You know how sometimes you’re looking at a map of the United States and you see a state that makes you think something along the lines of, “Oh wow, I forgot New Hampshire was a place that existed!” I feel like that happens to me a lot, but not just with my fading geographic knowledge from grade school. In baseball, the Minnesota Twins are my New Hampshire.
That’s not meant as an insult. I have no negative feelings toward New Hampshire or the Twins. And I still have a soft spot in my heart for Joe Mauer, truly one of the more underrated players of the 21st century (obscure baseball media’s Yadi comparisons notwithstanding.)
The Twins are just in the perfect sphere of irrelevance for me. They play in the AL Central, a division I never really think about outside of when I talk to my friends who are Royals fans or when I want to catch a White Sox game. They haven’t won their division since 2010 and haven’t been past the division round of the playoffs (when I really start to pay attention to AL teams) since 2002. And, outside of Mauer, they haven’t really had any bankable stars in the past decade (sorry, Brian Dozier.)
This is all sounding really haughty and dismissive. If you’re a Twin fan or sympathizer (or if you’re from New Hampshire), I apologize. But the only time the Minnesota Twins ever seem to enter my consciousness is when they directly bump up against the Cardinals. So really, I had forgotten they existed since the last time I checked in on Lance Lynn, which… yikes. However, the second place Twins (hoooooooooooly god, the AL Central is so bad) are rolling into St. Louis this week, threatening the Cardinals perfect May record. So let’s look at what the Cardinals have to face over the next few days.
Before that, just a quick reminder of how the Cardinals kept up that 5-0 record this weekend. Just for funsies:
The Twins won the second wild card spot in the American League last season before falling to the young Bronx Bombers. And looking up and down their roster, they did it similarly to how the Cardinals have in the past few years: a team full of above average players, lifted to greater heights by a bonafide star (Brian Dozier’s 5.0 fWAR was a full 1.5 higher than the next closest Twin.) It was also an encouraging year for fans who had long looked forward to the emergence of Byron Buxton. He was below average offensively (90 wRC+), but his defensive and base running prowess vaulted him to a 3.5 fWAR. At 24 years old, he’s likely to see some improvement in both areas, making him that follow up star to Mauer the Twins have been looking for.
Unfortunately for Twins fans, 2018 has not been the follow up season they might have expected. The 2017 Twins got by with one of the league’s best offenses – they were tied for fifth in the league in team wRC+ – and the league’s best base running unit, a designation that isn’t surprising when Buxton is getting 500+ plate appearances a year. The Twins are still the best team on the base paths this year, but their team wRC+ has dipped below 100. That’s not to say they don’t have some dangerous hitters. 29-year-old Eduardo Escobar is enjoying a breakout season, sporting an absurd .311 isolated slugging percentage which is suspiciously high given his career profile. His .338 BABIP isn’t totally out of the ordinary, but when we look at his wxOBA, it’s sitting at .371 a few spots below *squints* Alex Gordon and Kevin Pillar. So, yeah, he’s probably due for some heavy regression. Still, he’s hot now, so watch out. Joe Mauer is still a really good hitter and boasts .291/.434/.388 line that might actually be a little low given his .424 wxOBA. Byron Buxton has been sidelined for the past few weeks with a fractured toe. Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler are having fine starts to the year, and the aforementioned Dozier, while off to a slow start, is likely to pick it up at some point.
The Twins pitching staff is not good outside of veteran Kyle Gibson (MIZ!) and 24-year-old Jose Berrios. But the Cardinals won’t be seeing either this week, so forget them. The Twins top pitching prospect, Fernando Romero, is set to make his second career start on Monday, five days after going 5 2/3 scoreless against the Blue Jays. Romero’s fastball is his best offering, though MLB scouts grade him with three 50+ offspeed offerings. Like any rookie, he’ll likely struggle with the strike zone (he walked three in his first start), so the top of the Cardinals order should be able to capitalize while the fastball hitters beneath them will see a lot they like. On Tuesday, the Cardinals will face Jake Odirizzi who has a 5.03 xFIP with the benefit of an 80.9% LOB%. If there’s one game in this two-game set that the Cardinals need to win, it’d be Odirizzi vs. Carlos Martinez. The matchup with between Romero and Memphis callup John Gant is more of a tossup.
The Twins bullpen has a few big names, but most of its contributors are lesser-known. Closer Fernando Rodney, famous for his weird, fun archery celebration has generally been pretty bad. But he continues to get save opportunities because… I don’t know, I guess there are no better options? Addison Reed is also a name Cardinal fans are likely familiar with as he was a desired bullpen option over the offseason. He’s been fine – nothing to really highlight, but nothing to complain about either. Zach Duke is likely the player everyone recognizes as a mostly failed Cardinal acquisition. He’s having a weird year as he’s nearly doubled both his K and BB percentages (30.5 and 15.3, respectively.) The real guy to look out for is Ryan Pressly. He’s a former Rule 5 pick who sports a few wipeout breaking pitches and does not give up a lot of hard contact. The Twins go to him a lot, but he doesn’t tend to pitch more than an inning on a regular basis. If the Cardinals keep their recent habit of playing in close games, I’d expect they’ll see him twice. They might regardless.
Final (and extra) Thoughts
- There’s a better than decent chance the Cardinals take both of these games, and I’d expect if they can take care of business Monday night against the young Romero, a quick sweep will be likely; Martinez vs. Odirizzi is a promising matchup, to say the least. Gant has been good-not-great in the minors, but he’s getting the chance to earn extended looks later in the year if Wainwright continues to struggle with injuries. It would behoove him to capitalize.
- Seriously, can we appreciate Joe Mauer for just a second? The man is 35 years old and basically doesn’t hit for power anymore. But he’s sporting a .434 OBP and is walking twice as much as he’s striking out, equalling out to a 135 wRC+ that should be better based on his wxOBA. In my ideal world, this is how Matt Carpenter ages; always improving in the on-base department and finding ways to adjust once his power starts to evaporate. Oh, baseball gods, hear my prayer.
- The Twins mascot is TC Bear, and while he won’t be there these next two days, I’d like to express my undying affection for him. Mascots are inherently goofy things that don’t abide by the rules of common decency (how many of them wear pants?). But there’s something extra zany about TC. Maybe it’s the hat that’s comically too small for his head. Maybe it’s that he’s a bear and his mouth is perpetually WIDE OPEN. But I think it’s those insane blue eyes that make him look like he’s Dock Ellising every single home game. Because how else are you going to celebrate ending your 5 months of soul-sucking hibernation than by getting absolutely fried and dancing maniacally to Top 40 radio hits almost every day?
- Treat yourself this afternoon by twitter searching the terms “Kolten Wong” and “Javier Baez” together (or some rough combination of the two), and witnessing the spasm much of Cub fandom had over this tweet. Something irked them about pointing out that a player with a career UZR/150 of 3.6 is better than one with a -1.6 at the position in question. Can’t figure why.