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Wildcard Series Preview: Blue Jays at Twins

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Cincinnati Reds Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Enemy: The Minnesota Twins

Minnesota came out of the abysmal AL Central division, where their 87-75 record was good enough to win the division by nine games. (Not that I, or any other Jays fans, are bitter about playing in baseball’s equivalent of the battle of the Somme every year. Not at all...)

It would be a mistake to think that they’re not a very good baseball team, though. They went 58-52 outside of the division, and they took two of three from the Jays in Toronto back in June.

The Twins’ calling card is a dominant rotation, which just edged the Jays’ 3.85 for the best ERA in the American League this season at 3.82. Game one starter Pablo Lopez had a career year at 27, in his first season in Minnesota after coming over from the Marlins in trade for newly minted NL batting champ Luis Arraez. He set a career high in innings pitched (194.0) and strikeout rate (29.2%) while trimming his already modest walk rate to 6.0%. His 3.66 ERA is inflated slightly by some tough luck with balls finding holes (.313 BABIP allowed) but his 3.33 FIP was sixth in the AL. Things get even tougher for the Jays’ lineup in game two. Sonny Gray has had a bit of an up and down career, sometimes looking like he was on the verge of breaking out as a true ace and sometimes struggling with his command and battling injuries. At 33, in his second season in Minneapolis and the last on his current contract, he’s put it all together. His 184 innings pitched is his most since 2015, and his 2.79 ERA and 2.83 FIP are second and first, respectively, among qualified AL starters. A lot of that comes from limiting the long ball, as just 5.2% of fly balls Gray has allowed have left the yard, a rate that leads the AL by more than four percentage points. Home run per fly ball rate is mostly luck, and Gray’s rate of barrelled contact allowed (6.9%) is good but not outstanding, so there’s probably regression to come. Their third starter for the series hasn’t been announced yet. The options behind Gray and Lopez are less intimidating. It sounds like Joe Ryan (4.51 ERA, 4.14 FIP) will likely get the nod, but Kenta Maeda and Baily Ober are similarly steady options as well.

The Jays might have more opportunities later in games. The Twins’ bullpen collectively posted a mediocre 3.95 ERA, and their peripherals suggest that was a bit lucky. Closer Jhoan Duran is a force, with a 102mph fastball and a 27-5 record in save situations. Setup man Griffin Jax has had a good year as well, with a 3.23 FIP that’s 24% better than league average. They also welcomed Brock Stewart back from a three month injury absence last week. Beyond that trio, though, it’s a lot of ‘just a guy’s.

On offence, the story of the Twins is power. Their hitters were 9% better than league average as a unit, sixth best in baseball and just ahead of the Jays in seventh. They hit only .243, good for 21st place, and struck out at a higher clip than any other team. They were patient, though, with the fourth most walks in baseball, and their .184 isolated power was bested only by Tampa Bay, Texas, the Dodgers, and Atlanta. They don’t run much (86 stolen bases, tied for 23rd) and they don’t play very good defence (27.7 runs below average, 19th).

The attack is spearheaded by Québécois rookie infielder/DH Edouard Julien. The 24 year old former 18th round pick came out of nowhere this season, showcasing a strong eye (his 64 walks lead the team in spite of only getting 408 PA) and good power (16 home runs and 33 total extra base hits) but a 31% strikeout rate. Fellow rookie Matt Wallner and longtime starting catcher Ryan Jeffers are similar patience and power oriented hitters with contact issues. Max Keppler, Alex Kirilloff and Jorge Polanco are dangerous hitters in their own right, but have profiles that are a bit more balanced, while Donovan Solano is a slap hitter but consistently posts strong averages.

One big question for the Twins is the health of Royce Lewis. The 2017 first overall pick has been a late bloomer, only arriving full time in the majors this season after a cup of coffee last fall, but his first 70 games have been worth the wait. In 2023, Lewis has posted a .309/.372/.548 line that’s 55% better than league average and would be top 10 in baseball if he’d played enough to qualify. The quallifying is the tricky bit, as Lewis has battled injuries, including a grade 1 hamstring strain that’s kept him out of action since September 19th. The expectation is that he’ll be active for the series, but he may be limited to DH or pinch hit duties.

Another is Carlos Correa. In his second season as a Twin and first on a 6 year, $200 million contract, Correa hasn’t hit well (.230/.312/.399) or played very good defence at short. He’s also been out for a couple of weeks with plantar fasciitis. The word is that he’ll try to play through the pain, but whether he’s able to perform at all is up in the air.

Finally, there’s the issue of Byron Buxton. The star outfielder has been out since the beginning of August with a knee injury. Before that, he looked bad both at the plate and in the field. He’s made a couple of attempts to being rehab stints at AAA, but has had to pull the plug both times after two games. He’s working out with the team and is apparently in consideration for a playoff spot, but whether he can go, and whether he’s even the best option for the roster spot if he can, is unclear.

The Blue Jays

There isn’t much news on the Jays front. Starters haven’t been announced, but it would only make sense for Kevin Gausman to get game one, with Chris Bassitt and Jose Berrios following in some order.

There are harder choices to make in the bullpen. Yusei Kikuchi should make it as a high calibre long man, in case a starter is knocked out early. The mainstay relievers (Jordan Romano, Jordan Hicks, Erik Swanson, Chad Green, Genesis Cabrera, Yimi Garcia and Tim Mayza) are all healthy and should have clear roles. After those eleven pitchers, it seems likely that either one or two of Trevor Richards, Bowden Francis, or Hyun Jin Ryu can make the team. I’d personally lean towards Francis. Ryu has been up and down, and fared poorly in his last two appearances. Richards has made important contributions this season, but he’s also walked 11 guys in 12 innings in September and his overall 4.95 ERA is concerning. Francis has performed the best of the three, with a 1.73 ERA and a 3.86 FIP in 36 innings, and offers the ability to go multiple innings in case a game goes deep into extras (which is more likely in the playoffs, where the Manfred man is eliminated).

Offensively, the starting nine of Alejandro Kirk, Vladimir Guerrero jr., Brandon Belt, Cavan Biggio, Matt Chapman, Bo Bichette, Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier, and George Springer seems set. I’m still very iffy on Chapman, but the team shows every sign of being content to ride with him, and he did show signs of finally finding his stroke this week. Beyond that, Tyler Heineman is a lock with Danny Jansen not ready to come back yet, and I can’t imaging Whit Merrifield not making the team even though he’s been awful for a couple of months now.

That leaves room for two or three bench pieces. Davis Schneider should be a no doubter, and I’d strongly consider starting him at second and moving Biggio to third, but I doubt the Jays actually do that. Santiago Espinal probably has to be on the team as the only real shortstop option after Bichette. If they go with 12 pitcher’s there’s room for one specialist. Cam Eden’s skillset seems extra valuable in October, when they might need to play small ball in late innings against the best of an opponent’s bullpen. I’d prefer to keep him over adding a 13th pitcher in a three game series where they’ll have at least one fully stretched out starter in the bullpen.

What do you think?


Which Pitcher(s) On the Fringe of the Roster Should the Jays Bring?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Bowden Francis
    (368 votes)
  • 17%
    Trevor Richards
    (127 votes)
  • 12%
    Hyun Jin Ryu
    (89 votes)
  • 9%
    Francis and Richards (and a 4 man bench)
    (69 votes)
  • 4%
    Richards and Ryu (and a 4 man bench)
    (34 votes)
  • 4%
    Ryu and Francis (and a 4 man bench)
    (33 votes)
720 votes total Vote Now