Can History Repeat? A Hopeful Look Back to 2006
This year's Twins finished April with a 9-15 record, which puts the team on pace for more than 100 losses. Of course, as you may recall, Minnesota also finished with a 9-15 April record in 2006. That team eventually kicked things into gear around midsummer, and wound up taking the division with 96 wins, most in modern Twins history.
Can this year's iteration orchestrate a similar reversal? Let's take a look at some of the ingredients that fed the 2006 club's rise from the ashes, and see where the current Twins might be able to strike a similar note.
An Ace Atop the Rotation
Then: Johan Santana picked up his second Cy Young award with a phenomenal season, winning 19 games with a 2.77 ERA while leading the league in strikeouts. He was in his absolute prime. The Twins went 22-12 in his starts, including 20-3 from June through September while mounting their charge.
Now: Jose Berrios is the team's best hope for anything resembling a Johan to lead the rotation. He certainly looked the part in his first few starts but has obviously taken a major downturn in the past couple. I remain confident that the talented young righty will settle in at a level that, while solidly below 2004 Santana, is still as good as than anything the Twins have featured since Santana left town.
Of course, there's another Santana set to join the current rotation within the next month. And while Erv is certainly no Johan, he does give the Twins another legit No. 1/2 type if he's throwing the way he has over the past two years.
Rookie Sensation Enters the Starting Fold
Then: After spending his first six weeks in the bullpen, Francisco Liriano joined the rotation in mid-May. From then until the end of July, he put together about as dominant a stretch as you'll see from a starting pitcher, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 105-to-28 K/BB ratio over 93 innings in 14 starts.
We know how the rest of the story goes: he felt elbow discomfort in his first start of August, landed on the DL, came back for one try in September and went down with a torn UCL. But during that brilliant midsummer stretch Liriano was a fortune-altering force, with an infectious electricity that seemed to energize the team.
Now: Can Fernando Romero make a similar impact? It's certainly not unthinkable. The hard-throwing right-hander is set to make his Twins debut on Wednesday and could stick if he looks good.
I've heard from multiple longtime followers of the Twins system who've suggested Romero has the best stuff they've seen from a Twins prospect since Liriano. We ranked him as our No. 1 Twins prospect last year and No. 2 this year (only unseated to the arrival of teen phenom Royce Lewis). Rochester pitching coach Stan Cliburn calls Romero's a "golden arm." We'll see if it can give Minnesota's rotation the Midas touch.
Then: Peak Joe Nathan as closer. Juan Rincon and Jesse Crain as quality setup men. Dennys Reyes as a supremely effective southpaw specialist. Pat Neshek as the critical midseason reinforcement. That was a hell of a unit – one that went 72-1 when taking a lead into the eighth inning.
Now: This area of comparison feels like a major stretch based on what we've seen. Fernando Rodney has already blown more saves in April (3) than Nathan did in all of 2006 (2), and plenty of others are struggling.
Rodney was also really bad in April last year, before turning it on with a – dare I say? – Nathanesque performance in the final five months. Granted, he's now 41 and the past does not predict the future. But on the whole, you can make a case this bullpen has the ability to stack up against that '06 corps if more guys start playing to their ability. Especially if they can get a Neshek-like infusion sometime this summer. Maybe Luke Bard or Tyler Jay?
This current unit is averaging 9.3 K/9. It's the first time since 2006 (when Twins relievers led the league in K/9 rate) that Minnesota has legitimately boasted a power pen.
Then: On the offensive side, Justin Morneau was a driving force in the emergence of the 2006 Twins. He slashed .352/.403/.598 with 24 home runs and 94 RBI over the final four months to power the lineup and earning himself an MVP award.
Now: Miguel Sano is capable of being a similarly fearsome force at the heart of the order, and we've seen it in flashes, but he has yet to put it all together the way Morneau did in '06. Maybe it's still coming? The contextual similarities are hard to ignore.
Morneau entered that campaign coming off a disappointing season, facing questions about whether he'd ever reach his lofty potential. He hit .208/.274/.416 in April before starting to get it going in May (when he turned 25) and fully exploding from June onward.
This year, Sano hit .213/.289/.450 in April. He's currently sidelined by a hamstring injury but should be back next week. He turns 25 this month.
Excellence Up the Middle
Then: Morneau was a big factor as a top-tier slugging first baseman, but that team's strength up the middle – Joe Mauer at catcher, Luis Castillo at second, Jason Bartlett (eventually) at short, and Torii Hunter in center – was also instrumental. That quartet combined for 13.4 WAR, helping to make up for some weaknesses elsewhere.
Now: This current group is capable of approximating that kind of impact. Rather than Mauer and Hunter as the stars, with Castillo and Bartlett as quality role players, it's Brian Dozier and Byron Buxton as the stars with Eduardo Escobar/Jorge Polanco and Jason Castro/Mitch Garver lending solid support.
Last year Dozier, Buxton, Escobar and Castro combined for 11.7 WAR. Not too far off.
SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS...
I've got to admit, I found this exercise reassuring. These parallels are fairly compelling to me. Yes, this year's Twins have their troubles, but man, so did that '06 squad in the early going.
Remember the Rondell White free agent bust? Remember being subjected to almost half-a-season of Tony Batista? Remember Carlos Silva, Scott Baker, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza combining to make 64 starts despite all being some level of disastrous? Oh and by the way, that 2006 AL Central featured three 90-game winners, whereas this year's will probably have three 90-game losers.
If there's one takeaway that sticks out more than any when looking back at '06, it is this: the baseball season is long. Those Twins were not only 9-15 in April, but 25-33 and 11.5 games out of first place as late as June 7th. They still ended up winning almost 100 games.
Of course, it's not often that even a superb team is going to play .660 baseball over four months. But hopefully this year's Twins won't put themselves in such a corner. Despite the miserable stretch over the past couple weeks, they're still not there yet.
They soon will be if they can't get healthy and out of this funk in a relative hurry.
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