With Royals Fanfest coming up this weekend, it is only a matter of time before Spring Training is upon us. While the Royals did not make any major moves this off-season, it does feel like the Royals should improve on their 59-103 record from a year ago. Granted, that total may not be much more, but with a new manager, and some promising young talent waiting in the wings, it feels like the Royals have the potential to surprise some teams in the American League Central in 2020.
However, how do the Royals stack against the other four teams in the Central? Did they keep up? Did they do enough in comparison? Let’s take a look at each team in the AL Central and what their early outlook will be for 2020.
I will do individual posts for each Central team, starting out with the Minnesota Twins, the reigning American League Central Division champions.
(I am going with projected data from Vegas over/under totals, for those who are curious.)
Last Year’s record: 101-61 (first in the AL Central); Over/under projected win total: 84.
Major players acquired: Josh Donaldson (3B), Alex Avila (C), Homer Bailey (SP), Rich Hill (SP), and Tyler Clippard (RP).
What’s the outlook for the Twins?
The Twins were one of the best teams in all of baseball in 2019. They had a new manager, a potent lineup, and got some good innings and production from their starting rotation. Many felt that the Twins, who had a history of recent postseason disappointment, had a chance to be a sleeper to the World Series in 2019.
Unfortunately, history proved to repeat itself, as the Twins were swept by the Yankees in the American League Division Series.
As a small-market club, the Twins know that their window to compete is not long. However, with the Boston Red Sox going through a slight rebuild, and with the Houston Astros most likely regressing in the fall out of their cheating scandal, the Twins decided to load up for another run in 2020. First, they signed Homer Bailey and Rich Hill to shore up the rotation (though Hill is recovering from elbow surgery in October), and they also added Tyler Clippard to strengthen the bullpen. Then, in a surprise move, they signed Josh Donaldson from the Braves, which should make a strong lineup even stronger (the move likely will push Miguel Sano to first base, a wise move since Sano is not great defensively).
On paper, the Twins return a roster that should not be much different from a year ago. However, there was always the feeling that the Twins over-achieved in 2019. Few saw Jorge Polanco’s breakout, Sano returning to form, and Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi being one of the better one-two punches in Major League Baseball.
However, it seems unlikely that the Twins will be able to capture that 2019 magic again in 2020, and Vegas seems to believe the same thing, as they project them to win 84 games, which would be third-best in the AL Central behind the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox (who are both projected to win 86). Furthermore, the rotation seems a little bit more questionable, especially since the Twins won’t start the year with Michael Pineda, who will be finishing up a 60 game suspension from a year ago for failing a PED test.
Who will be key to watch for the Twins?
Bailey may be the key to the Twins’ success in 2019. Bailey bounced back in 2019 with the Royals and later the Oakland A’s after having a miserable 2018 with Cincinnati. Bailey found his sinker ball in 2019, and there is a strong hope that the veteran can solidify a rotation that looks a bit shaky after Berrios and Odorizzi. If Bailey can flash his second-half self from 2019, then the Twins should compete again for a Central division title. If he looks more like his 2018 self, then the Twins may struggle to remain in playoff contention in 2020.
Two other key players to watch will be Sano and center fielder Byron Buxton. Both are former top prospects who have had up and down campaigns as Major League players. Sano has constantly struggled with whiffs over his career, as he has a career strikeout percentage of 36.3 percent at the Major League level. But, he is able to stabilize that when he is able to draw walks at the plate, which he did in 2019, as his walk rate rose from 10.4 in 2018 to 12.5 percent in 2019. Thus, after being a 0.1 WAR player in 2018, Sano became a 2.7 WAR one in 2019, which mirrored his 2018 campaign.
Buxton on the other hand was even worse in 2018 than Sano, as he played in only 28 games and posted a WAR of negative-0.3 (including an unthinkable minus-2 wRC+). However, Buxton in 2019 showed flashes of bounce back, as he posted a .262/.314/.513 with a 111 wRC+ and a 2.7 WAR. For those who thought Buxton may be done after a disastrous 2018, the speedster showed last year he still had plenty in the tank.
Unfortunately, Buxton’s health has constantly dogged him a the Major League level. Buxton only played in 87 games, and the Twins shuffled through a lot of options in center field, which probably hurt their Pennant chances at the end of the day. If Buxton can stay healthy, and transition those 2019 numbers over the course of a 162-game campaign, then it is likely that the Twins will surpass that 84-win projection in 2020.
How do the Royals match up against the Twins?
The Twins were the biggest foil to the Royals in 2019, as the Royals were 5-14 against the Twins, the Royals’ worst mark against an AL Central division foe last year. And it’s not surprising: the Twins leaned heavily on their power-heavy offense, and the Royals’ Achilles heel in 2019 was a pitching staff that had a tendency to give up the long ball. Thus, it makes sense that the Boys in Blue struggle immensely against the Twinkies a year ago.
Unfortunately for the Royals, the pitching staff may not be much better in 2020, and the lineup has gotten stronger for the Twins in 2020. Donaldson will be a tough out (and he has had his share of successes against the Royals in the past with the A’s, Blue Jays and Braves), and if Buxton is healthy, he could be a speed demon who could make Salvy’s return a challenge. While the Twins’ pitching is a bit iffy beyond the 1-2 spots in the rotation, it seems unlikely that the Royals may be able to generate enough offense to win a season series against the Twins in 2020.
The Royals’ starting pitching will be key should they want to compete against the Twins in 2020. If the starting pitching improves, then it isn’t unreasonable to think that the Royals should improve upon that 5-14 mark a year ago.
But if the Royals starting staff continues to struggle for a third-straight season, well…it looks like the Twins will once again beat up on Kansas City for a second-straight year…which will only help the Twins in their defense of the Central Division crown.