baseball

A healthy Twins team — featuring Byron Buxton — could win 90 games next season

This has been one of the most confounding Twins seasons in memory.

As of early March, baseball was mired in lockout and the Twins had almost no proven pitching. The front office could have declared 2022 a rebuilding season.

Instead, the Twins went on a shopping spree, acquiring almost an entire rotation that included de facto ace Sonny Gray. They overhauled their bullpen, for better or worse, by trading Taylor Rogers. They made a flurry of moves to clear space for Carlos Correa, then signed him to a franchise-record contract worth $35 million a year.

That is not rebuilding. That is going for it.

By late May they were 11 games over .500. After the team backslid for two months and gave the front office every reason to prepare for 2023, the front office again went for it, this time dealing for three pitchers and a backup catcher at the trading deadline.

All of that ambition could not counteract an obscene amount of injuries. They have used 37 pitchers this season. Even the best franchises have about eight big-league pitchers they trust. Nobody has 37.

By the time they were in what could be called a pennant stretch, the Twins were missing important pitchers and almost an entire starting lineup: center fielder Byron Buxton, corner outfielders Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach and Max Kepler, infielders Jorge Polanco, Royce Lewis and Miguel Sano and catcher Ryan Jeffers.

View all of the Twins’ moves in the context of 2022, and it’s easy to conjure the word “failure.”

There is a more interesting way to look at 2022.

As a prelude to 2023.

By attempting to contend this year, the Twins may have built a contender for next year.

Here are the players who will likely be available to them when they choose their Opening Day roster six months from now:

Starting pitchers: Gray, Joe Ryan, Tyler Mahle, Kenta Maeda, Bailey Ober, Josh Winder, Cole Sands, Louie Varland, Simeon Woods Richardson.

Relievers: Jorge Lopez, Jhoan Duran, Caleb Thielbar, Jorge Alcala, Griffin Jax, Jovani Moran, Trevor Megill, Randy Dobnak, and whatever starters are repurposed as relievers.

Outfielders: Buxton, Kirilloff, Larnach, Kepler, Matt Wallner, Kyle Garlick, Nick Gordon.

Infielders: Luis Arraez, Jose Miranda, Polanco, Gio Urshela, perhaps Correa or a free-agent shortstop and Lewis once healthy.

Catchers: Jeffers and a backup.

That’s without any free agent moves.

The rise of top prospects combined with trades that brought in key pitchers under control for 2023 — Lopez and Mahle — will give the Twins a deep, versatile and talented big-league roster next year.

Given all of that promise, here is my comprehensive plan for making the Twins a 90-plus win team in ’23:

  1. Nurse Buxton back to health.
  2. See No. 1.

Even with all of their other injuries, failures, mistakes and frustrations this season, the Twins were 47-39 when Buxton was in their starting lineup. That’s winning 55% of games.

The Twins are 26-38 when Buxton is out of the starting lineup. That’s 41%.

With Buxton, the Twins were a playoff team. Without him, they were the Miami Marlins, although even the Marlins might have managed a victory at Kansas City this week.

When Derek Falvey and Rocco Baldelli took over the Twins in 2019, they introduced a philosophy unheard of in franchise history. Pre-rest.

They believe in resting players before they are worn down, to prevent injuries and slumps.

Strangely, that philosophy led to the highest injury rate in franchise history.

Whether it’s fair or not, the Twins’ reputation as managers of player health will probably be determined by Buxton.

He has patella tendinitis in his right knee. With plenty of time for rest and rehabilitation, he should be able to recover and play 130 games next season.

If he does, the Twins are set up for the kind of success they only hinted at this year.

With reasonable health, the Twins should win 90 or more games in 2023.

The question is whether reasonable health is realistic with this franchise, or with Buxton.

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