The Minnesota Twins have the best record in baseball and own the largest divisional lead in the sport, thanks largely in part to an offense that leads the world in runs scored and home runs, along with several other categories.
The core of the burgeoning offense is young. Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler and Miguel Sano are all 25 or 26 years old, and have combined for 64 doubles and 41 home runs this season, all well above average offensively.
But the young Twins, who shocked baseball in 2017 with a Wild Card berth immediately following a 103-loss season, regressed in 2018, finishing under .500. The roller coaster in Minneapolis is back on the upswing in 2019, with that young offensive core supported by four very affordable upgrades made over the winter.
C.J. Cron has been one of many Twins providing the power this season, hitting .275/.337/.541 with 15 home runs at first base. Cron had a breakout season with Tampa Bay in 2018, with his 30 home runs nearly double his previous career best. Set for his second go-around in salary arbitration, Cron was about to make some real money, which to the Rays is like turning 30 years old in Logan’s Run.
Cron isn’t quite 30 yet, but at 29 he was placed on waivers by Tampa Bay, with the Twins happy to scoop up the freely available talent. Minnesota is getting production at first base at the reasonable cost of $4.8 million, while the Rays get lesser but still capable numbers at first base from Ji-Man Choi, whose $850,000 salary allows Tampa Bay to pat themselves on the back for possibly another dollars-per-WAR championship, and maybe even more — the Rays, who won 90 games in 2018 but was watching the playoffs from home, is on pace for 98 wins this year and begins the weekend just a half-game out of the division lead and comfortably in first Wild Card position.
But the Twins are in a much more secure position, leading the American League Central by a stunning 11 games over the Cleveland Indians, the division champ for three years running and the prohibitive preseason favorite. Minnesota opens the weekend with a 95.2% chance to win the division and 98.2% chance to make the playoffs per FanGraphs, and a similarly rosy outlook — 95.6% for the division, 98.2% for the playoffs — from Baseball Prospectus.
The aggressive offseason paid off for the Twins, setting them apart in an industry that has seen two consecutive dry winters for non-superstar free agents. This past season was especially tough for many, with several accomplished players — Adam Jones, Gio Gonzalez to name a few — settling for minor league deals, and two of the best free agents — Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel — waiting until June to sign because of teams’ unwillingness to forfeit a draft pick to improve their team.
We saw a similar mid-market shrewdness lead to an NLCS trip last year for the Milwaukee Brewers, after trading for the eventual NL MVP Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain, two anchors of another division-leading team in Milwaukee again in 2019.
In addition to signing Cron, the Twins this offseason fortified their lineup with not one, not two, but three free agent signings:
- Nelson Cruz for $14.3 million. He’s hitting .285/.370/.570 with 12 home runs
- Marwin Gonzalez for $21 million over two years. He’s hitting .259/.328/.421 with eight homers while starting games at five different defensive positions.
- Jonathan Schoop for $7.5 million. Schoop is hitting .251/.306/.488 with 12 home runs, one of seven players with double-digit home runs for Minnesota. They have two others with nine and Gonzalez with eight.
It should be noted that the Twins found the money for these additions after the salaries of the retiring Joe Mauer ($23 million) and free agent Ervin Santana ($13.5 million) came off their books. The Twins’ opening day payroll of $119.7 million is actually lower than their $128.7 million mark in 2018, per Cot’s Contracts.
Minnesota leads the majors with 132 home runs, and are likely to pass their full-season 2018 total (166) by this year’s All-Star break. They are hitting .275/.341/.517 as a team, leading the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.
Of their 13 players with the most plate appearances on the 2019 Twins, 12 are at least league average offensively by both OPS+ and wRC+. They are a lineup with no real weak spots, and enough depth to get by. Adjusted for league and park, the Twins as a team lead baseball in both OPS+ (126) and wRC+ (124). Nolan Arenado, the Rockies’ perennial MVP candidate, has a career OPS+ of 122, as a comparison.
That has the Twins scoring six runs a game, fueling their fantastic start. All with a lineup nearly half-filled with newcomers added in a single offseason to team actually trying to improve.