Twins

WARNE: The Time Has Never Been Better to be a Twins Fan

Please Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

One day in 1993, I was visiting my maternal grandmother when she flipped on a baseball game in her kitchen while making dinner. The Minnesota Twins were playing, and that was the first baseball game I ever remember seeing.

I tell this story all the time, but the first memory I have is asking why shortstop Pat Meares — who almost always batted ninth in Tom Kelly‘s lineups — never got to bat in the first inning. In kickball in my elementary school class — I was seven — every player got to come up to the plate at least once in every inning.

I don’t remember her exact answer and frankly, some of my memories of grandma Diane are fuzzier than others, but when she passed away three years later, she left with me an indelible love for the game that wasn’t shaken with the Player’s Strike of 1994-95 nor the untimely retirement of Kirby Puckett a year later.

I tell this story not because it has a ton of relevance today, but to show that I’ve been through the ups and downs as a Twins fan prior to covering them in this capacity. While I no longer root, root, root for the home team, I still lean heavily on the experiences I had living and dying with the brutal mid-90s Twins as well as the contenders from a decade later.

You learn to love those winning times — both into the future when you dream of them and in the past when you reminisce during the lean years.

And while I traded in my Twins hat for a laptop and a credential almost a decade ago, I feel confident I can adequately assess where this team has been — and more importantly, where it’s going.

And I’m here to tell you there has never, ever been a better time to be a Twins fan.

Wait, really?

They won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, right? They lost to the Dodgers in a heartbreaking seven-game set in 1965, right? They made the playoffs six times in nine seasons in the aughts, right?

None of this is false, but there are a few things to take into consideration here. First of all, the World Series was tougher to get to but easier to get through in those days. If that isn’t making sense, let me clarify. Only two teams from each league made the playoffs, but those teams only had to win one series to get to the World Series. In 1965, teams had to win their entire league outright in the regular season — even further narrowing the postseason gauntlet required.

Not only that, but look at the seasons surrounding the World Series crowns. In 1986, the Twins finished sixth of seven teams in the American League West. In 1990, they were seventh. They finished in second in each season after winning the World Series, and it was 11 more seasons after 1991 until they made the playoffs again. Prior to 1987, they hadn’t made the playoffs in 17 seasons.

So the question is — even with the different playoff structure baked in — how much enjoyment is derived from isolated success, even if it meant reaching the summit?

And keep in mind, I’m a fervent defender of the idea that a season can definitely be a success even if a team doesn’t win a World Series. Bringing home the crown takes a lot of factors coming together at the same time — some of which is luck, hot streaks and overall talent blending into winning 10 or 11 games in October — but nothing can take away the buzz of a summer spent at the ballpark chasing whatever the end result may be.

Three hours of entertainment every summer night with the potential payoff of a run in October and even a World Series title? That’s good entertainment.

But part of this exercise is about looking forward. Not only are the Twins coming off a thrilling 101-win regular season — just the second 100-win season in franchise history dating back to the 1901 Washington Senators — but there’s ample reason to believe they’re just getting started.

No, that doesn’t mean five more seasons of 100-plus wins are in the pipeline, but again there’s reason to believe that a 100-plus-win season is the definite opening of a contention window — and that should be thrilling to Twins fans.

Let me explain in parts:

Front Office

The power duo of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have turned things around perhaps faster than anyone could have imagined. They inherited a 103-loss team with the first overall pick in the 2017 draft and turned it into a 100-win bunch within three offseasons. Those offseasons were not all perfect, as the team sputtered to 78-84 in 2018 before turning on the jets in 2019.

But from the moment Falvey and Levine took things over, it was clear there was a new power structure in town. Terry Ryan’s methods left the big-league team depleted — though they had won 83 games in 2015 — but the farm system had some solid talent which has developed into big-league mainstays in the meantime.

Falvey and Levine locked down some of that last spring — Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler — and then completed the extension trifecta from the 2009 international free-agent class with a three-year deal awarded to Miguel Sano earlier this month.

Falvey and Levine took a team with no pitching depth whatsoever beyond Jose Berrios and turned it into a more-than-respectable group with plenty of minor-league talent behind it. Some of that — Devin Smeltzer, Chris Vallimont, Jhoan Duran and Jorge Alcala — came from making shrewd trade-deadline deals. Some of it came from the draft — Jordan Balazovic, Blayne Enlow and Matt Canterino — and even still, some of it was inherited from Ryan’s tenure and honed into big-league talent. Brusdar Graterol and Lewis Thorpe come to mind there.

And then there’s Randy Dobnak, who was found out of almost literally nowhere and keeps defying expectations.

Sure, the Twins haven’t managed to fry the big fish they’d hoped in free agency to this point, such as Zack Wheeler this offseason or Yu Darvish the one before, but they’ve managed to turn a strategy of “searching every nook and cranny” into an organization that has a ton of pitching depth.

And frankly, what more needs to be said about the offense? The Twins shattered team and MLB records with their insane power performance last season, and return all key performers or have made upgrades — Jonathan Schoop to Luis Arraez; C.J. Cron to Josh Donaldson — where available.

Speaking of extensions — don’t worry about the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs scooping up either of Falvey and/or Levine, either. Both agreed to extensions in early November that’ll keep them in the left-field offices at Target Field through the 2024 season.

Coaching Staff

Perhaps the best sign of a good coaching staff is that other teams actively pursue those members for higher-level roles in their organization. From just the 2019 big-league staff, the Twins lost hitting coach James Rowson to the Miami Marlins, Jeremy Hefner to the New York Mets and Derek Shelton to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Aug 4, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins hitting coach James Rowson (82) during the third inning against the Kansas City Royals at Target Field. Please Credit: Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not even considering the further brain drain down the line with catching coordinator Tanner Swanson leaving the organization to become the major league quality control coach and catching director for the New York Yankees and hitting coordinator Peter Fatse heading back home to be the assistant hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox.

When the Twins set out to rebuild their image under Falvey and Levine, my one theory was that they should grab talented people from smart, well-regarded organizations. Falvey (Cleveland) and Levine (Texas) immediately fit that bill, as did current assistant general manager Jeremy Zoll (Dodgers) and senior analyst of baseball research and development Josh Kalk (Tampa Bay).

So to have the Red Sox and Yankees — two of the faces on MLB’s Mount Rushmore — grab talent from the Twins’ minor-league infrastructure for MLB roles says a lot. Any time a team gives someone a role in the major leagues as a promotion — a la Rowson, Hefner and Shelton — it says a lot, but when minor-league coaches are promoted to the big time, that’s an even bigger deal.

Oh, and the Twins employ the reigning American League manager of the Year in Rocco Baldelli. No big deal.

Baldelli and his staff completely revolutionized the process of baseball, to put it bluntly, in Minneapolis. He encouraged later reporting times, naps at the ballpark and only taking batting practices if a player felt he needed it. This hands-off, get-your-work in approach showed as the team remained fresh throughout the entire season. In fact, the team’s best winning percentages came in May (.724) and September (.667).

Maybe it’s just my purview, but the fact that they were separated by that much time but also stretched late into the year suggests that Baldelli’s approach of “grind-when-necessary” worked quite well. Sure, the bats and arms went silent against the New York Yankees in October, but a three-game sample shouldn’t derail what was a terrific season overall.

Payroll Flexibility

Now, this was truer prior to when the Twins locked Donaldson down for four years and a guaranteed sum of $92 million, but the future books for the team are still pretty clean. This won’t necessarily trip the trigger for the casual fan, but it matters because it means the Twins will have the flexibility to retain any future talent they develop and still possibly look externally to fill any holes that come up.

With Donaldson signed, the Twins have the following salaries hard committed for the next four seasons (after 2020):

  • 2021 – $53.858 million
  • 2022 – $42.75 million
  • 2023 – $40.5 million
  • 2024 – $9.0 million

That’s just south of $150 million in future payroll commitments. By comparison, the Detroit Tigers — who are light years behind the Twins in their process — are still committed for over $100 million in the future, essentially all of it to Miguel Cabrera. The San Diego Padres, for instance, are probably not quite where the Twins are right now — maybe acquiring Mookie Betts closes that gap — and yet they still have nearly twice as much in future payroll commitments ($278 million) through the 2024 season.

The frugality of the Ryan era drew the ire of many Twins fans and for good reason, but it has also — combined with the forward-thinking nature of Falvey and Levine — put the team in a terrific spot to maneuver the free-agent and trade markets moving foward.

And that’s nothing to say of offering extensions to players like Berrios or Byron Buxton in the near term. Many of the others are already locked down — Sano, Kepler and Polanco — or are veteran players on shorter-term deals.

MLB Talent

There’s no denying there’s massive talent on the big-league roster. The team won 101 games in 2019, after all. But what they’ve done this offseason doesn’t feel coincidental, either. After the Twins lost to the Yankees in the playoffs for what feels like the 100th consecutive time, they decided to wade into the offseason for some capable veteran help.

Alex Avila will be a capable veteran backup to Mitch Garver but also be able to take on as much of the load as he’s asked. Rich Hill has pitched in some very big games for the Dodgers in recent seasons. Homer Bailey revitalized his career in Kansas City — and even more so in Oakland — last season. Tyler Clippard and Sergio Romo both have more than 10 seasons under their belts in the major leagues as relievers.

Oh, and then there’s Donaldson, who is second among position players in Fangraphs WAR since his 2013 breakout — trailing only the immortal Mike Trout. Add him to a young crew led by Nelson Cruz and it’s easy to be enthused about this offense.

But its probably no coincidence that most of the free agents brought in by the Twins are on the other side of 30. Shorter deals allow for maximum roster flexibility in the short- and longer-term future, but it also means bringing in players who’ve been in the tougher spots teams find themselves in the higher the stakes are raised later in the season.

On the pitching side, the losses of Kyle Gibson and Martin Perez should be fairly mitigated not only internally by the emergences of Dobnak, Smeltzer and Thorpe but the additions of Bailey and Hill and the eventual return of Michael Pineda. Bailey, who turns 34 in May, was absolutely brilliant for the A’s in 10 starts from Aug. 1 on: 3.22 ERA, .600 OPS against, 53-11 K/BB ratio in 58.2 innings.

Anything close to that would be a coup for the Twins, as would a similar stretch from Hill during the dog days of the 2020 season. Hill underwent primary revision surgery on his left elbow, a recently-developed alternative to Tommy John surgery with a shorter recovery time. With Hill turning 40 in March, time is of the essence, and the lefty said on MLB Network radio in December and reiterated at TwinsFest earlier this month that he expects to be pitching in big-league games by this June.

Add Jake Odorizzi re-upping on his qualifying offer and the rotation is, at least, in no worse shape than it was in 2019. Adding one more big piece via a trade, a smaller piece like Taijuan Walker in free agency or getting a big leap forward from a youngster will put the team in a much better spot here.

And the bullpen, which was strong in 2019, will be fortified with more talent this season with the additions of Clippard and Romo. Last year’s bunch was 10th in MLB with a 4.17 ERA, and left plenty to be excited about in secondary numbers: 9.7 K/9, 3.4 BB/9 (first in MLB) and 1.21 HR/9 allowed. Each of those marks were among the top 10 in MLB.

In all, it’s a very talented MLB team, and it’s fairly young, too. Baseball Reference has weighted ages for teams based on playing time, and the Twins were below the league average on offense (27.8) and on the pitching staff (28.2), with the MLB marks at 27.9 and 28.4, respectively.

MiLB Talent

Beyond how talented and relatively young the big-league team is, the minor-league group is really, really good too. Based on some asking around and some internet surfing, I gauge the Twins’ farm system to be outside the top five but inside the top 10 globally. On its own, that’s pretty solid. Combined with an uber-talented MLB team, it’s extremely exciting.

According to MLB Pipeline, the Twins have 13 prospects with grades of 50 or better. Fifty means a major-league average player, which in the scouting community is a fairly significant grade. The Kansas City Royals, by comparison, only have eight. The Tigers have 14 — but consider how much further behind the Twins they are. The White Sox have only seven. The Indians also have 13.

So at the very least, one could argue the Twins have the best MLB team in the division and are right in the thick of things farm system-wise. It’s also helpful that the farm system is loaded near the top with players who are big-league ready or close to it. Of the team’s top-10 prospects according to MLB Pipeline, only two — Keoni Cavaco and Wander Javier — would seem to be more than one solid year away from a big-league promotion.

And the outlay of players by position compared to what the team may need soon is also promising. Royce Lewis is coming off a down year, but everyone can use high-end, up-the-middle excitement. Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach can help in the outfield or at first base, which may be helpful if the team deals Eddie Rosario or moves Sano to designated hitter when Cruz’s career ends. Two more top-10 prospects are shortstop — Cavaco and Javier — and then there’s pitching interspersed throughout. Everyone can always use more pitching.

Mar 17, 2019; Dunedin, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins right fielder Alex Kirilloff (76) beats the tag of Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Cavan Biggio (67) as he steals second base during the sixth inning of a game at Dunedin Stadium. Please Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

And maybe it isn’t a coincidence, but it seems like a fair amount of the team’s prospect depth can play multiple positions. Lewis dabbled in the outfield and at third base in the Arizona Fall League, and Kirilloff can play first base if he isn’t on the grass in left or right. Even Brent Rooker, the team’s No. 8 prospect who mashed International League pitching last year, can move around a la Kirilloff. That positional flexibility leaves the team with options in the event of a serious injury or a need to make a move during the season.

What this team lacks in quality at the top, it more than makes up for in quantity.

Etc.

There isn’t much more to say here. The Twins have a bright front office and future ahead of themselves, and they’ll play it out in Target Field, one of the best ballparks in America. It’s kind of hard to believe it’s entering its 11th season of existence, isn’t it? But there are other positives at play as well.

The broadcast teams are also good at explaining the game to fans in a way where it’s instructive but not patronizing. Justin Morneau has been a terrific addition in the television booth with Dick Bremer, while Cory Provus remains the standard by which to be measured among radio play-by-play announcers. His blend of relaying the nuts and bolts while blending in some analytical thoughts makes for a refreshing audio experience as well.

In short — ha! — the future is very, very bright at Target Field. Perhaps as bright as it’s ever been. And even if the next half-decade or so doesn’t result in a World Series win, it looks like it’ll be hard as a fan to say you didn’t enjoy the ride.

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