The Minnesota Twins open the 2021 season on Thursday when they travel to American Family Insurance Field to take on the Milwaukee Brewers.
While there's an 18-game playoff losing streak the Twins will eventually need to take care of, they'll have several storylines that will come with them as they begin the 2021 campaign.
Will the Twins rebound at the plate?
Unless you were the Los Angeles Dodgers or Randy Arozarena, there's a good chance 2020 was not kind to your favorite baseball team. The Twins were no different as several players regressed from their 2019 totals.
While Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Mitch Garver all helped the Twins transform into the Bomba Squad two years ago, all three saw their OPS drop in 2020. The Twins also ran into some injury issues as Polanco, Luis Arraez and Josh Donaldson all spent significant time on the injured list.
This caused the Twins to slip to 19th in runs scored after finishing second in 2019.
The early results this spring haven't been positive. Byron Buxton (.135), Miguel Sano (.159), Andrelton Simmons (.138), Garver (.172) and Kepler (.070) all failed to hit over .200. Although the Twins core is young, low batting rates like those could doom them out of the gate.
When Nelson Cruz was asked about the team's struggles in the Grapefruit League, he intimated the Twins will be fine. They'll need to be if they want to get off to a fast start.
Can Cruz keep defeating Father Time?
Speaking of Cruz, his production will be a huge key if the Twins are to contend this season. His 2020 season got off to a hot start hitting .340/.429/.699 with 11 HR and 27 RBI in his first 28 games but he tailed off to hit .256/.354/.488 with 6 HR and 7 RBI in his final 25.
Like most 2020 numbers, the second-half slump could have been what every hitter goes through during the course of a season. Those numbers are magnified with a 60-game schedule and could be an overreaction, with Cruz now allowed plenty of time to rebound with the return of a 162-game slate.
But Cruz will turn 41 in July, which raises questions about how long he can keep this up. As the Twins' cleanup hitter, the Twins need Cruz to be producing at a Silver Slugger level to put runs on the board. If Cruz begins to decline, Rocco Baldelli will have to scramble to find a replacement.
How long before Alex Kirilloff arrives in Minnesota?
The Twins non-tendered Eddie Rosario this winter, which seemed to pave the way for their top prospect to reach the major leagues. After Kirilloff hit .129 in spring training, the Twins pumped the brakes and decided to go with a combination of Jake Cave and Kyle Garlick.
But the question isn't if Kirilloff will make his major league debut this season. It's when.
Part of the decision to send Kirilloff down may have had to do with his service time but also played into the fact he has played in just one organized game since the 2019 season. While Kirilloff reportedly thrived in minor league camp last summer, he also admitted that some of the "games" he played in didn't even have nine players on both sides.
With the minor league season delayed by a month, Kirilloff will likely get his bearings at Triple-A St. Paul before heading up to the Twins. If Cave and Garlick get off to a slow start, it could be much sooner.
Do the Twins have enough pitching?
In the same way the Minnesota Vikings approach building an offensive line, the Twins will trot out a pitching staff that will look similar to last season.
The Twins didn't make a big move to acquire an ace and will rely on Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, Michael Pineda and J.A. Happ to fill out the first four spots.
Maeda had a terrific 2020 season (6-1, 2.70 ERA) but has a history of wearing down over the course of a full season. Berrios (5-4, 4.00 ERA) is coming off a season where he allowed a career-high 11.6 percent swinging-strike rate but also ranked in the 32nd percentile in hard-hit rate.
Pineda (2-0, 3.38 ERA) and Happ (2-2, 3.47) are solid veterans in the bottom half of the rotation and the Twins will also have Matt Shoemaker and Randy Dobnak in a "piggyback" starter role to begin the season.
But the Twins don't have a true No. 1 option. If none of the starters step up, it could set up the front office to make an aggressive move.
Can the Twins win the American League Central?
To get to the playoffs, the Twins will have to win the division for a third consecutive year. The good news is that they should have little competition to do so.
The Chicago White Sox are their most formidable challenger but took a major blow when Eloy Jimenez crashed into a wall during spring training. With the White Sox outfielder out five to six months, the Sox will be adjusting on the fly even with a young core that includes future superstars Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert.
The Cleveland Indians have the strongest rotation in the division but traded away Francisco Lindor over the offseason. While their pitching could carry them, their lineup doesn't have much to offer outside of their future Twins killer Rosario.
With Detroit and Kansas City a couple of years away from being true contenders, the runway should be open for the Twins to get to the playoffs. Then they can worry about winning a playoff game.