Low-key one of the best mascots in baseball. (MLB Gifs)

It’s a battle of two of the AL’s finest in Minneapolis this week as the Yankees take on the Twins.

Their Story Thus Far

At 60-38, the Twins have the third-best record in the American League behind the Yankees and Astros. Their division lead has slipped to just three games over the surging Indians.

The Twins’ offense is out here to slug and slug some more. They lead baseball with a .495 slugging percentage and their 115 wRC+ is second only to the Astros. The addition of Nelson Cruz coinciding with the emergence of Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Mitch Garver boosted their production significantly.

Minnesota also sports a strong pitching staff, which was expected to be the team’s weak spot going into the season. Unlike Twins teams of yore, they actually strike batters out. In the last month, they’ve begun issuing more walks and homers, but they are still fourth in pitching staff WAR. The Yankees are lucky to avoid ace Jose Berrios this series.

Injury Report

The Twins have just three players on the IL: C Willians Astudillo, OF LaMonte Wade and CF Byron Buxton. Buxton, who’s on the 7-day concussion IL, could return this week.

Spotlight: Twins’ trade deadline

I wanted to do something a little bit different this week because the Twins are a potential playoff opponent for the Yankees, and they’re likely to have a roster change or three by the time October hits.

As mentioned above, Minnesota’s 11.5-game division lead has slipped all the way down to three with 10 games remaining against the Indians. Despite visions of the team earning homefield advantage, they aren’t even secure of a playoff spot, let alone the division.

Their pitching staff has produced well this year, but the back-end of their rotation may not hold up in the postseason. The team could use upgrades in their rotation and bullpen, hence why the team has been linked to every pitcher mentioned on the market. Armed with a better farm system, Minnesota will be competing for the same players that the Yankees covet.

(MLB Gifs)

Bonus Spotlight: Max Kepler

Couldn’t stay away from a little praise for the Twins’ star outfielder. Kepler was born and raised in Germany yet played baseball and has slowly emerged as one of the better players on this Minnesota roster.

This is his first season with an above-average OPS+ as he’s hitting the ball harder and farther than ever before, already eclipsing his 20-home run career-high from 2018. He’s sporting personal bests in every Statcast category from barrels to exit velocity to having a higher launch angle.

His defense makes his breakout sustainable regardless of juiced balls or the current hitting environment. He’s tied for 11th in baseball with 5 Outs Above Average according to Statcast and has been able to fill in as the team’s center fielder with its ace fielder (Buxton) out.

Potential Lineup

  1. Mitch Garver, C (.294/.378/.638, 162 wRC+)
  2. Jorge Polanco, SS (.305/.363/.500, 124 wRC+)
  3. Nelson Cruz, DH (.270.364/.543, 134 wRC+)
  4. Miguel Sano, 3B (.234/.328/.549, 124 wRC+)
  5. Eddie Rosario, LF (.282/.312/.525, 113 wRC+)
  6. C.J. Cron, 1B (.263/.320/.494, 109 wRC+)
  7. Max Kepler, CF (.264/.333/.526, 121 wRC+)
  8. Marwin Gonzalez, RF (.260/.324/.419, 95 wRC+)
  9. Jonathan Schoop, 2B (.258/.308/.470, 100 wRC+)

Kepler will rise in the lineup against right-handed pitching, though he and Rosario may be buried against southpaws.

Minnesota also has a strong bench with catcher Jason Castro (119 wRC+), INF/OF Luis Arraez (155 wRC+), INF Ehire Adrianza (115 wRC+) and Jake Cave (78 wRC+). The versatility of Gonzalez and Arraez allows Minnesota to sport a cadre of lineups.

Pitching Matchups

Monday (8:10 PM ET) CC Sabathia (vs. Twins) vs. Martin Perez (vs. Yankees)

Perez was an early breakout for Minnesota as the team surged behind an unexpectedly good pitching staff. However, the former Rangers southpaw has come down to earth some in recent games.

Since June 1, he has a 4.69 ERA in 40 1/3 innings over seven starts, still able to pitch deep into games but not quite as effective as before.

Still, this is a better Perez than the one from previous seasons. His strikeouts are up from 5.5 to 7.9 K/9 while his walk rate has remained steady. Where he truly excels this year is a league-leading 0.7 HR/9, not giving up the massive amount of homers everyone else has.

The difference between the Perez of old and the one this season is his cutter, a new addition to his repertoire. The high-80s offering has allowed him to induce weak contact and he now sports a top 5 percentile exit velocity and hard-hit rate allowed. He still uses a four-seamer, sinker and changeup, but his cutter is his bread and butter now.

Perez (Baseball Savant)

Tuesday (8:10 PM ET) Domingo German (vs. Twins) vs. Kyle Gibson (vs. Yankees)

After going from slightly-above-replacement level starter to good last season, Gibson has sustained his breakout in his early 30s and shown he can be an effective pitcher by taking another step forward.

The right-hander has career-best strikeout and walk rates, raising his K-BB rate from 12.1 to 17.3 percent, a significant increase. It was 8.8 percent two years ago. His home run rate is up, though the sinker-baller still gets plenty of grounders.

Gibson attacks with his low-to-mid 90s sinker and is a five-pitch pitcher by using his slider, four-seamer, changeup and curveball each at least 10 percent of the time. He’s historically struggled against the Yankees (6.50 ERA), but he allowed just five hits and one run over 11.2 IP last year.

Gibson (Baseball Savant)

Wednesday (8:10 PM ET) J.A. Happ (vs. Twins) vs. Jake Odorizzi (vs. Yankees)

This is the same matchup from the one Twins victory over the Yankees from earlier this season on Star Wars day. Now, the Empire will have to strike back against the Twins’ No. 2 starter.

Odorizzi was a first-time All-Star this season as he has a 3.18 ERA over 99 innings. The right-hander has cut down on his walks and allowed fewer hits, though the latter may not be sustainable.

The former Ray excels by throwing his low-90s fastball by hitters, inducing a 30 percent whiff rate despite below-average velocity and spin rate. Its velocity jump this year has made it the fourth-best fastball by Fangraphs’ pitch values this season. He throws the pitch up in the zone and attacks with it more than 55 percent of the time.

Odorizzi (Baseball Savant)

Bullpen Status

Minnesota has pushed its bullpen to the limit over the weekend against the Athletics. Reliever Trevor May threw 49 pitches yesterday while Blake Parker and Tyler Duffey each pitched Friday and Saturday. Closer Taylor Rogers blew a save in a longer outing Saturday.

The team will receive a fresh arm as they optioned Zack Littell to the Minors after he pitched three straight days. Righties Ryne Harper and Kohl Stewart are available despite throwing in Sunday’s win.

The Twins designated three relievers (Adelberto Mejia, Mike Morin and Matt Magill) for assignment in the last 10 days, though they still have a fine back-end with Rogers — a former LOOGY-ish option turned effective closer — Parker and Duffey taking most of the late-game work. As mentioned above, they’re on the lookout for relief additions at the deadline.

Yankees Connections

Former Yankee starter Michael Pineda started Sunday, so he’ll miss this series, while former Yankees’ MiLB OF Jake Cave is the Twins’ fourth outfielder. Littell, optioned before this series, was traded by the Yankees to Minnesota in the Jaime Garcia deal in 2017. Finally, Parker spent the last two months of 2016 with the Yankees and earned a save on a wild Brett Gardner catch.