The 2001 Minnesota Twins were 55-32 at the All-Star Break and in first place until Aug. 11, but finished the season with an 85-77 record and missed the playoffs for the eighth straight year. That was Tom Kelly’s last season as manager, a year before Ron Gardenhire took over and the Twins won the AL Central six times between 2002-10.
The 2006 team was the best of the bunch, finishing the year with a 96-66 record. They were 47-39 at the All-Star Break, led by a 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation with Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, and a lineup featuring Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter. But unlike the 2002 team, which beat the Oakland A’s in the ALDS, the 2006 Twins were swept by the Athletics in the first round of the playoffs.
This year’s Twins team has drawn natural comparisons to the 2001 team.
Like the 2001 team, Minnesota has had an unexpectedly strong first half following years of losing. Minnesota won 90 games but missed the playoffs in 1992, and had losing season every year from 1993-2000. Similarly, the Twins won 94 games and lost in the ALDS in 2010, the inaugural season at Target Field, but have had losing seasons every year since then — with the exception of the 83-win team in 2015 and the 85-win campaign in 2017.
Like the 2001 team, this year’s club is led by a young core. The December 2002 edition of ESPN The Magazine featured Torii Hunter (25) wearing his hat backward with Jacque Jones (26), A.J. Pierzynski (24) and Doug Mientkiewicz (27) surrounding him. If that cover was recreated with this year’s team, it would likely feature Byron Buxton (25), Jorge Polanco (25), Jose Berrios (25) and Eddie Rosario (27) — although a case could be made for Miguel Sano (26), Max Kepler (26), Mitch Garver (28) or Taylor Rogers (28). That isn’t to take away from veteran players like Nelson Cruz and Jake Odorizzi who have been impact players for the Twins, but they’re supplements to the young core that is the foundation of this team.
And like the 2001 team, a strong first half doesn’t guarantee that Minnesota will have the same results in the second half. The Twins final road trip of the first half was their worst, they went 2-4 against the Chicago White Sox and the A’s, and even though they looked like their old selves against the Texas Rangers at home, they are showing signs of fatigue from playing a 17- and an 18-inning game this year and needing 12 to win a game in Oakland, then losing in 11 innings to the Rangers entering the All-Star Break.
Minnesota will be tested immediately. They will face the Indians, who are 5.5 games behind in Cleveland, then play two games against the New York Mets before facing the A’s and the New York Yankees at home.
If they’re going to make the case that they’re more like the 2006 team, they can start right away after the All-Star Game when they are more rested and healthy. Like the 2006 team, which sent Santana, Liriano and Mauer to the All-Star Game, this year’s team sent their one-two punch at the top of the rotation, Berrios and Odorizzi, plus their best hitter in the first half, Polanco.
Of course, they don’t have to fit into either category. This is a new-age team built with analytics, fashioned with a lineup that can hit home runs, and pitchers who are using biomechanics to increase their fastball velocity without tearing up their elbows.
But to miss out on the playoffs after building up so much goodwill in the first half would be monumentally disappointing. This is the team everyone expected when Target Field opened: cutting-edge, homegrown and exciting.