We’ve reached Opening Day at Target Field. The Minnesota Twins are kicking off their 2022 season, but not everyone is in a festive mood.
Rocco Baldelli is sweating bullets in the dugout. While starter Jon Lester has cruised through the lineup, he’s about to go through it for the third time. His lineup, which has Jake Cave starting in center field, has been held to one hit. And he’s resisting the urge to turn to his bullpen.
Suddenly, a mysterious figure appears at the end of the dugout. “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon starts playing over the speakers, and Willians Astudillo emerges from the shadow. Looking at his lineup card, Baldelli takes a heavy sigh. Astudillo nods and takes the mound for the top of the fifth inning.
Maybe this isn’t exactly what a full-blown rebuild would look like, but it’s a Twins fan’s worst nightmare. In 2019, Minnesota was the most prolific home run team of all time. Three years later, their front office is threatening to detonate it all.
Derek Falvey and Thad Levine know they can blow it up. But they have to ask themselves if they can afford another rebuild.
The last time the Twins were in a situation like this was following the 2013 season. The Twins were 66-96 and were throwing out Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey every fifth day. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer were still in the lineup, but so were Pedro Florimon and Chris Parmelee.
There was little hope on the major league roster, so the Twins pitched fans on the future. By losing games, they could have high draft picks, and a third baseman named Miguel Sanó was mashing his way through the minors. Minnesota stockpiled assets as the losses piled up.
Sure, they were bad now but wait three years down the road! Wait until Byron Buxton gets here! José Berríos will be our ace! Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario are on their way, and when they get here, the Twins will be better than they ever were!
To a degree, those claims were correct. The Twins built a nucleus that won back-to-back division titles. But then the task of re-signing that core came along.
The Twins are a mid-market team, but that doesn’t mean that every player has to walk. Over the past several years, the front office has only re-signed players when it was at an obvious advantage to them. They rarely consider any risky deal. But at some point, Minnesota needs to stop preaching about the future and win now.
The early stages of the offseason are a perfect example of what’s wrong with the Twins. Back in July, the front office balked at Berríos’ long-term contract demands and traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for a pair of top-50 prospects.
Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson could be contributors in the future, but that doesn’t help a team that wants to contend in 2022. It certainly doesn’t encourage fans when Berríos signed a seven-year extension that the Twins could have afforded.
Then there’s Buxton, who is arguably the most important player on the roster. With his injury history, it’s understandable that the Twins would be leery of signing Buxton to a long-term deal. But the team is significantly better when he’s on the field, and trading him would mean moving on from a popular player in his prime.
Why would fans want to emotionally invest in the future waves of prospects if the Twins were to trade Buxton? If they’re unwilling to sign anyone outside of 7-year, $25 million deals, why buy a Martin jersey in the pro shop or fork out $500 to go sit in the Champions Club? It makes anticipating the future a waste of time.
But there are examples that the Twins can use to validate their approach. The Houston Astros burned it all down before drafting Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman. The Miami Marlins became experts at fire sales, tearing everything down to build them back into a contender.
But both those franchises won World Series while the Twins have been mired in an 18-game postseason losing streak. If there’s no payoff, seeing a player like Rosario produce one of the greatest postseason performances of all time is an even bigger slap in the face.
What the Twins should be aiming for is something similar to what the St. Louis Cardinals have done. St. Louis is smaller than the Twin Cities, yet the Cardinals have churned out 12 straight winning seasons and have been over .500 in 21 out of the past 22 seasons.
Yes, the Cardinals have their share of top prospects. Yes, they have let some top players walk. But they always find a way to keep the good ones and let the new players complement what they already have.
If the Twins embark on another scorched-earth rebuild, it gives the fan base less reason to care. Should it happen, Astudillo won’t be heading to the mound in front of mostly empty seats at Target Field.