Can the Twins Become the New Astros? Part 3
Image courtesy of © Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY SportsClick here for Part 1 of this series.
Click here for Part 2 of this series.
The Veteran Leader
Much has rightly been made about Nelson Cruz’s veteran leadership on a fairly young Twins team. At times, immeasurable variables like “team chemistry” and “veteran leadership” are probably over-valued, but in the case of Nelson Cruz, there is little doubt inside or outside of the clubhouse as to how valuable Cruz has been to this team. Cruz has been heralded for his work ethic, preparing himself not only physically, but also mentally for the challenges of playing at a high level as a 39-year-old. Whether in the weight room, the batting cage, or studying video, Cruz always seems to be applying himself to his craft and his younger teammates cannot help but notice.
One of the beneficiaries has been Miguel Sano. Twins fans have long dreamed of what Miguel Sano could become, but after a sensational rookie season in 2015, Sano never quite returned to form. 2018 was a disaster filled with injury and off-the-field distractions, but 2019 has been a revelation for Sano. Sano worked hard to get in shape in the offseason and also claimed that he suggested the Twins sign Cruz in the offseason in an interview with FSN’s Justin Morneau. Sano has seemed to work harder than ever to improve his game as can be seen by his willingness to change his swing in-season and the results that have followed (.271/.376/.618 from June 28th to the end of the regular season). There is little doubt that Nelson Cruz has played a large role in Sano’s success.
The Houston Astros had a similar veteran addition to their 2017 championship team in Carols Beltran. Beltran was a 19-year MLB veteran who wanted a last chance to win a World Series and Houston was looking to add a veteran to supplement its young core and improve team chemistry. Like Cruz, Beltran loved studying video and was instrumental in breaking down pitchers and passing the information on to his teammates. In Astroball, Correa talked about how much Beltran taught him in regard to viewing video and identifying when pitchers were tipping their pitches. Beltran also helped to identify when hitters like George Springer were developing bad habits at the plate, and Beltran made it clear to his teammates that he was there to help early on:
“My friend, I am here to help you. Even if it looks like I’m busy, you won’t bother me. If you sit down next to me and ask me a question, I would be more than happy to give you the time that you need.”
Having veterans like Cruz and Beltran on your team is akin to having another coach on the bench who younger players not only trust but can emulate. Cruz has also provided in one area that Beltran didn’t – Cruz has put up really big numbers while Beltran struggled in his final season. Beltran hit just .231/.283/.383 as a 40-year-old for Houston, whereas Cruz has been one of the MLB’s best hitters at age 39, slashing .311/.392/.639 with 41 home runs. Regardless of the results, Cruz’s leadership would have been valuable to the team, but when combined with his elite production he may well be the team’s MVP.
Free Agency and Starting Pitching
In their first two years in Minnesota, Falvey and Levine had a bit of a mixed record in free agency. Catcher Jason Castro turned out to be a pretty good three-year signing, but last year’s last-minute bargains, Lance Lynn and Logan Morrison were pretty much a disaster as they seemed unhappy to be in Minnesota playing for less money and years than they had hoped for. Pitcher Michael Pineda was also signed before last season but was really signed for the 2019 season as he sat out 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The FO seemed to learn their lesson and have had much greater success with this year’s signings, which include the previously mentioned Cruz and utility man Marwin Gonzalez, who came over from the Astros organization. Both have played well and have brought a winning attitude to Minnesota. Minnesota was also able to add second baseman Jonathan Schoop to the team. He has had an up-and-down year but has provided some pop, is well-liked by his teammates, and could have been essential to the team’s postseason roster, depending on rookie Luiz Arraez’s availability due to an ankle injury.
If the Twins do hope to emulate Houston, upgrading the rotation would be the next step in the process. The Astros feature three of the best starters in baseball in the aforementioned Verlander, Cole, and Greinke. None of the three came from within the organization so the Astros needed to do two things that the Twins should be able to do as well. The first was to be willing to give up some of their prospect capital to acquire starting pitching. While the Astros had to give up good prospects in all three trades, they were able to do so without giving up anyone on quite the level of Lewis or Kirilloff. The Twins certainly have the prospect surplus to make some trades. Secondly, Houston was willing to take on some salary. Verlander and Greinke were under contract for large amounts and Houston went on to extend Verlander and reliever Ryan Pressly.
With a lot of salary coming off the books, the Twins should theoretically have a lot of money available, and could definitely make a run at one or two of the top free agent starters if they so choose. With Jose Berrios as the only current starter due back next season (although Randy Dobnak may be in next year’s rotation), it will be interesting to see what the FO does to address starting pitching. Some big name free-agent starters will be available, led by Houston’s Gerrit Cole. The Twins got good years out of Michael Pineda and Jake Odorrizi, but they are set to be free agents along with Kyle Gibson. With this year’s team breaking the competitive window wide open, there may never be a better time to add an “ace.”
Although Houston continues to succeed, finishing with the best overall record in 2019, they have had to deal with other teams luring talented front office staff and coaches away from the organization. When an organization finds success, especially with a new approach, other teams are sure to take notice. Gone from the front office are Sag Mejdal and Mike Elias who were poached by the Baltimore Orioles, and Mike Fast joined the Atlanta Braves. Bench coach Alex Cora famously became the manager of the Boston Red Sox and led them to a World Series victory in 2018.
With the success of the Minnesota Twins is 2019, other organizations are sure to take notice, and Minnesota would be extremely lucky if everyone remained in place for 2020. Coaches such as Derrek Shelton and James Rowson will likely draw interest and members of the front office and analytics department are likely to be hot commodities as well, not to mention minor league coaches and staff.
With the right philosophy in place, Minnesota may be able to plug in great new minds and continue to succeed as Houston has. However, the teams that are plucking employees may soon bridge the gap as the Twins (and others) have done to the Astros. The best teams will need to evolve, always on the lookout for new hidden advantages, and the process will continue as it always has.
Here We Go
The Twins didn't reach the World Series this season, but regardless of the result, it’s hard to view the season as anything less than a resounding success. The Twins will obviously blaze their own path going forward, but if there is a ballclub to emulate, you can’t do much better than the Houston Astros. As Minnesota’s young core continues to mature, with most of the team returning for 2020 and plenty of intriguing options inching closer from the farm, the best is hopefully yet to come.
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