The Minnesota Twins were 34-40 following a 2-0 win over the Texas Rangers on Sunday, June 24. After a day off Monday, they kicked off a nine-game road trip with an 8-4 loss to the lowly Chicago White Sox. They lost the next game 6-1, took 13 innings to win the next one and then promptly lost the next six, returning home with a 35-48 record.
The Cleveland Indians were starting to take command of the AL Central. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano were in the minors. It looked like another lost season. Another rebuild could be in order for a team that appeared capable of 80-plus wins and a playoff spot again this year.
But a 9-2 homestand has changed the outlook of the season, or at least the first half.
“A lot of those words you’ve heard time and time again from people that are trying to rally the troops, so to speak,” said manager Paul Molitor on Friday when asked what he said to the team during the road trip. “You’re just never sure. I think we all think that this homestand was much needed. It was timely coming off the heels of one of the worst trips I’ve experienced.”
While it’s going to be tough to catch Cleveland, and the Wild Card spots appear to be occupied by the second place team in the AL East — be it the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox — and the surprising Seattle Mariners, a strong second half could be the difference between a rebuild and, to borrow a phrase from the local hockey team, a roster tweak.
After the road trip, the Twins looked due for a liquidation sale.
Players brought in to supplement last year’s Wild Card team — Fernando Rodney, Zach Duke and Logan Morrison — as well as long-time Twins like Eduardo Escobar, Brian Dozier and Kyle Gibson were supposedly on the trading block.
Everything must go by July 31.
This homestand has changed the calculus, however. Minnesota may end up dealing a handful of players, unless they unexpectedly become buyers at the deadline, but keeping a core intact make sense if the Twins feel they can compete for a playoff spot again next year.
It would follow a pattern of up-and-down seasons for the Twins under Molitor, albeit in a small sample size. Minnesota unexpectedly was in the playoff hunt throughout Molitor’s first season, an 85-win campaign in 2015. It lost 103 games in 2016, then became the first team ever to qualify for the postseason after losing 100 games last season, earning Molitor the AL Manager of the Year Award.
If Minnesota can remain near .500 this year, or at least keep their win total in the mid- to high-70s, they can justify keeping, say, Gibson and Rodney around because they want a complete rotation and a closer next year, or retain Escobar because he can play multiple positions and is a good clubhouse presence.
Molitor said he doesn’t have a dramatic speech ready for when the team is in a slump, instead opting to feel out the room and focusing on effective communication.
“I don’t worry about trying to be overly motivational, as much as I hope succinctness of the message,” he said. “Some guys are a little bit more motivational in how they go about trying to get those messages across. But the more it seems real to me, hopefully it seems real to them.
“When I do those things, it’s with intention. Just trying to get them to understand whatever the dynamics around where those circumstances are.”
It’s an open question as to how effective speeches like that are. Hollywood movies tend to have a scene where the coach rouses up his team before the film’s climactic scene — Inch by Inch, Not Another Yard, etc. — where Brad Pitt’s “Is losing fun?” rant in Moneyball is more realistic. Molitor is more likely to be seen talking to an individual player, and player-only meetings and player-to-player mentorship is commonplace during losing streaks.
“People have debated forever how impactful any message can be from player to player, from manager to player, coach to player,” said Molitor. “I’m sure there’s been a lot of times where you felt like you’ve really gone out there and said the right thing and it still falls flat.”
The Twins future will ultimately depend on how Buxton and Sano pan out. Buxton is trying to find his swing again in Triple-A, while Sano is in High-A after showing a lack of discipline on and off the field in the majors, but Minnesota is confident that they remain the future of the franchise.
If that is the case, revamping the roster makes more sense than a fire sale at the deadline or in the offseason. And that means remaining competitive this season, even if the playoffs are a long shot.
“Sometimes coming out of spring, how you feel about your team, the good vibe, it’s just unsustainable every day,” said Molitor. “But you hope that it’s not forgotten when things get a little bit rocky.”
And just because Joe Mauer, Buxton and Ervin Santana got hurt, Sano was overweight and struck out frequently and Jorge Polanco got suspended 80 games for using performance-enhancing drugs at the beginning of the year, it doesn’t mean it has to be a lost season. If the Twins can stay around .500, they can use this year as something to build upon, rather than a reason to undergo yet another rebuild.