While there is still plenty of baseball left to be played, this season is probably a lost cause for the Minnesota Twins. With Byron Buxton on the injured list, a floundering bullpen, and several hitters struggling at the plate, the chances of turning things around are bleak.
But a disappointing season gives a chance to breed optimism. The current core of the Twins roster is filled with aging veterans and younger players who may have peaked. If the season continues to be a disappointment, changes will be made, and a stable of new players will have the chance to establish themselves. This season may not be the 2011 season, which led to three more years of futility. Rather, it could be the 2005 season that kicked off the Joe Mauer–Justin Morneau era.
The Twins came into the 2005 season with World Series aspirations. Johan Santana anchored the starting rotation. Their bullpen was stacked with Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, and Juan Rincon. Mauer and Morneau were each preparing for their first full season in the majors, and the Twins had enough talent to make a deep postseason run.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Luis Rivas, Juan Castro, and Lew Ford were among a stable of veterans who underachieved, and when Torii Hunter broke his ankle in July, the Twins fell apart and finished with an 83-79 record.
The overall result was disappointing, but it gave the Twins the chance to provide the younger players an opportunity to play, helping to spark their success in the latter part of the decade.
After spending most of his 2004 season on the injured list, Mauer rebounded to begin a Hall of Fame-worthy career. He hit .294/.372/.411 with nine home runs and 55 RBI and even added 13 stolen bases to establish himself as a cornerstone of Minnesota’s lineup.
While Mauer’s 2005 season was spectacular, the rest of the Twins’ young players weren’t as fortunate. Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Bartlett struggled at the plate as part of a lineup ranked last in the American League in runs scored. None of these three inspired confidence, but they all played key roles the following year.
After a slow start, Morneau came alive to win the American League MVP Award in 2006. Cuddyer was revitalized with a move to right field, and Bartlett became a spark plug at shortstop. The Twins jumped to eighth in runs scored, which was good enough to back up their pitching staff.
Santana continued his run of dominance with his second Cy Young Award and was joined by Francisco Liriano to form a 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Liriano was the centerpiece of the A.J. Pierzynski trade and made his major league debut in September of 2005, but he became one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball the following season. With a 12-3 record and 2.16 ERA, Liriano was Minnesota’s second ace before he suffered a season-ending elbow injury.
That core helped the Twins to extend their run of success into the late 2000s. With the current iteration of the team struggling, it’s interesting to see which players could have a similar effect on the team’s long-term future.
Alex Kirilloff could benefit from extra playing time. After slumping to start his career, he smashed four home runs in a series against the Kansas City Royals before landing on the injured list with a wrist injury. Even in limited duty, it’s clear that Kirilloff is an elite hitter who could be a key part of the lineup. If he can play through his current injury, he could be a middle-of-the-order hitter next summer.
Trevor Larnach also could use extra playing time. The 24-year-old started his career going 0-for-6 at the plate, but his approach should translate to the majors. With just 48 games above High-A ball, a lost season could convince the Twins to have him learn at the major league level and accelerate his development.
Given that the Twins may trade Cruz if they’re out of playoff contention by the deadline, the Twins could use Josh Donaldson at designated hitter and give Luis Arraez a permanent home at third base. There’s also the chance the Twins could make Miguel Sano the designated hitter and move Kirilloff to first base.
Much like Cuddyer settling into right field, Arraez could focus his defensive work on one position and become entrenched at the position heading into next year.
Even on the mound, there are some young, intriguing pitchers they could try out. Randy Dobnak was signed to a contract extension this spring but has been limited to work out of the bullpen. With Matt Shoemaker struggling, the Twins could give Dobnak an extended look as a starter and lay the foundation for becoming a permanent part of the rotation.
Younger arms such as Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran could also get experience as part of a group that could produce a completely different look than what the Twins started the 2020 season with.
The group of young players who could establish themselves make this different than the 2011 season that ended in disappointment and triggered a decade-long stretch of losing. While the sting of missing the playoffs after winning two straight division titles would be there, the chance to establish the next wave of contending Twins teams could be a silver lining.