How Did the Twins Win Two Trades With AL East Powers?

Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins play in the AL Central, but let’s pretend they play in the junior circuit’s East division for a moment. I’m not knocking the Central. The Chicago White Sox rivalry is fun. The Twins are about to play eight critical games against the Cleveland Guardians. The Detroit Tigers were in the World Series in 2012; the Kansas City Royals won it in 2015.

Minnesota’s regional rivalries with the Central teams are fun, and they shouldn’t take Cleveland for granted. But if the Twins want to break their 18-game playoff losing streak this year, they must see how they stack up against the East. Detroit and Kansas City aren’t going to qualify for the postseason this year. But the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays probably will.

For reference, below is how the Twins have fared against the AL East so far:

  • New York Yankees: 1-2
  • Toronto Blue Jays: 2-1
  • Tampa Bay Rays: 4-2
  • Boston Red Sox: 2-2
  • Baltimore Orioles: 2-2

And, just for good measure, the Houston Astros swept the Twins in mid-May. They’re the best team in the AL West and probably the only team in that division that will make the playoffs.

You probably recalled Minnesota’s record against the AL East pretty readily. They played a nine-game stretch against the East before heading out west to play the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks – two mediocre teams. They fared alright against the East, taking two from the Blue Jays in Toronto and two from the Rays at Target Field. However, they only beat the Yankees in one game and blew a 7-3 lead in the rubber match.

Still, the Twins picked up two wins over the East before the season started.

At last year’s trade deadline, they sent Nelson Cruz and Calvin Faucher to Tampa for Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman. Faucher, 26, made his debut this year and owns an 11.37 ERA; Strotman, 25, owns a 9.27 at Triple-A St. Paul. Let’s call that a wash. However, Ryan has become one of Minnesota’s most reliable pitchers. The 26-year-old righty made five starts last year (4.05 ERA/106 ERA+) and has a 2.81 ERA (135 ERA+) in nine starts this year.

Is he ace material? Maybe not. But the Twins essentially replaced José Berríos with Ryan by offloading Cruz, 40, in a year when they went 73-89. It wasn’t an easy decision for Minnesota. Cruz was hitting .294/.370/.537 with 19 homers when they traded him. He also was a clubhouse leader and continues to mentor Luis Arraez.

However, Cruz hit .226/.283/.442 with 13 homers in 55 games for the Rays. Tampa won 100 games last year, but a 92-win Red Sox team upset them in the ALDS. Cruz hit .176/.222/.353 in the playoffs and signed with the Washington Nationals in the offseason. Cruz will always be beloved in Minnesota, but the Twins would make that trade again in a heartbeat. They scouted an underappreciated pitching prospect well and reaped the benefits.

Let’s pause on the Berríos trade for a second before getting to Minnesota’s deal with the Yankees this offseason. The Twins probably didn’t win the Berríos trade, which sent one of their most reliable pitchers to Toronto. But they didn’t lose it either. Berríos had a season-high 13 strikeouts against the Twins when they met earlier this month. But he entered that game with a 5.62 ERA. That’s down from a 108.00 ERA after his first start of the season when he gave up four earned runs and only recorded one out against the Texas Rangers. Still, Berríos, 28, has hardly been as reliable as he was in Minnesota.

The Twins have yet to see what Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson will offer in the majors. But if Berríos is declining, they avoided paying him through his age-34 season. That looks like a win right now.

While it’s hard to tell who won the Berríos trade, the Twins added by subtracting Josh Donaldson from their roster. When Minnesota could not land pitching in the 2020 offseason, they pivoted and signed Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million contract. It immediately went sour. Donaldson only played in 28 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, then hit decently last year (.247/.352/.475 with 26 homers) but again battled injuries.

Suddenly, the Twins were saddled with a frequently injured 36-year-old third baseman who had become disruptive in the clubhouse.

Well, they were until they backed into an opportunity to offload him. The Twins needed a shortstop after the Andrelton Simmons experiment flamed out last year, so they traded Mitch Garver to Texas for Isiah Kiner-Falefa after the lockout. Fortunately, the Yankees also wanted Kiner-Falefa, and the Twins flipped him, Donaldson’s contract, and Ben Rortvedt for Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela.

Not only were the Twins able to offload Donaldson, but they got a hard-hitting starting catcher and a stopgap third baseman in the process. Minnesota has needed Sánchez because Ryan Jeffers has struggled at the plate this year. Urshela has allowed them to bring José Miranda, the prospect Donaldson was blocking, along slowly.

Does this replace a series win over the Yankees in October? Hardly. But the Twins need to find wins where they can. At the very least, it shows that the front office is willing to trade with some of the best management in baseball. And in the case of Kiner-Falefa, they desire some of the same players. In some ways, they’re taking talent away from the teams they’ll play in the postseason.

The Twins still need to take the Central seriously. They have eight of their next 11 games against Cleveland, including five on the road. If they falter in those, they will relinquish their division lead. But they also need to evaluate themselves against the East. Can they beat those teams? If not, they’re probably not going to go anywhere in October.

It’s June, so there’s only so much they can do now. But winning two trades against well-run front offices is a good start.

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Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

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