Back in February, before the world unraveled, I wrote that the Twins were rolling into camp with a good case as the American League's best team. While much has changed in the four months since, I'm not sure Minnesota's case has been weakened. If anything, it's been strengthened.
Preseason betting odds pegged Minnesota as the AL's third-best team, behind New York and Houston, which matched the general consensus view. MLB.com's updated power rankings have those teams in the same order now, with all trailing the Dodgers overall.
I can certainly buy that the Twins are a notch below the Yankees and Astros, with all things being equal. But in late February, all things were not equal. New York was getting hit by early injury woes that figured to set them back early in the season. Houston was going through a leadership overhaul while embroiled in a massive scandal that villainized their entire organization.
Many things have changed since then, but still they are not all equal. The Yankees' health situation has improved – for instance, left-hander James Paxton is now likely to be ready from the jump instead of missing three months, and the same is true for center fielder Aaron Hicks and DH Giancarlo Stanton. But they're still gonna be without starters Luis Severino (elbow surgery) and Domingo German (awfulness) all year. And while previously banged up players like Paxton, Stanton, and Aaron Judge are now purportedly healthy, you can't take for granted they'll experience smooth sailing with the short build-up to high-intensity action.
This is a concern affecting every team in baseball, but the Twins, at this point *knock on wood*, are looking to be very near full strength and all systems go. Like New York, Minnesota figures to see some benefit from the late start, with Rich Hill potentially available for the full season instead of one-third of it, and Byron Buxton now expected to be ready from the jump.
As for Houston, their ostensible disadvantages were more theoretical than New York's health setbacks. Who knows if their players would've been affected by the routinely hostile crowd environments, or the increased volume of beanballs, but neither will be factors anymore.
What the Astros still WILL be dealing with is learning to play under a new manager – albeit a deeply respected one in Dusty Baker – while navigating this unprecedented scenario. Managers and GMs only matter so much, but there was a certain continuity represented by AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow. That's been snapped. And on a more basic and quantifiable level, Gerrit Cole is gone.
The Twins, conversely, are fully finding their rhythm with a world-class front office and coaching staff. Rocco Baldelli is the reigning rookie Manager of the Year, while the baseball ops department has evolved into a cutting-edge machine, brimming with smart folks.
Those smart folks still haven't guided the Twins to the ALCS, where Houston and New York met last October, so until further notice Minnesota remains a justifiable underdog. I will grant that none of the points above fundamentally alter that reality.
Here's one thing that might: schedule.
With the new regionalized reconfiguration in place for 60 games, the Twins are slated to face Central division teams exclusively. They have the easiest strength of schedule in the majors based on last year's results, and won't face any team in regular season action that won more than 93 games in 2019. The benefits of having cellar-dwellers Kansas City and Detroit in the division are magnified greatly by this new format, and while Cleveland gets to enjoy the same advantage, New York and Houston don't.
The Astros are forced to deal with a healthy helping of the A's and Angels (I view the top-heavy Halos as a sneaky riser in the shortened season). Houston will also be stuck with the Dodgers in interleague play, while the Twins are saved from that original assignment.
The Yankees, meanwhile, must fend off the pesky Rays and wrangle with the Red Sox, not to mention touring a deep NL East that features Washington, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and the Mets. That's a murderer's row compared to the NL Central, which was baseball's weakest division in 2019 and doesn't project a whole lot better in 2020.
The Twins might not be a better team than the Yankees or Astros, but I would bet on them to win more regular-season games than either, based on the simple reality that they're lined up to experience far less resistance.
No. 1 seed, here we come.
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