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Where the Twins go from here

Twins officials have hinted at a much more active winter. Expect the team to re-sign Jake Odorizzi and possibly Michael Pineda, then go hunting for starting pitching.

Designated hitter Nelson Cruz
Designated hitter Nelson Cruz reacting after his out during the third inning of game three of the 2019 ALDS playoff baseball series.
David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

I heard you yelling at the television. No sweat, It’s okay. The Twins disappointed you again, swept by the Yankees in the Division Series in the usual infuriating fashion. That makes it five consecutive series and 13 consecutive postseason games lost to the Yankees, and there’s nothing wrong with thinking you might be long dead before the Twins ever beat that pinstriped gang of marauders from the Bronx.

You thought this would be different. The 101 wins. The 307 Bombas. For what it’s worth, the smart money did too. Every baseball writer I talked to over two days in Minneapolis, from the national types to the Yankee beat regulars, expected a more competitive Division Series than the sorry history suggested. The consensus: This was going four games, maybe five. None called a Yankees sweep. None. They were as stunned as the rest of us.

So how did we get this so wrong? The Twins bullpen’s success over the last two months proved a mirage. The everyday lineup was much more banged up than the Twins let on. And the Yankees, who led MLB in players on the injured list and man-games lost, entered postseason healthier than any point since April. Michael Pineda’s drug suspension left the Twins with only two reliable starting pitchers, which should have been a hint.

Also: two key lineup decisions by rookie manager Rocco Baldelli blew up in his face: Starting a hobbled Luis Arraez over a healthy Jonathan Schoop at second base, then sticking with late-season callup Randy Dobnak to start Game 2 after a come-from-ahead loss in Game 1.

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The Twins chose offense over defense with the rookie Arraez, a contact machine who batted a team-leading .455 in the series after a .334 regular season. But his lack of mobility on a sprained right ankle proved troublesome at critical times. Arraez’s inability to run down a popup in the third inning of Game 1, with the Twins up 2-0, contributed to a three-run Yankees rally. Later in that inning he bounced a throw on a potential double play that first baseman C.J. Cron should have caught but didn’t, allowing the go-ahead run to score. The Twins never led again in the series.

Instead of coming back with the veteran Jake Odorizzi in Game 2, Baldelli’s best bet to avoid an 0-2 deficit, Baldelli sent out Dobnak, the former Uber and pizza delivery driver from South Park, Pa. who posted a 1.59 ERA in nine August and September appearances. Sometimes a young, unproven arm surprises in the postseason. This wasn’t one of those times. Dobnak got only six outs before leaving with the bases loaded in the third. A seven-run inning followed as the bullpen failed for the second straight game.

Back in Minneapolis the next day, Baldelli said, “I don’t regret anything that we’ve done with our pitcher usage.” That put him in the minority. 

Wednesday, at an informal briefing with Twins writers, Baldelli, Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine each defended going with Arraez over Schoop. Arraez swung and missed fewer pitches than any hitter in baseball (2.8%) and batted .571 in so-called high-leverage situations, per The Twins felt Arraez put so much stress on opposing pitchers that it bolstered the rest of their lineup. 

“It was not an easy decision,” Baldelli said. “Arraez went on to play a quality series for us. I don’t think him (not) catching that popup had anything to do with his ankle at all.” Added Levine: “Empirically, Arraez was one of our best hitters against the best pitching in the game. We were really reluctant to have that player sitting on the sidelines in a short series.”

Schoop had a nice year (23 homers) but he’s a free agent. After this, if you were him, why would you stay?

Arraez wasn’t the only one hobbling. Max Kepler (strained left shoulder/sore right knee) went 0-for-10 and Mitch Garver (sore hip) 2-for-12 after combining for 67 homers in the regular season. Cron’s sore right thumb ached so badly he started only one game. (Cron said after Game 3 the injury was ‘misdiagnosed” and he may need surgery.) The left ankle Eddie Rosario sprained in June never quite healed, affecting his base-running and defense. 

It didn’t help that just about every play that could have gone either way fell in the Yankees’ favor. In Game 3, with the Twins down 2-0, Miguel Sano’s deep drive with Arraez on second would have gotten past every right fielder in baseball except the one the Yankees had out there, 6-foot-7 Aaron Judge, who reached high for the running catch. 

So what now? Levine metaphorically hinted at a much more active winter for the Twins. Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Pineda are free agents. Expect the Twins to re-sign Odorizzi and possibly Pineda, then go hunting for starting pitching. Houston’s 20-game winner Gerrit Cole, Washington’s Stephen Strasberg (if he opts out of his contract) and Madison Bumgarner of the Giants are the biggest names out there. And the Twins boast enough position-player and prospect depth to acquire a starter like Noah Syndergaard of the Mets without gutting their roster.

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“We feel like we’re getting to a place now where we feel a little bit more emboldened to sit down with Jim Pohlad and Dave (St. Peter, the club president) and talk about being a little more aggressive,” Levine said. “We feel like we’re progressing, for sure.”

In other Twins business:

• Falvey said the Twins haven’t decided whether hard-throwing September callup Brusdar Graterol will return to starting or transition to the bullpen. Graterol, 21, missed more than two months with a right shoulder impingement and has never thrown more than 102 innings in a season.

• Expect the club to pick up DH Nelson Cruz’s $12 million option for 2020. 

• The Twins are hopeful Byron Buxton (left shoulder surgery) will be ready for the start of spring training. Baldelli said he may ask Buxton to play a deeper center field to limit those full-speed wall collisions leading to injuries. Otherwise, he’s reluctant to ask Buxton to tone down his aggressiveness. “To change a player’s mentality, to change the way they’ve played the game since they were was a young kid, is a very difficult thing to do,” Baldelli said. “I think Byron has the ability to make adjustments. I think he’ll find ways to be one of the best outfielders in the world while minimizing the number of times he puts his body at risk.”