The Minnesota Twins have the second largest run differential in baseball, a sparkling +106. Didn’t see that coming? Same.
They currently have a stranglehold on the pitiful AL Central, up 11.5 games on both the Chicago White Sox and 10.5 on the Cleveland Indians. Chicago had no realistic hope of contention, made all the more certain after yet another young pitcher got hurt. Bye, Carlos Rodon. We’ll get to the Indians in a bit.
The Twins actually tried to win this offseason and are being rewarded for it. They added Marwin Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and Martin Perez, among others. Perez, in particular, has been a neat surprise; Schoop is outplaying expectations, Cruz has been hurt and Marwin has started a bit slow.
Overall, Minnesota is just flat-out mashing the ball. They’re tied for tops in the sport in team wRC+ with the incredible Houston Astros. Much of the attention has gone to Eddie Rosario, who has blasted 18 homers, some of them truly prodigious shots. But to focus on Rosario would be a mistake; he’s the kind of semi-random dude who has a great year when teams find themselves riding a wave.
The Twins are truly led by shortstop Jorge Polanco — I covered him earlier this year, and he’s probably surpassed the pace he was already on — and center fielder Byron Buxton. Buxton is a pet favorite of mine, as frequent readers know. He’s the kind of player baseball needs, a slick athlete who brings more to the table than just the Three True Outcomes. So far, he’s managed enough with the bat to make his slick glove and baserunning viable: .320 OBP, .508 SLG. That’s more than enough, and as of right now Buxton ranks 5th among big league center fielders in Fangraphs version of Wins Above Replacement. The pitching has been good too, led by Jake Odorizzi and Jose Berrios. Berrios is a pet favorite of mine; that curveball should be bottled and sold.
It’s hard to say if Minnesota will be able to compete all season with the American League juggernauts, but they appear to be the clear class of the Central. The Indians, meanwhile, are getting their just rewards for such a weak offseason. The problem with having only seven or eight good players is that you have only seven or eight good players. If they leave in free agency (Michael Brantley, gone to a team that effortlessly swept the Indians out of the ALDS last year) or get hurt (Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber) or just aren’t quite right (Jose Ramirez, Trevor Bauer), suddenly you’ve got problems. Big problems.
Great organizations don’t just acquire stars, they acquire depth. They work to have players ready in case of an emergency because you can’t predict baseball. Stuff happens. The Indians have learned this the hard way.
The offense ranks 26th in wRC+, a year removed from finishing 7th. The pitching, viewed by many (including me) as a strength, has been the saving grace: 7th best by xFIP. But it’s not enough, not when the Twins are mashing and the Indians aren’t. Letting Brantley go was a terrible, pitiful decision for a team with roughly two really good position players and none of them outfielders.
Quick: who has been the best hitting Indians outfielder in 2019? Go get a coffee, add a little cream and just think about it for a minute. I’ll be here.
OK, feeling caffeinated? Good. Did you guess … *double checks notes* … Jordan Luplow? No? You’ve never even heard of Jordan Luplow? The Indians have, let me tell you, and they’re immensely thankful for his sub .300 on-base percentage and his .516 slugging percentage. I’m sure that’s sustainable.
I don’t mean to pick on Luplow or any of the Indians outfielders. Heck, even the roster itself. Many of the Indians regulars are being asked to carry more water than they can bear; a nominal contender is asking a lot of “Quad-A” guys to be major contributors. (Would it be rude to bring up Indians castoff Gio Urshela right now? Urshela is hitting .329/.377/.466 … so yes, it would be rude. Very rude.)
The Indians aren’t a big budget club. The TV market isn’t good and the surrounding metropolitan area certainly isn’t what you might call lucrative. Ownership did run higher than normal payrolls during the team’s window of contention, but in retrospect letting Brantley waltz off to a competitor feels a bit like a white flag. (Don’t get me started on Indians owner Paul Dolan crying poor in regard to shortstop Francisco Lindor‘s future. These guys are a lot of things, but living in a poor house ain’t it.)
So what now for the Indians? Can’t imagine they’ll be trying to add much of anything at the trade deadline; can’t really foresee them pursuing Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel, either. The Twins might slow down, that’s reasonable, but a collapse isn’t likely. They have real talent, and quite a bit more depth. The Wild Card is absolutely not an option.
If you’re an Indians fan, you know where this is going. If the ownership has decided to no longer invest in the roster, then naturally the time has come to rebuild. Trevor Bauer would have trade value; Carlos Carrasco, on his frugal new deal, would too. Corey Kluber did before taking a line drive to the arm. It’s probably a little soon to trade Lindor, but the haul might be pretty incredible if the Indians played their cards right.
Hard to blame an Indians fan for thinking back to two disappointing recent playoff games: 2016 World Series Game 7 and 2017 ALDS Game 5. As strong as those Indians clubs were, the object is to win, and both short. The World Series loss was pure agony; that team fought and fought and fought against a squad carried by destiny. The following ALDS loss was brutal too, blowing a 2-0 series lead to a frisky Yankees team.
Baseball isn’t easy. It’s not always fun. Players, coaches, executives, and fans pour their hearts into a team. It was easy to love those Indians club, easy to believe they would bring Cleveland its second World Championship in a matter of months after decades of heartache. But it wasn’t to be, and the game marches on.