Rebuilding season or not, falling short of the playoffs and finishing with a losing record probably means that more things went wrong than went right for a team. This series, however, will focus on those silver linings that each team can take away from an otherwise disappointing season. Here are the biggest bright spots for each non-playoff team, starting with the Minnesota Twins (worst record in baseball) and working our way up the ladder over the next couple of weeks.
1. Brian Dozier, 2B
Even if the Twins had decided to tear down the big league roster and go through a complete rebuilding phase in recent years, they lacked the trade chip(s) to do it most effectively. The best thing about Dozier’s jump from very good player to superstar in 2016 is that whoever becomes the team’s next general manager will finally have that trade chip that he can flip for a strong package of young players, including an elite prospect or two.
The 29-year-old Dozier is only due $15MM over the next two seasons and is coming off a career season (.937 OPS, 41 HR). While there is hope that Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and a few others can take a step forward in 2017, there probably isn’t enough pitching help on the way for the Twins to turn things around before Dozier becomes a free agent. Therefore, you can expect Dozier to be a popular name around these parts during the upcoming offseason.
2. Max Kepler, RF
Much was expected from this season’s projected outfield of Buxton, Sano and Eddie Rosario. All three, especially Buxton despite his late-season surge, have fallen short of expectations in 2016. In fairness to Rosario and Sano, they haven’t been bad. Just not nearly as good as they were as rookies in 2015. The 23-year-old Kepler, who would’ve spent most of the season in Triple-A had that aforementioned trio played better, has taken full advantage.
In between a slow start and late-season slump, Kepler was one of the Twins’ best players with an .826 OPS, 16 homers and 15 doubles in 321 plate appearances from June 10th through September 3rd while hitting primarily in the No. 3 spot of the order. He’ll enter the 2017 season as the starting right fielder.
3. Jorge Polanco, SS
When it comes to offensive potential, Polanco has more than enough for a shortstop. The question was whether he was good enough defensively to stick there.
When he was called up to the majors in late July following the trade of Eduardo Nuñez, the 23-year-old hadn’t played a single game at shortstop in Triple-A, instead spending most of his time at second base with a handful of games at third. That would suggest that Polanco as the team’s shortstop of the future was no longer an option. But with Dozier entrenched at second base and Sano and Trevor Plouffe drawing most of the starts at the hot corner, the best way to give Polanco regular playing time was to make him the everyday shortstop.
Not surprisingly, the switch-hitting Polanco has held his own at the plate—he has a .289/.338/.426 slash line with 18 extra-base hits in 209 plate appearances. The surprise has been his defense at shortstop, which has been adequate, at the very least. If they trade Dozier this offseason, Polanco could slide over to second base. At this point, though, the Twins likely feel comfortable penciling him as the starting shortstop in 2017.
4. Eduardo Nuñez, INF/OF
Nuñez was in the midst of the best 91-game stint of his career (.764 OPS, 12 HR, 15 2B) when the Twins decided to sell high, trading him to the San Francisco Giants for Adalberto Mejia, a very good, close-to-MLB-ready pitching prospect.
Not only did Nunez’s departure open up the necessary playing time for Polanco, the acquisition of Mejia gives the Twins a strong candidate for the 2017 rotation. Between Double-A and Triple-A, the 23-year-old lefty posted a 3.14 ERA. 2.0 BB/9 and 8.6 K/9 in 22 starts.
5. Stephen Gonsalves, SP (MiLB)
A 4th Round draft pick back in 2013, Gonsalves has now made stops at five different Minor League levels without much of a struggle and without much fanfare. That includes a dominant 13-start stint with Double-A Chattanooga (1.82 ERA, 5.2 H/9, 0.1 HR/9, 4.5 BB/9, 10.8 K/9) to close out the 2016 season.
The attention should increase this offseason as the 22-year-old lefty will likely make a huge leap in the prospect rankings. It’s safe to say that his stock has risen a great deal — so much so that it’s reasonable to expect to see Gonsalves in Minnesota at some point during the 2017 season.