The Twins Are Trying To Make Winning Normal

Photo Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a giant structure with Minnie and Paul shaking hands above the batter’s eye at Target Field. The letters above them spell out “Twins,” and the “T” and “s” flicker on and off simultaneously after a victory. Therefore, it reads “Twins Win” if you look at it long enough.

Unfortunately, those lights have stayed dark for too many games since Target Field opened. The Minnesota Twins won 94 games in 2010 but lost 90 in the next four seasons. They won 83 games in 2015 but experienced “total system failure” a year later. Paul Molitor won Manager of the Year after leading Minnesota to 85 wins, but Derek Falvey and Thad Levine fired him after a 78-win season a year later.

To summarize, here are Minnesota’s winning seasons since Target Field opened:

  • 2010: The tail-end of their AL Central dominance and some excitement about the new park.
  • 2015: They were buoyed mainly by a 20-7 May. Otherwise, they were a .500 team or worse.
  • 2017: Probably a new-manager bump after Ron Gardenhire‘s 13-year run.
  • 2019: New-manager bump again. Plus, they built a power-hitting team, and MLB likely juiced the balls.
  • 2020: Pandemic-shortened 60-game season.

Calling Minnesota’s success a fluke is probably overstated. But losing had become the norm after their successful run from 2002 to 2010. They were functionally the Oakland A’s or Tampa Bay Rays until Target Field opened – a scrappy, low-budget team in a dilapidated stadium that outsmarted the competition. The Twins were supposed to build off of that, of course, but failed to do so. Instead, they became something like the Baltimore Orioles or Pittsburgh Pirates. They were a team with a history of success but were struggling in a football-mad, mid-market city.

Signing Joe Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract and playing al fresco was supposed to take the Twins to the next level. “We’ve talked for a long time about the importance of Target Field,” team president Dave St. Peter said at the time. “It really puts the Minnesota Twins in a position to retain the talent that we work so hard to develop in the minor leagues.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t much talent to retain. Instead, the early 2000s core fell apart. Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan finished their careers elsewhere, and Minnesota failed to develop enough impact players to fill out the major league roster.

The Falvey-Levine era is Minnesota’s chance to do what it couldn’t in the 2010s. Namely, become a winning mid-market team. The Twins weren’t going to become the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers by moving into Target Field. But few teams can spend like they do. They could become the St. Louis Cardinals, though – a scrappy, mid-market team that develops and retains the core of their team and supplements it with expensive premier talent. And now, they appear to be on the cusp of doing so.

The Twins still need to establish a pitching pipeline, meaning they develop enough pitchers to fill out the rotation and bullpen. Every team needs to use trades and free agency to supplement their pitching, but trading for pitching is difficult, and signing high-end pitching is risky. Unlike position players, who tend to hit into their 30s, pitchers tend to get injured and lose velocity. Teams like the Cardinals and the Cleveland Guardians have competed with premier-market clubs by having enough in-house pitching to win in the playoffs.

Still, we’re far removed from the “Glimmer Twins” days when the Twins needed Byron Buxton and Miguel Sanó to save the organization from its doldrums. Two prospects aren’t enough to lift a team. Buxton has had trouble staying on the field but has driven winning when he’s been available. He signed a $100 million contract over the summer. Sanó finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and was an All-Star in 2017 but likely isn’t in the team’s long-term plans.

However, the Twins are winning despite three top prospects, Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff, suffering injuries and Buxton’s inability to play every day.

“These are the kinds of things that we have to push ourselves,” says Baldelli.

The rest of us have to find ways to fill those holes. Those are two very important players to this team now and for the future. Do we need those guys? Absolutely we need those guys. But if they’re not going to be active or they’re not going to be here, we need to find good players that can do it.

That’s what a good organization finds a way to do. You develop, you acquire, you get guys out there that can do the job. Not every guy that is going to be a good major league player for you or help you win or go to the playoffs or win a championship is going to be a top-10 prospect in the game. Those guys are important, and you hope you get a lot of good productivity out of those guys. That’s huge when you do have those guys, and we do have some of those guys, but there are a lot of other ways you can win and field a good team and put guys out there.

We end up talking about the names that are at the top of all the lists and the names that are acknowledged by everyone as the future great players, there are other great players that come in different ways, and we’re seeing some of those things over the course of the season now. We thought very highly, we’re watching José Miranda come and step in and fill in for these guys. We’re going to have to continue to go out and find guys to come in and do those things.

Not only have the Twins become less dependent on individual prospects, but their players are recruiting other stars to Minnesota – a stark contrast to the exodus in the early 2010s. Carlos Correa says he told the front office to bring in Jorge López, a childhood friend. At All-Star Weekend, Buxton said went from joking with López about hitting a walk-off home run off of him to telling him that they were going to trade for him.

“Yeah, we talked about it,” admitted Buxton.

But I talked about him striking me out in Baltimore, too. That’s the first thing I talked about. He was like, you got my homer? And I was like, you got that strikeout ball?

I was lucky enough to have him at the All-Star Game as my locker mate. So I got to talk to him a little bit, be in his grill, just messing around, like, ‘We’re gonna get you.’ I literally was playing around, so just to see his name over there [in the clubhouse], it’s something me and him get to laugh at now because it was something we laughed at two weeks ago. I told him that. We’re trying to get you, I told him that. He was on the radar.

It’s not just López. Sonny Gray pitched with Tyler Mahle in Cincinnati and helped him acclimate to the big leagues. Therefore, he was one of Mahle’s biggest advocates when the front office was looking to add pitching at the deadline.

“We were locker buddies for three years,” says Gray, who frequently bounced stuff off Mahle. “He’s had a lot of success, and I’m excited. I honestly am excited to see him again.”

“When he walked in,” Mahle said, “I couldn’t stop smiling.”

The rest of the team was familiar with Michael Fulmer and Sandy León because they were previously with the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Guardians, respectively.

Fulmer, 29, spent his entire career with the Detroit Tigers. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2016 and an All-Star a year later, but he had Tommy John surgery in 2019 and struggled in 2020. He’s been a reliable reliever since then, though. León, 33, is an 11-year veteran who spent 2020 and the beginning of the season in Cleveland. He’ll serve as the backup catcher.

Falvey said the front office made their deadline moves with the future in mind. López and Mahle are under team control beyond this season, and Spencer Steer and Christian Encarnacion-Strand were the only major prospects they moved.

“We were hopefully able to…trade from areas where we feel we had depth and not dive too far into areas where we feel like we were a little, maybe, thinner to some degree,” Falvey said at the deadline.

Now it’s always an interesting conversation. We had some conversations with teams that were looking for close-to-the-big-league-ready, major league-type pieces, and some of those conversations didn’t come together. Then you have some of the others that are focused on maybe a deeper projection group of players. And so we were able to have real dialogue around those two types of groups. And I think that speaks to the health of our system.

It’s always conservative when you’re trading away pitching or what that looks like long-term. We love Cade Povich, we love Spencer Steer, and Encarnacion-Strand has hit the ball as well as anybody. So all these guys have played well. It’s always hard when you trade those players away, but I think that we felt we had depth in some of the areas we traded from.

As currently constructed, the Twins can win in the high-80s and make the playoffs in a weak division. But they can become a Cardinals-like organization by re-signing Correa, which secures shortstop for the near-term and developing pitching. It changes everything if they can get something out of Jordan Balazovic, Simeon Woods Richardson, and Matt Canterino. Josh Winder has already pitched in the big leagues and can be an effective swingman. A team with Correa and a homegrown pitching staff can win in the playoffs. Without them, the Twins are destined to be a good AL Central team that acts as first-round fodder for the Yankees – a team that normalized winning long ago.

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