Twins got Carlos Correa back, but are they better?

The strangest and most tumultuous free agent saga in MLB history is over: Carlos Correa is a Minnesota twin.

A very windy road, one that took the baseball world from Minneapolis to San Francisco to a beach in Hawaii to Queens, ended right back where it started. In his introductory news conference Wednesday afternoon, Correa donned a fancy new Twins jersey at Target Field and smiled for the cameras. Mets owner Steve Cohen had no one’s mind. Another beautiful day in paradise.

Considering the starter’s ankle cost him about $150 million over the past month, Wednesday was a relatively optimistic culmination of Correa’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad free agent experience.

But when one story ends, another begins. Free agency is the second most important season in baseball; the real thing happens during the summer. Sure, Minnesota won the Correa “sweepstakes,” but will they win actual baseball games? How good are Geminis?

Correa returns to a team that went 78-84 with him on the roster just a season ago. Is there enough else here to make them a good baseball team? Or, given the fragile AL Central, there’s enough here to make them good enough baseball team?

To understand the future we must first understand the past.

Minnesota entered last season with a fancy new shortstop, high hopes and a chance to challenge for a playoff spot. The rotation, beyond veteran Sonny Gray and rookie Joe Ryan, looked a little shaky, but a lineup with Correa, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler promised real punch, maybe even enough to win the division. Instead, the Twins went 78-84. What went so wrong?

It certainly wasn’t the offense, which posted an impressive 107 WRC+, one point better than the NL champion Phillies. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s opening pitch turned out to be as shallow and mediocre as everyone expected.

Ryan and Gray were good in their combined 51 starts, as was Bailey Ober in his 11 before getting hurt, but the other 100 starts were a disaster. The eleven non-Ryan/Gray/Ober starters combined for a 4.69 ERA, which would have been tied for fifth-worst in baseball. Neither Dylan Bundy nor Chris Archer, Minnesota’s two veteran lottery ticket throws last winter, rediscovered their brilliance, while in-house options Devin Smeltzer and Josh Winder underwhelmed.

And so even in the paper-mache AL Central, the Twins spent October on vacation.

Given their hitting struggles in 2022, the Twins were expected to be active in free agency. And while they made a valiant run on Carlos Rodón, the club hasn’t signed a single pitcher to a new MLB deal as of Thursday afternoon.

Instead, Minnesota currently relies heavily on two arms that missed significant time with injuries last year: Kenta Maeda and Tyler Mahle.

Mahle was acquired from Cincinnati at last year’s deadline, but made just four starts for the Twins before a shoulder problem sidelined him for the final six weeks of the season. If he returns at full strength, he’s a solid, if unspectacular, mid-rotation arm that should provide reliable above-average innings, something Minnesota has been sorely lacking.

Maeda is the real wildcard here. After missing all of 2022 recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Japanese right-hander is ready for 2023. The last time he was fully healthy, during the shortened 2020 season, Maeda absolutely dominated, with a 2.70 ERA en route to a second. -Finish Cy Young. At 34, there is legitimate skepticism about how TJ will bounce back, but his return could provide the Twins with something akin to a top-line starter.

Expect an opening day rotation of Maeda, Mahle, Gray, Ryan and Ober. After that, it drops quickly. And while this group doesn’t need to dominate for Minnesota to skate through a weak division, it does need to be healthier than last year.

Meanwhile, the bullpen looks extremely volatile. Jhoan Duran is a top-10 reliever in the world, the new “hardest pitcher in baseball,” the kind of late-inning arm that makes the difference when the weather turns cold. The other high-leverage options (Griffin Jax, Jorge Lopez and Caleb Thielbar) seem more susceptible to the normal fluctuations of bullpen randomness. Predicting relievers is like catching the sun with a net.

So while the addition of Christian Vazquez behind the plate should help the entire pitching staff, this group doesn’t look significantly improved from last season.

Offensively, a ton went right for the Twins a year ago. Luis Arráez won the batting title, becoming one of the best contact hitters in the world. Buxton was magnificent when healthy, the most impactful he has ever been at the plate. Correa and his 140 OPS+ was exactly what they paid for. Unproven youngsters José Miranda and Nick Gordon played better than anyone could have imagined.

Of course, not everything will break like that again, but the lineup has enough to project another top-10 performance in baseball. This isn’t the 2019 Bomba Squad that broke the record for most home runs in a season, but it will score runs at a reliable rate.

Without Correa, this looked like a roster and an organization without an achievable short-term vision. With him, the Twins return to the playoffs, although their return does not elevate them to the top of the American League. They are in a tier just below the Astros, Yankees and Blue Jays, in the unidentifiable dirt of the AL’s crazy middle ground. But the 2022 Phillies presented a tempting plan for teams like the Twins: Sneak in, hope the pitching holds together, and pray your bats heat up. And when your main division rivals are the pool-noodle-making Guardians and the roller-coaster White Sox, this plan has legs.

It’s really all about Maeda. If he can be the 2020 version of himself, Minnesota has a soul-crushing first-game starter. If he doesn’t bounce back, this is a team that lacks a dominant top-line arm. It is usually a condemned hole.

Can these Twins make the playoffs? Absolutely. Are they better than last year? Probably, but only if they stay healthy. Can they win the World Series? Unless Joe Ryan turns into Nolan Ryan, no, don’t bet your life savings on it.

Maybe they can make Correa shine?

Jake Mintz, the stronger half @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan who lives in New York City and therefore leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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