I’m coming here to win. I think that it’s very important to lay that out there, right from the start. Things can change in this game very dramatically at this level.
— Paul Molitor at the press conference in November, announcing his hiring as Twins manager
It might have sounded corny last winter when I talked about 70-92 and the fine line of being able to at least cut that in half by winning 10 more games or whatever it is. There was enough signs there for me to think that it could happen.
— Molitor the morning before the Twins were officially eliminated from the playoffs
The Minnesota Twins just finished their first winning season since 2010, and in doing so have accelerated their rebuilding project after four years of 90-loss seasons. Second-year manager Paul Molitor will be expected to juggle a roster full of players who are either young and volatile in their production or are experienced and, at times, inconsistent while understanding that the expectation, inside and outside the organization, is that his team will make the playoffs next year.
Looking back at the 2015 season, it was certainly an improvement, but as Brandon Warne pointed out in his eulogy for this year’s team, take away the 20-7 May, and the Twins would have finished with around 76 wins. That would be on the high end of external expectations, but would not have put the team anywhere near Wild Card consideration. “I had some expectations that we were gonna be very good and be in this thing and battle in September and all that stuff,” Ryan said after the season had concluded, “and it came true. And that was rewarding.”
It is amazing, in some ways, that this team got as far as they did. Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas, two rookie darlings from two seasons ago, regressed this year. Oswaldo Arcia, owner of 36 big-league home runs, played 19 major league games this year. All-Stars Brian Dozier and Glen Perkins regressed in the second half, as did pitchers Mike Pelfrey and Kyle Gibson. Phil Hughes had a rough encore to his ace-like 2014 season, and Joe Mauer hit .265/.338/.380 with a career-high 112 strikeouts and limited power.
It’s a testament to team leadership and the young talent that surfaced from the farm system that the Twins got as far as they did. Torii Hunter went through his fair share of slumps this season but was a massive clubhouse presence. He started the dance party phenomenon, worked with Aaron Hicks — who had a breakout year — and Byron Buxton on a daily basis, and became the voice of the franchise once again. Dozier and Trevor Plouffe also have become vocal leaders on the team and offered an equal dose of power and defense in the infield. Eduardo Escobar established himself at shortstop at the end of the season, and Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano lived up to the billing as two of the game’s top prospects.
In the field, at least, things seemed to balance themselves out. On the pitcher’s mound, Minnesota got by with a makeshift rotation and bullpen. Ervin Santana was suspended for half the season. Ricky Nolasco was injured for most of it. Hughes wasn’t himself. Gibson and Pelfrey struggled in the second half.
Trevor May showed promise as a starter but was moved to the bullpen to help stabilize the relief corps, which was held together by Blaine Boyer, a 34-year-old journeyman, and Aaron Thompson, who was demoted after two-and-a-half months of solid relief. An under the radar trade for Kevin Jepsen paid dividends when he took over as closer after Perkins’ second-half struggles and injury. But a promising trio of young relievers — Nick Burdi, Zach Jones and Jake Reed — never surfaced, and top prospect Alex Meyer took a step back this season.
Looking ahead to next year, there’s going to be another roster overhaul like there was this season, but the image of what this team will look like in the long run isn’t hard to envision. An outfield of Hicks in left, Buxton in center and Rosario in right: Hicks can leadoff and rob hitters at the lower left field wall; Buxton is unnaturally fast and has plenty of range; and Rosario has a cannon arm, which is an asset in right. Hunter, if he returns, could start as either the right fielder — Rosario is expected to regress and might need a minor league stint or two — or as a fourth outfielder, if he’s willing to accept that role. Max Kepler, who had a strong minor league season, would have the opportunity to challenge for a roster spot knowing the aging Hunter will need time off.
As far as the infield goes, there will be a competition at third base, assuming Minnesota doesn’t trade Plouffe in the offseason. The Twins want Sano to play in the field next year, and while his strikeout count was high, he looks to be a bona fide major league player at this point — meaning that he’ll either be a third or first baseman, and Minnesota is committed to Mauer at first. Escobar has staked a claim at short after a season-long battle with Eduardo Nunez and, to a lesser extent, Jorge Polanco for a position that has long been in flux.
Catcher will need to be addressed in the offseason. Ryan has offered his support for Kurt Suzuki, but the veteran catcher did not have a great year at the plate (.240/.296/.314) and only threw out 15 percent of baserunners, allowing 80 stolen bases while only throwing out 14 players. Eric Fryer and Chris Herrmann didn’t fare much better, with Fryer hitting .227/.370/.318 and Herrmann .146/.214/.272 in their age 29 and 27 seasons, respectively. “If there is a catcher available that can help this club,” says Ryan, “we’ll look at it.”
He also says he expects Hughes to have a bounce-back season, and if he does, he becomes the de facto ace of the staff. Santana showed No. 2-, or at least No. 3-, caliber stuff this year, and should be inked into the rotation next year. Gibson should get another shot, given his strong first half, if he is not dealt in the offseason.
That leaves two slots for a slew of candidates: May, who was told to return stretched out next season; Jose Berrios, a top prospect that was on the verge of a call up this year; Nolasco, who has struggled with injury during his two years as a Twin; Tommy Milone, who was inconsistent but finished strong; and Tyler Duffey, a surprise call-up who did everything he could to earn a starting spot next year.
The Twins started to look like themselves again this year after a long period of drought, but it doesn’t get any easier going forward. The youth of this team has to continue to progress. Players like Perkins, Gibson and Dozier have to have strong second halves. The bullpen could use an influx of hard-throwing youth. Hughes has to be an ace. Mauer has to return to his former self at the plate.
Having said that, the Twins managed to win 83 games with an unstable rotation, a slew of veterans regressing in the second half and the mercurial production of young players. Baseball, in general, can be analyzed to death. Much of that information is good, but sometimes it comes down to team chemistry and a pinch of luck. “Some people might call it not successful now,” said Hunter at the end of the year, “but for us, everybody said — all the critics, all the analysis, all the sabermetrics, everything you can name — said the Twins were gonna be in last place. They were wrong. We did a great job. Give it a B-plus. You can always do better.”
Cold Omaha is the sports section of 92KQRS.com, 93X.com and 105TheVibe.com. Follow us @ColdOmahaMN.