6 takeaways from first 6 weeks of Twins’ season
Pitching staff has taken a step forward from where it was a season ago, their new additions have fit in well, and in the wake of injuries, a wave of young talent has been promoted and stepped right in
The Twins are six weeks into their season — nearly at the quarter mark — and have been the class of the American League Central thus far.
Their pitching staff has taken a step forward from where it was a season ago, their new additions have fit in well, and in the wake of injuries, a wave of young talent has been promoted and stepped right in as the Twins (22-16) blend their present and future.
Here are six takeaways from the first six weeks of the season.
The Byron Buxton balance
Byron Buxton has been nothing short of spectacular when he’s been on the field. He has posted a 185 OPS+ (100 is league average), is near the league lead in home runs with 11 and has been his usual self in center field.
The center fielder has provided many of the most exciting moments of the season thus far, including one game in April in which he hit a game-tying, two-run, opposite-field home run in the seventh inning, then followed that up with a walk-off blast in the ninth off White Sox closer Liam Hendriks.
Simply put, he has been electrifying when he’s played.
Buxton has not been placed on the injured list yet this season, though a couple of smaller injuries have forced him to miss time. As the Twins manage a right knee issue — Buxton aggravated it in Boston in April — they’re building in off days for their star.
He has played in 25 of the team’s 38 games (66 percent), and the Twins are carefully monitoring his workload in an attempt to balance keeping him on the field while letting his knee heal.
Twins not immune to injury bug
Try as they might to avoid it by building in off days for position players, utilizing a six-man pitching rotation and keeping outings short for their starters to begin the season, the Twins have been hit hard by injuries this season.
After a shortened spring training, the expectation was that we would see a rash of soft-tissue injuries this season. The Twins have not been immune to soft tissue injuries and other types of ailments — Carlos Correa was hit by a pitch on the finger forcing him to the injured list, Miguel Sanó injured his knee in a celebration, and Luis Arraez and Dylan Bundy landed on the COVID-19 list.
On Wednesday, starting pitcher Chris Paddack underwent Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career, ending his season. Sanó is out for an extended period of time after requiring meniscus surgery. Reliever Jorge Alcala is also among those on the 60-day injured list.
Alex Kirilloff’s right wrist, which was surgically repaired last year, has been problematic yet again. First it led to a stint on the IL and required a cortisone shot. Then, shortly after he returned, the Twins demoted him to Triple-A in hopes he can manage to still be effective at the plate while managing the issue.
The Twins got three players back healthy in the Oakland series alone, and Trevor Larnach and Bailey Ober are expected to return this weekend.
Young guys have stepped up
The rash of injuries has led to plenty of opportunity for the Twins’ young players to step in, and by and large, they’ve been impressive.
Let’s start with Royce Lewis, who was pressed into action recently when Correa landed on the injured list. The Twins’ top prospect arrived well ahead of schedule and certainly looked the part of their shortstop of the future.
Lewis hit .308 with a .889 OPS and showed some pop with a pair of home runs in his 11 games before he was optioned back to Triple-A — to a great outcry from the fanbase — where he primarily will play shortstop but also will move around the field a bit.
Larnach, who was called up when Kirilloff went on the injured list, was hitting .313 with a 144 OPS+ before suffering a groin strain of his own while throwing out a runner at the plate. Larnach will begin a rehab assignment Thursday with Double-A Wichita ahead of his return.
Pitcher Jhoan Duran (more on him later) has struck out 27 batters in his 17 2/3 innings, flashing his electric stuff as he quickly has become one of the Twins’ most-relied-upon relievers, and starter Joe Ryan has made it easy to forget he is just 12 games into his major-league career. The rookie has been impressive from the start, and has posted a 2.39 ERA this season.
Pitcher Josh Winder has shown flashes of what he can be, and outfielder Gilberto Celestino looks like an entirely different player than he did last year when he was rushed up to the majors.
Never too much starting pitching
The Twins began the season with six starters in the rotation plus another, Winder, in the bullpen, and people were questioning how each of them would get their work in.
And as we’ve seen year after year, there is never such a thing as too many starting pitchers.
Four of them — Sonny Gray (hamstring), Paddack (elbow), Bundy (COVID-19) and Ober (groin) — already have landed on the injured list as the Twins have fluctuated between a five- and six-man rotation. Only Chris Archer and Ryan (and Winder) have avoided the IL thus far.
Winder has rotated between the rotation and the bullpen, and Devin Smeltzer made a start last week and will start again on Friday, as the Twins tap into their depth. Top pitching prospect Jordan Balazovic awaits in Triple-A, though he is not quite ready yet.
But by and large, injuries aside, a rotation that entered the year with question marks has performed admirably thus far this season, a big reason why the Twins are where they are.
Bullpen has been a strength
There were plenty of questions about the Twins’ bullpen heading into this season. And then they went and traded their closer the day before Opening Day.
But the bullpen has been a strength during the early part of 2022, posting a 3.30 earned-run average in 161.0 innings, making it one of the most heavily-used ‘pens in the majors.
With Taylor Rogers gone, the Twins have been turning to Emilio Pagán and Duran in save situations lately. Though Pagan has allowed far too many walks — 10 in 11 2/3 innings — he has gotten the job done, converting five saves. Duran now dominates the Twins’ record books for the hardest pitches ever throw in the pitch-tracking era, and the rookie has adapted well to his new role.
Joe Smith has been everything the Twins could have asked for and more when they signed him to a one-year deal this March. The veteran hasn’t allowed an earned run in 15 games this season.
After some trouble early on, Tyler Duffey has allowed just one run in his past 10 games, and locked down his first save of the season in Oakland. Before his injury, Danny Coulombe had been quite good, and Griffin Jax has transitioned well into a relief role after spending the entirety of his career as a starter.
Division looks winnable
Nobody thought the American League Central was going be the best division in baseball.
Far from it.
But the division did look, on paper at least, as if it would be more competitive this year than it was last year when the White Sox wound up running away with it and the other four teams finished under .500.
So far, it hasn’t been, and it certainly looks as if it could be winnable for the Twins.
At 22-16, the Twins are the only team in the division currently over .500. They hold a 3.5-game lead in the division over the White Sox (18-19), who have underperformed expectations early on, including getting swept by the Twins in April.
In a change from their norm, the Guardians (16-19) have hit well but haven’t matched that with pitching, usually their strength, and the Royals (14-22) have sunk down near the bottom of the American League.
The Tigers (13-25), who many expected to take a step forward after finishing third in the division last year and then signing signing infielder Javier Báez and starting pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez this offseason, have instead been one of the worst teams in baseball, leaving the door wide open for the Twins.
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