2017 Twins: They won’t always be this young and/or bad

Jim Roland

Jim Roland was a major-league pitcher before he turned 20, and tossed a shutout the next season in his first start. But not every major-league teen is a star, and Roland never pitched another shutout and won only 18 more games. Injuries, naturally, were part of it. Roland was called up at the end of 1962 and pitched once, and after turning 20 in the offseason, made the team in 1963 and threw a three-hit shutout in his third appearance. Today he probably wouldn’t have finished the sixth inning in that game: he walked nine, fanned seven, won 7-0 and according to his bio at sabr.org, Roland needed 144 pitches to finish. He stayed in the rotation and followed a complete game five-hit win over the Tigers with a seven-inning two-hitter against the Athletics, but according to sabr.org, he hurt his elbow and pitched just a third of an inning more in 1963. The next few years were a struggle: he had a 4.10 ERA in 1964, didn’t make the team in ’65 when the Twins won the pennant, lost 19 games in AAA in ’66 and was rapped for his attitude. According to sabr.org, Roland hurt his leg arguing a call and habitually left the mound prematurely when leaving the game before his manager arrived. “A problem kid,” sabr.org said one sports writer called him. Roland made it back to the Twins in 1967-68 primarily as a reliever, and then was sold to the Athletics, newly arrived in Oakland from Kansas City, for 1969. He had his best years for the A’s — a 2.59 ERA over his three-plus seasons, including a 2.19 ERA and .555 OPS against in ’69 — but was sold to the Yankees in 1972 just as the A’s began their run of three straight World Series titles. Roland pitched for the Yankees and Rangers in ’72 before his major-league career was over a decade after it began, before he even turned 30. Roland died in 2010 at age 67. Career totals: 19-17, 3.22 ERA, 216 games, 6 complete games, 1 shutout, 9 saves, 450.1 innings, 357 hits, 229 walks, 272 strikeouts, 107 ERA+, 3.94 FIP, .638 OPS against, 4.3 WAR (1.8 in ’69).

Up next: The Twins drafted Nick Gordon with the fifth pick of the first round in 2014, and so far he’s been a lot like older brother Dee — when he’s not hitting .333 — without the steals. That might get Nick to the majors, but won’t look good in comparison to Michael Conforto (10) and Trea Turner (13), who were drafted after him. A .270-hitting shortstop with minimal power and patience sounds a lot like Denny Hocking. Nick slugged .391 in the Florida State League last year at age 21, which isn’t bad, but walked just 23 times and was caught stealing 13 more (his success rate, if you can call it that, was 59%). If he does make it, father and able reliever Tom Gordon might be sire of the year. Not many players produce their own double-play combination.

What he said: “Part of my message was: We don’t have a lot of people in the position to be on scholarship anymore.” Twins manager Paul Molitor on the 103-loss 2016. What he meant: “If we were a college football team, we’d have been non-scholarship Division III.”

Outlook: The Twins won 83 games in manager Paul Molitor’s first year and 59 in his second, the biggest fall in MLB last year. It’s not hard to tell which was the outlier — excluding 2015, the Twins have lost 90 games every year since 2010, which is why Ron Gardenhire was fired after the first four in a row of them.

Molitor’s first season was illusory — the Twins were outscored by four runs and in the bottom half of the AL in both hitting (eighth) and pitching (10th) — but hardly indicative of the wretchedness of 2016. Even with 11 players who hit at least 10 homers and a middle infielder who hit 42, the Twins were outscored by 167 runs and in 103 games. That’s hard to do unless your’re last in your league in fielding and pitching, which the Twins were.

“You can look at analytics and try to explain 103 losses, but it (was) pretty simple for me; we were the worst in pitching, we were worst in protecting the baseball and catching it,” Molitor said to an MLB podcast, and his analysis was far better than his team’s play.

The bad news is they may not be much better at either this year, not if they stubbornly insist Miguel Sano is a third baseman or Jorge Polanco the everyday shortstop, though coming off a 103-loss season is the time to find out. There won’t be any penalties for misplaced personnel this year.

Sano and Polanco combined, in about a full season between them, for -1.9 defensive WAR last season, which would behoove Twins pitchers to induce batted balls to the other side of the infield.

Unfortunately, Twins pitchers weren’t able to effect much of anything that they wanted. Their 5.08 ERA was one-hundredth better than the Diamondbacks’ but no one else in MLB. Opponents batted .283 (last in MLB) and hit 221 homers (29th), and it’s hard to blame all of that on the guys behind them.

The Twins may lose 90 more games this year, but for a team as bad as they are, there’s a lot of talent, even if they’re trying to trade it. Brian Dozier is still a Twin, which is an upset after he was dangled for much of the winter, and upsetting perhaps to him.

The young nucleus is better than that of a 90-loss team. Sano hit 25 homers at age 23, though he fanned 178 times, and if he can’t man third base, he could man DH. The Twins — who lost David Ortiz 14 years ago when they refused him arbitration — are no doubt more attuned to the importance of having a good one than they were then.

Max Kepler, also 23, hit 17 homers and walked 42 times in 65% of a season; his .235 average should pick up. Polanco hit .282 with a touch of power and on-base, and if shortstop doesn’t work out, second base might if Dozier isn’t there.

And though Byron Buxton disappointed again — he has a .672 OPS after 469 plate appearances in two seasons — he produced at 1.011 in last year’s last month after his most recent farming. And he’ll still be just 23 on Opening Day. Eric Davis commuted between majors and minors multiple times before he stayed and starred.

That may not be the Justin Morneau-Joe Mauer-Michael Cuddyer centerpiece which won the division three times in five years a decade or more ago, but it’s a pretty good under-25 core of a contender.

Alas the pitching won’t be. There’s still hope for Jose Berrios, though it’s hard to explain how a pitcher who walked a batter every 4.1 innings in 2015 could walk one every 2.1 in 2016 or how a pitcher who threw 12 homers in 166.1 minor-league innings in 2015 could throw 12 in 58.1 major-league innings in 2016. Promotion from AAA to MLB isn’t as automatic as from fourth grad to fifth.

The other Twins pitches have gone from hoping to wishful thinking: Kyle Gibson has a 4.59 ERA after 98 big-league starts, Tyler Duffey has a 5.42 ERA after 36 big-league starts and Trevor May has a 5.61 ERA in 25 starts and 4.36 ERA in 77 relief appearances, plus an elbow that might require Tommy John surgery.

And the bullpen, which had a 4.63 ERA last year, was the worst in the AL, to the surprise of no one who watched a procession of relievers — Michael Tonkin and Kevin Jepsen among the worst offenders — make so many bad situations worse.

At some point, accumulated data has to take precedence over outdated projections. To paraphrase Bill Parcells, you are what your ERA says you are.

The Twins’ ERA last year, like their prospects for 2017, wasn’t very good. But they’ll hit just enough home runs this year and make just enough mistakes that can be assigned to youthful enthusiasm to envision a year coming in which they won’t be so bad.

Team song: Nat King Cole: Blame it on My Youth

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