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By La VELLE E. NEAL III, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
Brad Hand is currently a free agent, but that's not expected to last long. A three-time All-Star, Hand is considered one of the best closers in the game, and his services will be coveted by a number of winning teams.
Hand led the majors with 16 saves while posting a 2.05 ERA. In addition, his ERA and 7.25 strikeout to walk ratio were the best of his career. He's just 30 years old, and should be an impact reliever for a few more years.
But this year, he's the winner of the Dick Siebert Upper Midwest Player of the Year Award. Born in Minneapolis and a product of Chaska High, Hand becomes the second reliever in as many years to win the award, following Crosby's Nick Anderson.
Well then, you are wondering, why is Hand a free agent if he is so good? The lefthander was a victim of the 2020 season and the pandemic that shortened the schedule to 60 games. If has forced teams across the league to make sacrifices, and Hand has his $10 million option declined by the Cleveland Indians. It was a move that raised eyebrows across the league because $10 million is a reasonable sum for a top closer. But Cleveland is one of many teams looking to keep payroll in check.
Since then, Hand has been linked to the Dodgers, Blue Jays, Mets, Phillies and other teams. He won't have to worry about having a job next season.
Hand doesn't throw hard. In fact, his average fastballs was 91.4 miles per hour last season. That doesn't fit well with the number of high velocity arms across the league. But what helps hand excel is an unhittable slider that he threw 51.5 percent of the time last season. He was drafted by the Marlins and broke into the league in 2011 with the Marlins as a starter. But starting didn’t go well for him, and he was waived by Miami after the 2015 season. The Padres claimed him off waivers, converted him to a reliever and the results were immediate. Hand has not had an ERA above 3.05 since then. He made his first All-Star team in 2017, two years after being let go the Marlins.
Now Cleveland has let Hand go. But, this time, there should be a sizeable market for his services.
BY BETSY HELFAND, ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS
Whether robbing home runs, charging in to make diving catches or throwing out runners who were trying to take an extra base, Byron Buxton provided plenty of web gems for the Twins' highlight reel in 2020.
The dynamic center fielder, who was a Gold Glove Award finalist, consistently wowed his teammates, coaches and fans with his defense, and so when it came to voting on a Defensive Player of the Year, there was no doubt who it would be. Buxton took home the award unanimously, earning the honor for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
“Being able to watch Buck, it’s a pleasure to watch those types of athletes go out there and perform on a daily basis because you never really know what you’re going to see and when they’re on the field, it’s a unique experience,” manager Rocco Baldelli said in September.
Buxton, who finished the year with a perfect fielding percentage, was tied for third in the majors with 11 defensive runs saved per FanGraphs, helping transform the Twins’ defensive outlook each time he stepped foot on the field. Buxton used his speed and his athleticism to make difficult plays look routine, and he completed many plays others simply would be nowhere near.
His play in the outfield has left his teammates in awed — and appreciative. Starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, himself a Gold Glove finalist, said Buxton “can contribute 10 times more than what other guys can,” in the field and fellow outfielder Max Kepler went even further in his praise.
“His defense is like no other,” Kepler said. “I think it’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
In addition to providing Gold Glove-caliber defense, Buxton finished his year at the plate slashing .254/.267/.577 with 13 home runs in 39 games played. Buxton’s 1.2 fWAR was third on the team behind just designated hitter Nelson Cruz and Maeda.
Buxton was also the winner of the Carl R. Pohlad Award for Outstanding Community Service, taking home the honor for his work with his wife Lindsey supporting military members and their families.
Last year, he began the Buxton’s Battalion program, where he hosted families of service members at Target Field on Tuesdays, giving out tickets to games and inviting them to watch batting practice and partake in meet and greets.
He has also donated money to the Minnesota Military Family Foundation, helped create opportunities for members of the Minnesota National Guard to play catch at Target Field and distributed baseball gloves to members of the Twins RBI program.
BY DAN HAYES, THE ATHLETIC
Typically, the relationship between a team’s closer and the media isn’t always the easiest to navigate. When you think about it, most of the interactions between the two parties normally occur after the pitcher has blown a save. Those exchanges can get often get a little dicey and rarely are fun for either side.
But that wasn’t all Taylor Rogers had to endure during the 2020 season.
As the team’s Major League Baseball Players Association representative, Rogers was much busier than normal. Not only was he the liaison for his teammates as everyone tried to navigate the challenges associated with the coronavirus, from the initial shut down through the endless wait and contentious negotiations, Rogers was tasked with keeping the media updated, too.
And none of that includes the trials Rogers and his teammates faced when they finally stepped on the field.
Try playing baseball without fan support to provide you any energy. Tack on all of the health and safety protocols that were put in place to conduct the season. And subtract doing something as simple as leaving your hotel room to find a sandwich or spending time talking to your teammates in the clubhouse.
There were enough tests to drive anyone mad.
If that weren’t enough, Rogers had to deal with individual performance struggles.
He had his share of rough days and bad breaks. Rogers’ internal numbers would suggest he pitched just as well as in 2019, when he was considered one of the team’s breakout performers. Yet his ERA and blown save opportunities didn’t match up.
It was a trying year through and through.
Despite his struggles, Rogers made it all easy for everyone with a recorder by incorporating his typical blend of patience and dry humor.
Whether it was detailing his color-coordinated closet in March, thoroughly discussing the possibilities of a season resumed in June or dissecting a series of rough outings during the summer, Rogers left no doubt as to who deserved to win the Twins’ Mike Augustun Media Good Guy Award.
BY PAT BORZI, MinnPost.com
Three things epitomize Nelson Cruz’s brief yet meaningful tenure with the Twins. Clutch hitting. Leadership. And community service, whether here or in his native Dominican Republic.
The first two traits enabled Cruz to repeat his 2019 Diamond Awards double, winning this year’s Most Valuable Twin and Bob Allison Leadership Awards for the second time in his two seasons in Minnesota. Cruz is the fifth player and first full-time DH to win the Allison multiple times since its inception in 2005, joining three-time winners Michael Cuddyer (2009-11) and Justin Morneau (2008, ’12-13) and two-time recipients Mike Redmond (2005, ‘07) and Brian Dozier (2016-17).
In this pandemic-shortened season, the 40-year-old Cruz topped the Twins with 16 homers and a .992 OPS in 53 games. His 33 RBI trailed only Eddie Rosario’s 42 for the club lead, and he batted .303 with an American League-best five intentional walks. He finished among the top five in the AL in homers, slugging (.595) and on-base percentages (.397) and seventh in batting.
Cruz started off hot, crushing three homers with 10 RBI in the season-opening three-game series in Chicago. On Sept. 8 he became the first 40-year-old in major league history to homer in both ends of a doubleheader twice in a season.
Leadership? So much of what Cruz does happens behind the scenes. The most public example manifested late in the regular season, when Cruz began draping a bathrobe over the shoulders of Twins home-run hitters in the dugout. Josh Donaldson bought blue personalized robes for his teammates to use in quarantine, and Cruz cleverly repurposed his. In postseason, Cruz drove in both Twins runs in Wild Card Series loss to Houston.
Cruz’s two Diamond Awards pair nicely with two more recent honors: The Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award from MLB for leadership, and the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award from ESPN for his charity work through his Boomstick23 Foundation.
BY PHIL MILLER, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
Kenta Maeda hit his one and only major-league home run in his very first MLB game. So he knows how to make a strong first impression.
Still, how could the Twins expect Maeda to adapt so quickly to his new home in Minnesota, he turned in one of the greatest pitching seasons since Johan Santana was here? Who would have foreseen the Japanese righthander becoming a unanimous winner of the Joseph W. Haynes Award as Twins Pitcher of the Year, and drawing Cy Young votes as best in the American League?
“We knew we were getting a talented, experienced, proven winner,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of the February trade that made Maeda a Twin. “I don’t know if you can ever say you expect a guy to be a Cy Young contender, but he’s been a star for us, all year long. Right from his first start.”
That start began with Maeda retiring 12 of the first 14 hitters he faced. His second start lasted six innings and included only one hit, an infield grounder. And in mid-August, Maeda didn’t allow the Brewers a hit in the first eight innings, and at one point struck out a Twins-record eight consecutive hitters.
“He just doesn’t miss. It’s been pretty incredible,” admired Twins reliever Tyler Duffey. “He throws five or six pitches, and everything is just darting left and right.”
Maeda made 11 regular-season starts — eight of them defined as “quality starts,” the highest percentage since Santana’s first Cy Young season — and one more in the postseason, and not once did he allow more baserunners than innings pitched. His WHIP (walks/hits per inning) of 0.750 not only led the majors, it marked the lowest figure in franchise history. His 2.70 ERA was the second-lowest by a Twins starter in the past 32 seasons, bettered only by, yes, Johan Santana; his 10.80 strikeouts per nine innings broke Santana’s franchise record.
Basically, the only thing Maeda didn’t accomplish in his first season in Minnesota was hitting another home run — but only because he never got to bat, right?
"I always tried to hit home runs” with the Dodgers, Maeda said. “Maybe someday I’ll get lucky again.”
BY DAVE CAMPBELL, ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Twins made big splashes last winter by signing Josh Donaldson and trading for Kenta Maeda. They bargain shopped for Tyler Clippard, Rich Hill, Homer Bailey and Alex Avila to help shore up the roster. Still, could they have found a better payoff than the waiver claim they made on Matt Wisler?
The addition of the right-handed journeyman reliever with a career 5.20 ERA on Oct. 29, 2019, didn’t make much of a ripple, but the now-28-year-old Wisler wound up making a significant impact on a Twins bullpen that played a vital role in the team’s second straight American League Central division title.
Armed with a late-moving slider that team evaluators saw strong potential to develop into a dangerous pitch, Wisler slid right into a mid-inning role and thrived from start to finish. He allowed only three runs all season in 25 1/3 innings, with 35 strikeouts and only 15 hits allowed. He started four games as an opener in a three-week stretch from mid-August to early September, totaling 10 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings with only two hits surrendered in those appearances.
Wisler had never posted a full-season ERA under 4.28 in his first five major league seasons with Atlanta, Cincinnati, San Diego and Seattle, but his 1.07 ERA and .165 batting average against with the Twins turned his career onto a different track.
There were mechanical improvements that pitching coach Wes Johnson and other specialists in the organization helped Wisler make.
“The one thing why I think my slider is so effective, talking to catchers, it doesn’t move the same,” Wisler said. “One pitch it will go straight down and the other one goes more side to side. I have a lot of different movements on my pitch. I don’t do anything different that I can feel.”
For the pitcher himself, the sudden mid-career success had just as much to do with joining a healthy, winning environment.
“This is the first time I’ve really been on a World Series-contending team,” Wisler said near the end of the regular season. “Instead of pitching to statistics on a bad team, all you’re trying to do is go out there and win the game. It frees you up a little bit, instead of worrying about your numbers and giving up runs. You’re just trying to make sure you win that game.”
By Do-Hyoung Park / MLB.com
"If I have any advice, it's to eat and play video games, and you'll lose weight."
Such were the wise words of Randy Dobnak when the 25-year-old arrived at Target Field in July in noticeably slimmer form, though he didn't even realize that until local media started buzzing about how he'd lost 15-20 pounds during the sport's hiatus due to COVID-19. He recommends eating lots of zucchini squash, if that helps.
How is it that a professional athlete doesn't notice such a change in his body? Well, it's for the same reason that he didn't have any idea why his sinker suddenly started moving more, or why he's only now moving out of his in-laws' house, or why he's spending much of this offseason marveling at Mitch Garver's video game abilities, or why, yes, he used to drive Uber, in case you somehow haven't heard by now.
Randy Dobnak is an everyman, like us, and that won't change about him. That's part of the appeal when he dons the uniform every five games to start for the Twins, bridging the gap between Uber drivers and denizens of in-law housing everywhere and the star athletes at the peak of the national pastime.
He's that everyman in every way except in his ability to throw a baseball really, really well, which makes him the recipient of the 2020 Bill Boni Award for Twins Most Outstanding Rookie.
You've undoubtedly heard most of the made-for-film story by now: He went undrafted out of Division II Alderson-Broaddus University, briefly played in an independent league nobody's ever heard of, was scouted by the Twins via YouTube and made a meteoric rise from High-A all the way to an MLB playoff start in a year.
But his story no longer needs to speak for him, because his pitching does that plenty well enough.
When Jake Odorizzi, Rich Hill, Homer Bailey and Michael Pineda were all unavailable in the starting rotation and José Berríos took some time to find his best stuff, Dobnak stepped in alongside Kenta Maeda as one of the sport's best starting pitchers for much of the season, sitting among the league leaders in ERA and wins with a 5-1 record and 1.78 ERA on Aug. 22.
A late-season slump brought Dobnak's ERA up to 4.05, but that understates the importance of his stability for most of the season while the Twins' pitching staff healed up. Without him, the injury-depleted Twins would have had a much tougher road to a second straight AL Central title -- and it's likely that he's earned his place in more championship pushes to come.
He'll just have to get ready by eating more zucchini and playing more video games.
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