2019 Minnesota Twins Season Preview: Can Byron Buxton, others to live up to potential?

Editor’s note: Baseball is back and Yahoo Sports is previewing all 30 teams over the next month. This year’s previews will focus on fantasy and reality, as our MLB news staff and our fantasy baseball crew come together to assess each team before opening day. Next up, the Minnesota Twins.

Potential is the word in Minnesota this year. The Twins have it. Problem is, they’ve had it for a few years now.

Former top prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are still waiting to deliver on the hype, while some of Minnesota’s other young players have been quicker to develop. The result last year was a disappointing 78-84 after earning a wild-card berth in 2017.

Now the Twins have helped matters by adding a few solid veterans that can help them compete more in the AL Central, where only the Indians are guaranteed to be good. They’ve also got a smart new manager, hoping to finally get this new era of Twins baseball moving consistently forward.

The Twins have question marks, like whether their pitching can hold up behind Jose Berrios, but their lineup could be really good if Buxton and Sano finally find their mojo.

On the fantasy front, potential is a good word for the Twins too. That potential might be frustrating, especially when it comes to Buxton and Sano, but there’s value to be had here — whether it’s the steadily improving Max Kepler, the underrated Eddie Rosario or Berrios, who is now Top 20 in our starting pitcher rankings. - Mike Oz

Twins’ offseason grade

Rocco Baldelli joining the Twins as their manager was the first big change of the offseason. He’s just 37 years old — which is still older than his boss, chief baseball officer, Derek Falvey, who is 35. The Twins’ other big offseason acquisition was DH Nelson Cruz, who just happens to be 38.

The more important number, though, might be Cruz’s homer total. The last five years, that total has been 37, 39, 43, 44 and 40. If he’s in that neighborhood, Minnesota will be thrilled.

They also added super utility man Marwin Gonzalez, ex of the Astros, as well as C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Perez and Blake Parker, all of whom can give the Twins meaningful contributions.

Our grade: B- — they definitely improved their team with some savvy deals. They were almost a C+ here, but when most of their division is standing pat, we’ve give the Twins a little bit of extra credit for going for it. - Mike Oz

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Minnesota’s projected lineup and pitching staff

The Minnesota Twins' projected lineup for 2019. (Yahoo Sports)
The Minnesota Twins' projected lineup for 2019. (Yahoo Sports)

Who will be the Twins’ best fantasy buy?

Max Kepler's surface-level fantasy stats may suggest that he didn't make much progress as a hitter at age 25, but the underlying numbers were plenty encouraging. Kepler's walk rate jumped from 8.3 percent to 11.6, he reduced his K rate from 20.1 to 15.7 and his hard-contact percentage increased from 32.9 to 37.1. We like these things. He also chased fewer pitches outside the zone. Unfortunately, he had very little luck on balls-in-play last season (.236 BABIP), leaving him with a disappointing slash of .224/.319/.408. Kepler reached the 20-homer plateau for the first time, but the batting average crushed his fantasy value.

If last year's gains in plate discipline and contact carry into 2019, Kepler has a very clear shot at making a value leap into a new fantasy tier. All the projection systems expect a 25-30 point jump in batting average, plus a small increase in homers. Give him a look as a late-round flier. -Andy Behrens

[Positional Rankings: Top 300 Overall | C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | P]

What is Minnesota’s biggest fantasy question?

Four years ago, if you'd told Twins fans that neither Byron Buxton nor Miguel Sano would have established themselves as stars by 2019, you'd have been ridiculed. (OK, maybe the most pessimistic/fatalistic Minnesota fans would not have mocked you, but the rest would have.) And yet here we are. Sano slashed just .199/.281/.398 over 299 plate appearances last year, striking out 115 times. Buxton was much worse: .156/.183/.200, 28 Ks in 94 PAs. So the biggest open question facing this team is whether either of these former blue-chip prospects will emerge as productive major leaguers any time soon.

Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton has gone from top prospect to major question mark. That needs to change in 2019. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton has gone from top prospect to major question mark. That needs to change in 2019. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Sano's power potential is well established, and he's reportedly taken his fitness, preparation and nutrition more seriously in recent months. He's dealing with a heel injury at the moment, but the hope is that he'll be good to go by opening day. If you're interested in Sano as a cheap, late-draft power source, I'm willing to look the other way. Buxton opened his spring by going 5-for-8 with two homers and 10 RBIs, a horrifying development for those of us who thought we were done with him. Here's hoping his power rebounds; he's just a year removed from a 16/29 season. -Andy Behrens

Twins prospect to watch

A lot of their prospects are far away from the majors. Outfielder/first baseman Brent Rooker is the only member of the team’s top-10 prospects to have played in Double-A.

Beyond that, infielder Nick Gordon is the most intriguing impact player in 2019. You know him as the son of Tom Gordon and the brother of Dee Gordon. Nick Gordon won’t steal as many bases as his brother, but he could hit for a solid average as long as last year’s struggles at Triple-A were just an aberration. - Chris Cwik

Things that MUST go right for Minnesota

1. Byron Buxton figures it out: We've been waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting for Byron Buxton's breakout season. This is the season it has to come, both for the Twins and for Buxton himself. Yes, he's still only 25 years old, but it feels like an old 25 thanks to his injury history and the numerous times he's faltered. After bottoming out with a .156/.183/.200 batting line in just 28 games last season, Buxton has to develop into a reliable contributor if the Twins intend to make a move in the division. If it's the same old story, they might have to move on.

2. New additions bring the power: The Twins offseason focus was clearly on adding power. Winter signings Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron combined for 88 home runs in 2018. That will help a lineup that hit the eighth fewest (162) homers in 2018. But it's not just that trio. The Twins will need a healthy and productive season from Miguel Sano in order for this lineup to be as dangerous as it appears to be on paper.

3. Road improvement: A big reason the Twins went from a wild-card team in 2017 to an October bystander was their performance on the road. Minnesota was 44-37 away from Target Field two years ago, compared to 29-52 last season. That won't fly. - Mark Townsend

If this team had a walk-up song, what would it be?

What do the Twins need the most in 2019? To put all these talented pieces together. After up and down years for the past three — 100+ losses to the wild-card to sub .500 — the most important thing is getting everything moving in the right direction.

In short, the Twins needs to get it together. - Mike Oz

More 2019 MLB Previews From Yahoo Sports

Baltimore | Miami | Kansas City | Detroit | Texas | Toronto | San Diego

Chicago (AL) | Minnesota | San Francisco | Pittsburgh | Arizona | Seattle

Cincinnati | Los Angeles (AL) | Oakland | Tampa Bay | Colorado | Cleveland

New York (NL) | St. Louis | Atlanta | Philadelphia | Milwaukee | Chicago

Washington | Los Angeles (NL) | Houston | New York (AL) | Boston