Prior to this two-year stretch, the Twins hadn’t lost 90-plus games in successive seasons since 1999 and 2000, which actually represented the second half of a four-year run of such futility. The last time the Twins lost nearly as many games in two years dates all the way back to 1982 and 1983, when the club lost 194. This includes the franchise’s only 100-loss season post-relocation. Those teams boasted some pretty big names in their formative years, such as Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Gary Gaetti and Tom Brunansky, all under 23 and a year from being joined by future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. This core group would lead the Twins to their first World Series title in 1987.
Such optimism would seem misguided with this current incarnation of the Minnesota Twins, but help is on the way. The Twins have a glut of offensive prospects—especially in the outfield—which helped facilitate the trades of Denard Span and Ben Revere in an attempt to bolster an absolutely terrible rotation. Twins’ starters finished with a 5.40 ERA last season, eclipsed by only the Colorado Rockies in an attempt to hearken back to the days of the steroid era.
But this year’s team will strongly work to avoid bringing back the days of yore, and keep from paying homage to Rich Robertson, Scott Aldred, and the like. General manager Terry Ryan didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel this offseason, however. Ryan stayed mostly under the radar, plucking an odd assortment of arms with one common thread. And with that in mind, let’s proceed.
Is there actually a plan?
As the offseason wore on, it began to seem as though the Twins’ plan was to acquire as many low-ceiling arms as possible, as if some strikeout gods were angry and the brass were out to appease them. But a common thread emerged: ground balls. The four mainstays of the upcoming rotation—Vance Worley, Scott Diamond, Mike Pelfrey, and Kevin Correia—each carry strong ground ball rates, or increasing tendencies toward the worm burner.
It was actually a pretty astute move by Ryan and company, as the Twins moved on from two extremely rangy outfielders and the statuesque Josh Willingham to a trio with one unknown—whoever wins the center field job out of spring—and a pair of guys with subpar range (Willingham and Chris Parmelee). The infield will undoubtedly be better, as Pedro Florimon is flashy and improving consistency-wise at short, and Brian Dozier will no doubt stand to improve by moving from short to the keystone. Trevor Plouffe at third will be the key to this defense; he spent the offseason working on improving his first step.
The plan going forward certainly seems to incorporate more strikeouts into the mix, as newcomers Trevor May and Alex Meyer look like pitchers with better swing-and-miss tendencies than their big league counterparts. This move was sorely overdue, and the club treated it as such by drafting a bevy of hard-throwers in the the past two drafts.
Who is going to play center field?
Spring training is likely a three-headed competition, with Darin Mastroianni and Aaron Hicks going head-to-head and Joe Benson lagging behind a bit as a dark horse in the race. Mastroianni played well in limited duty last season—1.5 fWAR in under 200 PA—but he struggled versus right-handed pitchers and much of his value is derived from defense and baserunning. Hicks was the Twins’ top pick in 2008, and as they do with most toolsy outfielders, the Twins played it low and slow with the switch-hitter, as he’s yet to play at Triple-A Rochester.
The Twins don’t often skip Triple-A altogether with players—Joe Mauer is the last hitter who comes to mind—but if Hicks proves he’s close to ready, he’s probably the prohibitive favorite. Ron Gardenhire is managing for his job this season, so he’ll do as much as he can with the pull he has to show he’s trying to be part of the future. Hicks should help in that regard. Benson is behind the eight-ball a little after sustaining a hamate injury that more or less sabotaged his 2012 season, but the Twins still think highly of him as a five-tool outfielder who has only one option year left. In an organization ripe with outfield prospects, the time is now for Benson.
What will the team look like in the infield?
Morneau is entering the final year of his long-term pact with the club, and entering his age-32 season it’s probably fair to wonder if he’s part of the club’s future plans after two-and-a-half injury-riddled seasons. Dozier is still a Gardenhire favorite, but will have to fight to keep his job after an uneven 2012 as the Twins’ regular shortstop. Florimon doesn’t provide much with the bat, but is a physical specimen as an athlete who looks every bit like an everyday shortstop defensively. Will the Twins put up with his lackluster offense if he plays stellar defense? The answer is yes, at least to start the season.
And finally, Plouffe will start his first full season as a third baseman, after shuttling among six positions in the field in his first 222 big league games. Plouffe’s red-hot midseason stretch—.290/.340/.684 with 15 home runs from May 16 to June 30—shows he can be an offensive force when things are right, but he’ll also need to show he can make mechanical adjustments after he hit just .226/.279/.381 the rest of the way after sustaining a wrist injury. With no internal competition, the hot corner is all Plouffe’s.
Will Willingham and Morneau last the season?
This is hard to say. If the team isn’t contending—and this feels awfully likely—there would be plenty of incentive to move the two. Chances are Oswaldo Arcia will be looking for playing time with the big league club, provided his minor league trajectory continues as it has. The club certainly has enough corner-types who could handle the spots in their absence—Ryan Doumit comes to mind.
But both players are a larger part of the clubhouse culture that the Twins value so highly. The Twins value leadership. Continuity. Loyalty to veterans. These are the kinds of things one must consider when trying to handicap exactly what the Twins will do in a given calendar year.
Would it seem likely that one or both of these guys will be donning different uniforms next year, if not late this season? Sure. But if the Twins have their way— and they usually do—one can probably bank on one or both lasting through the season, at the very least. It may not make the most baseball sense—especially as we as sabermetrically-inclined minds tend to think—but it’s just the way the Twins conduct business. That isn’t likely to change under Pohlad ownership.
Is the future as dismal as it currently seems?
Tony Oliva meandered through the clubhouse at the end of the 2011 season. The Twins like to have former players come in before the games and do instruction—if you can call it that—in uniform as a way to help the younger players adapt to the game. The club rarely could ever have used more help in that manner, as the September roster that year had names like Brian Dinkelman, Rene Rivera, Jason Repko, Rene Tosoni, Jim Hoey and Phil Dumatrait. All guys long gone and rarely seeing a big league roster in the meantime.
But Oliva stopped before he left that day and observed a glum clubhouse. This was a team on the brink of losing 100 games—Carl Pavano steered the team clear of that mark that evening—and Oliva imparted a key bit of wisdom. “The sun doesn’t shine every day,” Oliva said in clear, if a little broken, English. “But you need the rain to come through in order for the flowers to grow.”
And while it’s unclear if any of the young players took the former three-time batting champ’s advice to heart, he was right. The Twins had a great run of success, starting with Tom Kelly’s final managerial season in 2001 and culminating with an extremely talented 2010 team in Target Field’s first year.
Never before had the Twins strung together as many as four straight winning seasons prior to 2001; from 2001 to 2010 the club was over .500 for nine out of 10 seasons. If two poor seasons were the price to pay for the team to get back on track—admittedly, due to some poor personnel decisions—it would appear that Ryan has this team back trending in the right direction. It’s unclear if the Twins have the next Puckett or Hrbek in tow, but one thing is for sure: The future is surely brighter than the past in Minneapolis.