Souhan: Twins will be winners, if one big ‘if’ doesn’t doom them
FORT MYERS, FLA. – Drive a half-hour from the Twins' spring training complex and you can put your toes in the Gulf of Mexico. Head across Alligator Alley and in less than three hours you can dive into the Atlantic.
Nautical and beach themes rule South Florida, but if you want a watery metaphor for the Twins roster in 2023, you don't need to leave Minnesota.
As spring training camp ramps up, the Twins look as deep and muddy as the Mississippi.
For once, they begin camp with five veteran starting pitchers: Sonny Gray, Joe Ryan, Pablo Lopez, Tyler Mahle and Kenta Maeda. Behind them is a slew of intriguing young starters, including Bailey Ober, Louie Varland, Josh Winder, Simeon Woods Richardson and Cole Sands.
For the first time under baseball boss Derek Falvey, the Twins have a bullpen that shouldn't create a midseason panic. Even when the Twins won 101 games in 2019, they blew up their bullpen and started over in late July.
This season, they have two closer-quality relievers in Jhoan Duran and Jorge Lopez, plus Griffin Jax, Caleb Thielbar, Jovani Moran and Jorge Alcala.
Their outfield features so many options that a handful of their best position-playing youngsters and prospects — Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Matt Wallner and Royce Lewis once he's healthy — will be competing for one or two big-league roster spots.
One of their most valuable players in 2022 was utility player Nick Gordon, who was asked to play all over the field. This winter they added a former Gold Glove center fielder, Michael A. Taylor, to back up Byron Buxton, and former starting shortstop Kyle Farmer, who was signed before the Twins re-signed Carlos Correa.
"This certainly feels like the deepest pitching group that we've had, for sure,'' Falvey said. "If all are healthy — fingers crossed — this would be the deepest group of starters we've had since I've been here. And this morning, as we were going over the position player group — again, if healthy — we have the most experience on our bench that we've had.''
If Kirilloff is the first baseman, the infield is set, with Correa at short, Jose Miranda at third and Jorge Polanco at second. Nick Gordon, Taylor and Farmer will be the utility players.
Christian Vazquez and Ryan Jeffers give them two starting-caliber catchers.
The farm system features Lewis and new consensus No. 1 prospect Brooks Lee, who is moving quickly toward the majors, plus rising second baseman Edouard Julien, as players on the cusp of the big leagues.
There is talent here, and there is remarkable depth, given where the farm system was a handful of years ago, and Falvey has aggressively pursued talent in free agency and trades.
Does all of that mean the 2023 Twins are destined for the playoffs?
Last year the Twins were 47-39 when Buxton started and 31-45 when he didn't. What sounds like oversimplification of a complex game is simply fact: If Buxton and Correa stay healthy, the Twins will be good.
This is where things get muddy.
For all of the depth and talent, this team lacks a true ace and proven middle-of-the-order run producers, and is counting on improvement or maturity from a host of young players.
A team that set a record for home runs in 2019 will feature corner outfielders who are excellent defenders but have much to prove offensively. If Joey Gallo and Max Kepler can't fill the middle of the lineup, then those roles will be left to the frequently injured (Polanco, Kirilloff) or the inexperienced (Miranda, Kirilloff, perhaps Larnach or Wallner).
Are Miranda and Jorge Lopez the standouts they appeared to be midway through last season, or the players who slumped toward the end?
Will the Twins' overhauled training staff lead to better health?
Will Gallo reprise Miguel Sano, or Josh Willingham?
Can Kepler take advantage of the outlawed shift and resurrect his stock?
Can Polanco return to All-Star form?
Will Kirilloff's sore wrist nag him through the season?
Will luck — the most powerful force in sports — be on the Twins' side?
There's a reason Falvey punctuates almost every sentence with the words "if healthy.''