Twins in the 2000s: The 2012 Season
Image courtesy of Brock BeauchampWe're running a 20-part series in which we look back at each Minnesota Twins season of the 2000s. A rotation of different writers will highlight key moments, unearth forgotten details, and share nostalgic tales from the past two decades leading up to the present. This installment covers the 2012 season.
Team Record: 66-96
Finish: 5th Place in AL Central
All-Star: Joe Mauer ( C )
Awards: Josh Willingham (Silver Slugger, LF)
Coming off the disaster that was 2011, Ron Gardenhire and the Twins were looking to right the ship. Soon after the prior season ended, ownership decided to change course, dismissing Bill Smith as general manager and reinstating Terry Ryan. The front office's elder statesman returned to the helm and... well, he made some typical Ryan moves. Some of them worked out splendidly.
For instance, there were the signings of relievers Jared Burton and Casey Fien to minor-league deals. Both righties emerged as key contributors in the bullpen, with Burton posting a 2.18 ERA in 62 innings and Fien 2.06 in 35. There was also the addition of free agent Ryan Doumit, who slashed .275/.320/.461 as a versatile and valuable piece on offense.
Best of all, there was the signing of left fielder Josh Willingham, a veritable blockbuster by Twins standards at three years and $21 million. Willingham's lukewarm market and ultra-reasonable deal were a bit surprising, given his consistent track record as a righty slugger. He made Ryan look good by putting forth a career year, bashing 35 home runs with 110 RBIs and an .890 OPS.
But these quality additions wouldn't be nearly enough to overcome an abundance of flaws on this mishmashed roster. Ultimately, the 2012 season's narrative is defined by fading mainstays and previous failed moves running their course.
In the latter category, you had the likes of Tsuyoshi Nishioka (spent most the year in Triple-A before returning to Japan afterward) and Matt Capps (replaced at closer by Glen Perkins in July, didn't pitch again in the majors). In the former category:
- Francisco Liriano went 3-10 with a 5.31 ERA before being traded to Chicago in July. He wasn't done as an effective pitcher though, as he'd re-emerge as a standout in Pittsburgh the following year.
- Carl Pavano, on the other hand, was done. The 36-year-old was Opening Day starter, but made it through only 11 starts and 60 innings (with a 6.00 ERA) before injuries ended his season. He retired afterward.
- Nick Blackburn fully unraveled with a 7.39 ERA in 98 2/3 innings. Only 30 at season's end, he wouldn't pitch again in the majors.
- Scott Baker underwent Tommy John surgery in April and missed the season, ending his Twins career.
- Alexi Casilla posted an abysmal .603 OPS in 326 PA, and the team moved on after the season.
- Justin Morneau's season wasn't terrible (he slashed .267/.333/.440 with 19 homers and 77 RBIs while staying mostly healthy) and he wasn't quite at the end of the line with Minnesota – he'd be traded midway through 2013. But by now his diminished ability was all too clear.
His washed-up veteran signing characteristically fizzled, as Jason Marquis put up an 8.47 ERA in seven starts before his late-May release. Young righties Anthony Swarzak and Liam Hendriks, who would eventually find success as relievers, took pummelings in their miscast starting roles. Minor-league journeymen P.J. Walters and Sam Deduno combined for 27 starts (and a 4.99 ERA).
Only one pitcher who made a start for the 2012 Twins registered an ERA+ above 100, although his season was rather remarkable. Scott Diamond, the team's Rule 5 pick a year earlier, stepped into the rotation with back-to-back scoreless seven-inning starts in May. He rode the hot start to a 12-9 record and 3.54 ERA 173 innings, leading the American League in BB/9 rate (1.6).
Despite Diamond's efforts, and Perkins beginning his spectacular run in the closer role, this staff was awful. They allowed the most hits in the league, and the second-most runs, while striking out the fewest batters.
The offense, while decent, was not up to the task of keeping pace with all this scoring from the opposition. Willingham was fantastic and Joe Mauer put forth a vintage effort, slashing .319/.416/.446 while making his fourth All-Star team, but no one else in the lineup was much above-average. Like in the rotation, poor depth here was exposed as Gardenhire gave a ton of at-bats to really bad hitters.
While most of them would never amount to much, one would: Brian Dozier, who hit .234/.271/.332 while struggling defensively at shortstop. It was an inauspicious debut for a player destined to help lead the Twins out of the cellar.
Not yet, though. For a second consecutive season, Minnesota finished last in the Central. As they did in 2011, the Twins quickly removed themselves from the contention discussion with an ugly start, losing seven of their first nine games and falling 15 games below .500 by mid-May.
In 2012, losing turned from outlier to trend for the Minnesota Twins. And it's one that wouldn't change soon as the initial wave of enthusiasm for Target Field began to gradually wear off, with uninspired decision-making and poorly executed baseball becoming the norm.
Team MVP: Joe Mauer ( C )
Other Contenders: Josh Willingham (LF), Denard Span (CF), Scott Diamond (SP), Glen Perkins (RP)
Following a weird 2011 season marred by the "bilateral leg weakness" fiasco and disappointing production, Mauer carried the weight of hefty expectations. Now in the second year of his $184 million contract, he found himself under heavy scrutiny. Mauer responded in a big way.
His .319 average wasn't enough to get him a fourth batting title, but it ranked third in the AL and was only 11 points behind the leader Miguel Cabrera. Mauer did lead the league in OBP at .416, drawing a career-high 90 walks. But it wasn't just the production that made a statement, it was the workload. Starting 42 times at DH as Gardenhire took it easy on his legs, Mauer still put in a full complement behind the plate and finished with a career-high 641 plate appearances.
Some would argue that Willingham earned team MVP with his phenomenal power production. There's a good case to be made, but for me, the gap in defensive value gives Mauer a clear edge. FanGraphs' WAR metric agrees, pegging Mauer at 4.6 and Willingham at 3.7.
3 Most Pivotal Games
April 13th: Lost vs. Texas Rangers, 4-1
After opening the schedule with four straight losses, the Twins rebounded with back-to-back victories, beating the Angels 6-5 and 10-9 to win their second series. But these scores were illustrative: in order to narrowly win games, the offense needed to show up in a big way.
Too often, they didn't, like in this sleepy series opener at home against Texas. Minnesota managed just two extra-base hits and went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. The Twins allowed fewer than four runs only twice in 24 April contests, but scored fewer than four 12 times. That's how you lose 16 games in a month, and 96 in a season.
July 5th: Lost @ Detroit Tigers, 7-3
Trying to rebound from a July 4th thumping at the hands of Justin Verlander, the Twins were still within 12 games of .500 and nine games of first place, with a chance to take the series in Detroit. Despite getting seven innings of two-run ball from Diamond, and 15 hits from the lineup, the Twins fell handily.
Fourteen of the offense's 15 hits were singles, and they drew only one walk. Diamond's seven strong frames were followed by the bullpen trio of Alex Burnett, Tyler Robertson and Swarzak giving up five runs while recording three outs. The Twins fell 10 games out of first, and were never again within single digits.
July 31st: Lost @ Chicago White Sox, 4-3
By the deadline, Minnesota was already hopelessly out of contention, but this game was pretty representative of how things were going. Liriano, who was clobbered by the White Sox eight days earlier, had since been traded TO the White Sox. His first start came against the team that just dumped him, and naturally, Liriano struck out eight Twins over six innings of two-run ball.
The Twins managed zero extra-base hits in the game. Blackburn actually had his best start of the year for Minnesota, allowing two runs over eight innings, but it lowered his ERA to 7.43. In this one it was reliever Jeff Gray who took the loss – one of many marginal players whose MLB careers came to an end with the 2012 Twins.
Twins Daily Launches
Pardon the moment of self-promotion, but from this fan's view, one of the most inspiring developments of the 2000s for the Minnesota Twins was the cultivation of a bustling, creative, prolific independent writing community that has deeply enriched the team's coverage.
It started up around 2002 with forerunning bloggers like John Bonnes and Aaron Gleeman building audiences, and then progressively blossomed over the following decade. I like to think of the official launch of Twins Daily in spring training of 2012 as an inflection point in the quality, volume, and diversity of content available to hungry fans.
Glen Perkins Takes His Perch as Closer
A rare positive takeaway from 2011 was Perkins coming into his own as a late-inning reliever. In spring training of 2012 the Twins rewarded his turnaround with a three-year contract extension, but as the season got underway, Capps remained in the closer role. When he got injured midway through, Perkins – owner of two career saves – took over the gig.
The left-hander notched his first save of the season on June 20th, protecting a one-run lead in the 11th to seal a victory over Kansas City. From there he converted 15 of 17 attempts with a 2.21 ERA and 40-to-3 K/BB ratio in 40 2/3 innings. He'd go on to make the All-Star Game three years straight.
El Caballo Comes Aboard
Looking back on it now, the trade on July 28th that sent Liriano to Chicago was a bittersweet moment. In one respect, it crushed whatever remnants existed of the dream the Liriano might round back into form as a Twin (he'd instead do it the following year, as a Pirate). But it did bring a player into the organization who would become a fan favorite and one of the decade's best stories.
Acquired alongside pitcher Pedro Hernández, Eduardo Escobar was a 23-year-old utilityman known for his glove, with little in the way of established offensive upside. He made 44 plate appearances for the Twins after the trade and batted .227 with zero extra-base hits. But over the next five-and-a-half seasons with Minnesota, he'd collect 219 XBHs as a versatile defender and cheerful clubhouse fixture.
Tom Kelly's Number Retired
Ten years after Tom Kelly passed the torch to Gardenhire as Twins manager, TK's No. 10 was officially retired in a ceremony at Target Field on September 8th.
Run Revere Run
In what would turn out to be his last season in Minnesota – he was traded to Philadelphia for Vance Worley and Trevor May in the offseason – Revere's limitations came into full focus. Despite a strong .294 batting average, he posted a sub par .675 OPS thanks to his shortcomings in the patience and power departments.
But his strengths also came into greater focus – particularly his blazing speed. On October 1st, in the season's third-to-last game, Revere stole his 40th base, becoming the first Twin to hit this milestone since Chuck Knoblauch in 1997.
One Detail You Probably Forgot
In 2013, Clete Thomas would become a glaring symbol of this era's fierce commitment to ineptitude, receiving 322 plate appearances while slashing .214/.290/.307. But he actually first arrived in 2012, claimed off waivers from Detroit in mid-April. Thomas hit a two-run homer in his first game as a Twin, but three weeks later the Twins sent him to Triple-A with a .458 OPS.
In 2012, Revere and second baseman Jamey Caroll combined for 1,090 plate appearances and ... one home run. That's almost at the level of Jason Tyner, who put in 1,318 major-league plate appearances before homering for the first time with the Twins in 2007.
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