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The Minnesota Twins are atop the AL Central until they’re not

The Minnesota Twins will likely remind everyone that they are still here in 2021, but they’ll also have the looming specter of postseason failure to contend with.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago Cubs Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins are not a terribly interesting baseball team. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about them for a mainstream audience is that they haven’t won a postseason game since October 4th, 2004. Since that last playoff win in Game 1 of the 2004 American League Division Series, the Twins have lost in the Division Series by way of sweep four times, lost a one-game wild card, and lost in last year’s expanded playoff wild card round. That’s a cumulative total of 18 games.

Of those 18 games, a total of five have come against a team that wasn’t the New York Yankees. Last year, it was the Houston Astros that did them in, taking the first two against the Twins to prolong the latter’s postseason agony for another year.

And so, the Twins are not interesting and they haven’t won in the postseason in over half my lifetime (I’ll be 31 in April). Those are the last three negative things I will say in this space. Because you don’t always have to be interesting to be extremely good at what you do.

First, some projections. What stands out about the way in which the Twins are projected in 2021 is that FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA have very different takes on potential outcomes. FanGraphs puts Minnesota at a projected win total of 87.6, with a 39.5 percent chance of winning the division and a 58.5 percent chance of reaching the postseason overall. They’re at a 4.3 percent chance of winning the World Series. All of those projections fall behind the Chicago White Sox—some more than others. In contrast, PECOTA projects the Twins for 91 wins, with a 66.2 percent chance of winning the division. Both of those are easily tops in the American League Central.

Where FanGraphs and PECOTA differ even further is in the competition around Minnesota. FanGraphs obviously favors the White Sox, while PECOTA likes Cleveland as the closest finisher to the Twins, albeit at just a 19.4 percent chance of winning the division. So while the win totals themselves aren’t severe in their difference, PECOTA likes the Twins as a division favorite in a much more heavy-handed fashion.

And that really speaks to the lack of clarity around the division in the impending season. The Twins could very well continue their reign atop the group, given that they’re coming off of consecutive division titles and still possess the same amount of offense that has carried them to success in those seasons. But the surging (on paper) White Sox or Cleveland’s pitching could have them sitting just outside the perimeter of the playoff picture. To simplify: there’s just more competition in the Central than there has been in the last couple of years.

It’s worth noting that the Twins did take a step back offensively in 2020. They ranked just 18th in runs scored (269), 11th in ISO (.186), and 16th in wRC+ (101). This comes following a 2019 where they ranked second in runs (939), first in ISO (.224), and second in WRC+ (116). Now, there were some health issues (Josh Donaldson, Byron Buxton, Luis Arráez) and some players that took mighty steps back (Mitch Garver, Miguel Sanó). One imagines we’ll see some sort of rebound up and down the lineup in 2021.

Sanó still mashed the baseball when he made contact, but his swing rates (31.0 percent on pitches outside the strike zone, 47.3 percent overall) did him no favors in a contact rate under 60 percent. A slight improvement in those numbers should indicate a rebound for him. Byron Buxton posted great underlying numbers and took the ball to the opposite field a little more. One imagines a *fingers crossed so freaking tight* healthy season for him could be the breakout year we’ve been waiting for, given a .287 ISO going back to 2019.

Add a rebound and some health to the givens. Josh Donaldson will miss time but still produce when healthy. Nelson Cruz is a genuine ageless wonder and had another phenomenal season, with a second straight year posting a wRC+ over 160. Max Kepler has been remarkably consistent in his approach and eventually has to post a decent BABIP year. New shortstop Andrelton Simmons isn’t an offensive force by any means, but can be a fairly regular on-base presence. It’s a positive outlook for the Twins in this regard, all things considered.

One looming question, though, is how they’ll settle left field after Eddie Rosario was non-tendered. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have Alex Kirilloff getting the bulk of the time over the course of the season, but he was just optioned to the alternate training site after a brutal spring as well as, likely, other reasons. So now you’re looking at a mix of Jake Cave, Brent Rooker, and Kyle Garlick to potentially handle left until Kirilloff gets the permanent call. Arráez could also get a look out there.

Ultimately, the lineup itself should be a relative strength of this team. They’re not going to struggle to score runs. But how adequate will they be at preventing them? Much like many other aspects of this Minnesota club, it’s a really steady group, unspectacular as they may be.

Kenta Maeda is coming off of a year in which he finished as the Cy Young runner-up in the American League. That came courtesy of a 2.70 ERA, 3.00 FIP, and a minuscule 1.35 BB/9. It’s also important to note than his 49.0 percent groundball rate was the highest of his career by a pretty wide margin. And José Berríos might be one of the more underappreciated starting pitchers in the game. He does everything well: mixes strikeouts with a low walk rate, doesn’t allow a lot of hard contact, and is wildly durable.

Those two will anchor a rotation that also will feature Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ, and Matt Shoemaker. Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, and Lewis Thorpe will likely see some time atop the hill to start games, while prospects Jhoan Duran and Jordan Balazovic linger as potential options as well. Overall, it’s a deep group even with the loss of Jake Odorizzi. In front of a Twins team that plays solid defense, they’ll be fine. Just don’t expect anything really beyond “fine.”

The bullpen appears to be going with a volume approach. Alex Colomé was brought in for the backend and has outpitched his peripherals in his past couple of seasons in Chicago. Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey remain present for late game situations as well. Hansel Robles and Jorge Alcala will see a healthy amount of innings in relief, too. Beyond those arms, it gets a little messy, but what bullpen doesn’t? There’s an abundance of high-risk types waiting for a shot at this relief corps. It doesn’t always work, but with a steady starting staff and enough offense to compensate, the Twins are obviously hoping they can find at least a few stable arms here as the season progresses.

It’s hard to look at this Minnesota Twins ballclub and find anything glaringly or obviously wrong with it. They pitch well, they hit the ball hard, and they play quality defense. It’s also hard to find anything overtly exciting. Nothing jumps off the page or is sexy about this team. It’s not going to get many mainstream eyeballs on them, but it’s going to get them in the mix for the postseason. Of course, should they get there, the eyeballs will be as well, but for entirely different reasons.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.