Neal: Five reasons the Twins should score a 'ton of runs' this year

FORT MYERS, Fla. - This is usually the time of training camp when I take a stab at predicting what the Twins batting order will be. But I'm ditching that practice for 2024. It's pointless to write out a lineup because set lineups no longer exist in baseball.

Analytics, platoons and "rest days" combine to make it impossible for managers to have a primary batting order. On top of that, there are uncontrollable variables managers encounter when they arrive at the ballpark several hours before first pitch, such as a player waking up with a sore back or showing up sick. I've watched lineup cards get taken down for revisions countless times through the years.

So why go through the mental gymnastics of projecting a singular lineup down here when the answer to the daily question rarely is the same?

The most common lineup the Twins used last season, one that featured Max Kepler leading off, Jose Miranda batting fifth with Nick Gordon following him, was used just three times over 162 games. The world champion Texas Rangers' most common lineup was used seven times.

Expect the lineup card to be unstable again this year, but expect the lineup itself to consistently pop. The Twins finished 10th in runs scored during the regular season last year, a respectable finish considering they were 24th at the All-Star break. Royce Lewis, Edouard Julien and Matt Wallner — plus Kepler having the half-season of his life — used their lumber to break the Twins out of their slumber.

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That leads to greater expectations for 2024. With the young guys coming back with some experience, and better health, those expectations should be met.

"I think we are going to have a lineup that has few holes," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "And an offense that can really force the opposition to work very hard. And an offensive group that can score a lot of runs. I don't want to get bombastic. I think we can build a nice offensive group that can beat you in different ways."

Here are five aspects of the offense that should help paint a picture of what its capable of this summer:

1. Julien will mostly bat leadoff. He doesn't hit lefties well, yet. But he takes quality at-bats, and that is what Baldelli wants him to continue to do. Julien will walk a lot and strike out a lot, particularly when he takes borderline strike three calls while trying to draw a walk. Great things happen when he connects, though. Baldelli is ready to go to his bench in key situations if Julien is about to face a tough lefty.

2. Carlos Santana should bat high in the order. Santana had an .807 OPS against lefties last season, which makes him a candidate to lead off against southpaws. He can draw walks, which makes him a good option for the No. 2 hole. It appears that he has a few more hits left in those 37-year-old hands.

3. Fewer strikeouts? Joey Gallo, Michael A. Taylor and Donovan Solano combined for 372 strikeouts as the Twins broke the record for whiffs in a season. Santana struck out less while having more plate appearances than Taylor and Gallo. Manuel Margot, the primary backup outfielder, doesn't strike out as much either. The Twins say their plans weren't designed to get more contact hitters on the roster, but it sure won't hurt. Wouldn't have minded seeing Solano back, though, because he hit lefties well.

4. A full season of Royce Lewis is tantalizing. Lewis played in only 58 games last season but emerged as one of the Twins' best offensive players as well as its spiritual leader. He already has a grand slam during spring training after belting five of them last season. The Twins didn't think they were drafting a 30-homer hitter in 2017, but they just might have.

5. Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa will take things to another level. The Twins' best, and most injured, position players failed to hit over .230 or post an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) percentage, over .732 — and the Twins still finished 10th in runs scored. Both are healthy. Correa has been swinging a bat since November. Buxton is as positive as I've ever seen him during spring training. If they are on the field, we should expect them to be above-average hitters, possibly All-Stars. Even having average seasons, based on past performance, will make the Twins offense that much more formidable.

Honorable mentions go to Ryan Jeffers, who had a breakout 2023 season, and Alex Kirilloff, who contributed a solid .793 OPS. This should be a lineup deep enough to avoid prolonged slumps.

The Twins scored 778 runs last season. They are a lock to safely pass 800 runs this season.

"If we are getting on base and hitting good pitches and hitting balls on the barrel more often than not, we're going to be in a great spot," Baldelli said. "We are going to score a ton of runs if we do that."

And that's from a guy not trying to be bombastic.