into a hornet’s nest with three games against the red-hot Astros. With their title window closed, it’s time for the Royals to start over.
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Quick Hits: Yasiel Puig homered twice (both off Jered Weaver) in Thursday’s win over the Padres. It was Puig’s first multi-homer game since June 4, 2013, which was his second game in the major leagues. He also stole a base, making him the first Dodger to steal a base and homer twice in the same game since Hanley Ramirez in 2014 … Also from the Dodgers’ win over the Padres: Los Angeles executed a perfect double steal in the sixth inning. Enrique Hernandez stole home while Corey Seager swiped second … Christian Bethancourt had a rough afternoon on the mound, allowing four runs (three earned) in only 1/3 of an inning against the Dodgers. The Padres have been using Bethancourt in a hybrid role as a relief pitcher, outfielder and occasional catcher. Bethancourt flew out in his only at-bat on Thursday … Ryan Zimmerman went deep for the second straight game Thursday against the Marlins. Zimmerman leads all active players with 31 homers against Miami … In that same game, Bryce Harper made a spectacular catch on a fly ball he couldn’t see. Harper went 0-for-3 with two walks as the Nationals lost in 10 innings … Seven-time Gold Glover Yadier Molina had a hard time finding this pitch from Brett Cecil. That’s because it was stuck to his chest protector. Just when you think you’ve seen it all … Lancy Lynn didn’t get the win but still pitched well Thursday in his first start since Tommy John surgery. He limited the Cubs to five hits and two runs over 5 1/3 innings in a no-decision … Ryan Howard inked a minor league deal with the Braves on Thursday. Even if Howard cracks the big league roster, it’s unlikely he’ll see much playing time behind All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman … With poor weather conditions expected Friday in Pittsburgh, the Braves have rearranged their starting rotation. Now Michael Foltynewicz, who was scheduled to go on Saturday, will get the ball Friday while R.A. Dickey will have his start pushed back to Saturday. As a knuckleballer, Dickey probably wouldn’t have fared well in the cold on Friday … You don’t see this everyday. Reds reliever Michael Lorenzen delivered a pinch-hit home run Thursday in a win over the Phillies. Daniel Nava slugged two homers for the Phillies in a losing effort … Keon Broxton left Thursday’s game against the Rockies after getting drilled in the face by Rockies starter Antonio Senzatela. He suffered a small nasal fracture but should avoid the disabled list. Broxton deserves props for speaking to reporters after the game while looking like this … Matt Harvey’s first start since July 4 was a success. He held the Braves to just three hits and two runs over 6 2/3 innings in Thursday night’s victory. Two of those hits were home runs by Matt Kemp … The Mets awarded Travis d’Arnaud Player of the Game for his two-run double against Atlanta. The reward? This ridiculous looking crown … Tim Tebow homered in his first professional at-bat Thursday in a game for Low-A Columbia. Let’s not get carried away though. He struck out in three of his other four at-bats … Alex Cintron is joining the Astros as a Spanish language interpreter. The 38-year-old played nine seasons in the big leagues and won a World Series with the Diamondbacks in 2001 … George Springer for MVP? One night after beating the Mariners with a walk-off three run-homer, Springer launched a 454-foot home run and made this insane catch to rob Jean Segura. Springer’s leadoff blast in the first inning was the second-longest homer of his career.