Twins playoff mailbag: Royce Lewis vs. Byron Buxton, Kenta Maeda’s role and bullpen hierarchy

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Minnesota Twins are coasting to the finish line for their third division title in five seasons managed by Rocco Baldelli, winning the American League Central without a real September fight.

At the All-Star break, the Twins were in second place and below .500. They’ve gone 40-28 since the break for the AL’s second-best record, playing at a 95-win pace in the second half thanks to a vastly improved lineup finally providing run support for a starting rotation that has carried them for six months.

Getting as healthy as possible and lining everything up for the playoffs is the only drama that remains for their final series of the regular season, on the road versus the last-place Rockies. No matter what happens in Colorado, the Twins will return home for the best-of-three Wild Card Series played entirely at Target Field beginning Tuesday.

They don’t know their opponents or the game times yet, but Pablo López will be on the mound for Game 1, followed by Sonny Gray in Game 2 and (likely) Joe Ryan in Game 3. And as you might have heard, it’s been a while since they won a playoff game. There’s a lot riding on this, but then again there always is.

Let’s open the mailbag and see what’s on your minds about a division-winning, playoff-bound team.

Why is Pablo López the Game 1 starter over Sonny Gray? — Al N.

“Game 1 starter” is more ceremonial than meaningful in a best-of-three series, because there’s no opportunity for anyone to start more than once.

With that said, I understand why the substantial gap between Gray’s great 2.79 ERA and López’s very good 3.66 ERA leads to this being a common question.

I think it’s important to recognize that ERA is merely one piece of evaluating pitching performances. ERA is clearly very important, but it’s also at the mercy of luck, defense, bullpen support and other variables that can make it less than a flawless evaluation tool. There are advanced metrics that carry more predictive accuracy than ERA and often paint a fuller picture of a pitcher’s performance.
















Gray has a better ERA than López, largely thanks to an extremely low homer rate that’s likely unsustainable. That’s no knock on Gray, it’s just math. López, meanwhile, averaged more innings per start with a better strikeout rate, walk rate, expected ERA and expected FIP. There’s more to evaluating pitching than ERA, and many of the factors teams like the Twins tend to trust favor López.

It’s an interesting debate. I personally may have even chosen Gray. But the real story here is that the Twins have two viable “Game 1 starter” options.

What do you see as the Twins’ bullpen hierarchy for the playoffs? — Matt B.

Things have changed considerably since I answered a similar question about the Twins’ bullpen hierarchy in my last mailbag column.

Brock Stewart and Chris Paddack returned from the injured list, Kenta Maeda shifted to the bullpen rather than taking his final two turns in the rotation and Dylan Floro was designated for assignment. And suddenly the Twins’ bullpen looks as strong as it has at any point this season, albeit with several big question marks surrounding health and roles.

Without knowing for certain how many relievers the Twins will decide to carry for their best-of-three series — it’ll probably be either eight or nine, along with three starters — here’s my sense of the bullpen pecking order:


Jhoan Duran

Griffin Jax

Emilio Pagán

Kenta Maeda

Brock Stewart

Kody Funderburk

Louie Varland

Caleb Thielbar

Chris Paddack

There’s flexibility within those designations, of course. Maeda or Louie Varland could slide into more of a later-inning, higher-leverage role, for instance. And if the Twins are matched up versus a first-round opponent that doesn’t have many dangerous left-handed hitters, it’s possible they’d prefer Bailey Ober as another long reliever instead of Kody Funderburk as a second left-hander.

Big picture, the plan is seemingly to get five or six innings from each starter and then use one of the Maeda/Varland/Paddack trio as sort of a bridge to the high-leverage arms, ending with Jhoan Duran. There are question marks everywhere, but they’re certainly not short on bullpen options with playoff-caliber raw stuff.

How confident should the Twins feel with Griffin Jax as their main eighth-inning reliever? — Zach A.

This is one of the most important questions facing the Twins in the playoffs.

Griffin Jax has been their primary setup man for nearly the entire season. All but two of his 70 appearances have come in the seventh inning or later, and his average usage has been higher leverage than everyone in the bullpen but Duran. His overall numbers are very good, including a 66-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just five homers allowed in 64 innings.

Yet his 3.92 ERA is good rather than great, and quite a bit higher than his 2.89 expected ERA. At least some of that can be attributed to poor luck, including a series of weird plays not going his way in the first half, but Jax has also pitched badly in some huge spots. He’s been tagged with a team-high 10 losses and he’s got the worst Win Probability Added among Twins relievers.

Do they continue to trust Jax’s raw stuff and strong secondary numbers, which are on par with primary setup men across the league? Or do they shy away from using Jax in the role he’s filled all season because they think his issues go beyond bad luck? It could come down to their faith in Stewart being healthy. But if the Twins are going to make a playoff run, they’ll need Jax to get outs in big spots.

If the Twins advanced past the first round, would Kenta Maeda go back into the rotation? — Greg K.

My assumption had been that the Twins would keep Maeda in the bullpen and instead use Ober if they need a fourth starter, but his usage Thursday muddied those waters a bit. Making his first relief appearance in four years, Maeda threw 3 1/3 innings and 62 pitches, which suggests they value keeping him stretched out more than getting him shorter, max-effort work as a pure reliever.

And while a fourth starter isn’t needed in the first round, potentially leading to Ober being left off the roster entirely, the fourth starter would be in line to start Game 1 of a second-round series unless the first round is a sweep. López won’t be able to start both series openers on full rest because there’s only one off day between Game 3 of the first round and Game 1 of the second round.

In general, I’d expect the pitching roles to be pretty fluid. Maeda could start or relieve, and the line between starting and relieving may be blurry anyway. With several converted starters in the bullpen, the Twins are going to mix and match.

How much news can we expect from the workout on Monday? — Michael T.

Monday’s off-day workout at Target Field will be essential. It’s the Twins’ final chance to test the readiness of Carlos Correa, Royce Lewis and Byron Buxton, each of whom are attempting to come back from injuries that typically require more time on the sidelines than the looming playoffs allow.

With the caveat that things can change in a hurry, I’d expect Correa to be in the lineup for Game 1, which would give Lewis a better chance than Buxton to be on the roster. And if Lewis is on the roster, it’ll likely be as the designated hitter rather than playing third base with a partially healed hamstring. In that scenario, they would play Edouard Julien at second base and Jorge Polanco at third base.

What are the chances we’ll see Byron Buxton out in center field during the playoffs? — Kris J.

Buxton’s place on the playoff roster is hardly secure, regardless of the role. I’ll be shocked if Buxton starts a playoff game in center field, and pretty surprised if he logs more than a few postseason innings in the outfield, period.

Buxton hasn’t been healthy enough to play regularly for two months and wasn’t productive prior to being shut down. At this point, if the Twins put Buxton on the playoff roster it’s because they’re hoping for some Kirk Gibson-like magic.

If he’s in the Twins’ playoff plans, it’ll be as a platoon player or bench bat.

If an injury occurs in Game 1 of the playoffs, could the Twins make a roster move for Game 2? — Mike H.

Yes. Teams can replace injured players during a series, but it must be a pitcher-for-pitcher or hitter-for-hitter swap and the injured player is then ineligible for the remainder of the series and the following round as well.

All of which is definitely a consideration, especially with Lewis and Buxton.

What’s the deadline for submitting the playoff roster? — Patrick H.

Teams submit a new roster for each playoff series, and the first-round rosters are due Tuesday morning. They can drag things out until the last minute, and the Twins will probably need all the extra time they can get.

How much national attention do the Twins get? — Bob T.

Not much, but so what?

I say this as someone who covers the Twins and is a lifelong Timberwolves fan: Worrying about how much “national attention” Minnesota sports teams receive is pointless. If they win a lot of games and make a deep playoff run, they’ll get a lot of national attention. And if they don’t, then being all worked up about how much national attention they “deserve” always seems kind of sad.

Which potential opponent do the Twins match up best against? — Patrick K.

I debated this question with Dan Hayes for an article we published on Friday, so I’ll just give you the short version now.

We disagree about plenty, but actually came to the same conclusion about the Twins’ first-round matchup preferences:

1. Seattle Mariners
2. Toronto Blue Jays
3. Houston Astros

However, if Houston is forced to use Justin Verlander and/or Framber Valdez this weekend, limiting their playoff availability, that would remove the gap.

Will the Twins finally win a playoff game? — Greg H.

Yes. But please keep in mind that I’ve been incorrectly answering “yes” to that question for 20 years, give or take. I’ll be right eventually, promise.

Whatever happens, I want to finish my final mailbag column of the season by thanking everyone for consistently submitting so many good/weird/interesting questions. I decided to do more frequent mailbags because there are always tons of questions and the readership numbers are always strong. Thank you for that. I’ve really enjoyed doing them more regularly. I hope you enjoyed them, too.

And let’s hope my first offseason mailbag column can wait until November.

(Photo of Royce Lewis and Byron Buxton: Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins / Getty Images)

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