Neal: Baldelli has lineup options, but will it lead to a better offense for Twins?
FORT MYERS, FLA. – While the Twins' pitching depth and defense should be improved from 2022, there should not be the same optimism about the offense.
They will miss contact hitter deluxe in Luis Arraez, who was traded to Miami. They already lacked a steady run producer in the heart of their batting order. Consequently, run production looks to be tricky for the Twins, whose 696 runs scored in 2022 were slightly above the league average of 694. They hit 178 home runs, four more than the league average. They were ninth in team on-base percentage, with Arraez influencing that. They also grounded into 133 double plays, fourth-most in baseball.
So let's see here. The Twins need a quality hitter at the top of the order. They need an RBI glutton. And they need more speed, or better at-bats with runners on base. That's all.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli hopes the potential of the offense is revealed over the final 10 games of spring training, when he will construct regular season-worthy lineups.
"I really like our offensive group," he said. "I really like their capabilities. We have had guys separated for different reasons."
The Twins starters will pitch deeper into games this season, with the addition of righthander Pablo Lopez and the subtraction of Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer (who combined for 30 outings lasting less than five innings). The bullpen has been upgraded from a year ago — regardless of how you feel about Emilio Pagan. But how will the Twins score?
Baldelli believes that with better health, his best athletes will be on the field more, which should boost the offense. Byron Buxton addresses every concern the closer he gets to making 500 plate appearances. He has power, the ability to drive in runs, and speed — the Twins were last in baseball in stolen bases last year.
Jorge Polanco landed on the injured list last season for the first time in his career. When healthy, he provides the best at-bats of this group.
Alex Kirilloff, the highly touted prospect who debuted in the 2020 playoffs, has had two seasons hampered by a bad wrist. On Friday, he said he was close to being ready. But he agreed that it's better to finish the season healthy than to push too hard for Opening Day and have a setback.
Signing Joey Gallo, a move I bemoaned when it happened, makes some sense now. He will provide very good defense in left to go with Mr. Platinum Glove in center and Max Kepler in right. Gallo needs to be fixed after posting a .638 OPS in 2022. If can get in range of his 2021 season, in which he belted 37 homers and walked a league-high 111 times, he will be an asset.
Donovan Solano, also a free-agent signing, figures to contribute as an infielder or designated hitter. And Jose Miranda will benefit from a year of experience.
There's a lot of ingredients in this soufflé. How will it turn out?
"It gives Rocco a lot of options about how he'll deploy the offense," said Derek Falvey, president of baseball operations, "based on matchups we have or opportunities in front of us."
One option: Baldelli mentioned Gallo as a leadoff hittter, although he has done so just six times.
Baldelli added Buxton, Carlos Correa, Kepler, Polanco and Nick Gordon among leadoff candidates. The potential lineup combinations post-Arraez could be startling. You have been warned.
Reading the tea leaves, I foresee Opening Day coming with Polanco and Kirilloff still on the mend. The augmented bench, which includes Kyle Farmer and Gordon, will be tested early. Farmer said on Friday that he has been taking most of his grounders at second base. Another indication came Saturday, when Buxton, Correa and Kirilloff all played in a minor league game — not Polanco — on a back field.
Baldelli, who used a career-high 152 lineups last season, might need to write out 162 different lineups to squeeze the most runs out of this group.
"I have to be prepared [to]," he said, "but it doesn't mean I'm going to do it."