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The Respectability Gap- Was 2022 a Stepping Stone?


Hans Birkeland

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It’s hard to get excited about the Minnesota Twins. They could easily be an exciting team by next spring but that’s beside the point. The Twins just never seem to command any respect.

They’ve been around for sixty years, have won two titles and plenty of divisions. No one blamed them for getting Sandy Koufax’d in 1965. They had a historic home run hitter in Harmon Killebrew, a spark plug who could carry a team in Kirby Puckett, and the Jack Morris ten inning shutout. They don't limit payroll to criminal degree like the Pirates or Reds, and they don't make laughable front office decisions like the Rockies or Royals. They've won more than teams like the Rangers, Diamondbacks, Padres and Cubs. But they remain the “Twinkies.”

They probably became underdogs in 1987, when an 85 win team defied all odds and beat a Jack Clark-less Cardinals team. 1991 was as deserved as can be, but in baseball, teams get branded and it’s up to the team to shake off the label. Instead the underdog designation was leaned into with scrappy players who were taught to de-emphasize power, much to the chagrin of one D. Ortiz. Not too long after the core of the 1991 team went their separate ways did other teams start to exploit this philosophy. They realized they could just lean on their strengths and pulverize a cute team with some nice players-If they were a good team- the Twins from ’91 on could usually beat the so-so and bad teams. The way the Twins have been historically, they’re a good barometer for teams to know if they are true contenders or not.

But the “put the ball in play and pitch to contact” mantra was pretty dated by the time the 90s rolled around. The Twins kept using it, especially under Tom Kelly. Under Ron Gardenhire they evolved into a more stars n’ scrubs kind of pesky, where as an opposing team you pitch around Mauer and Morneau only to get burned by Nick Punto.

The team has operated in a more modern way since the new Falvey and Levine regime rolled in after 2016, but the lack of credibility isn’t helped by the shameful playoff losing streak, or the declining ticket sales.

Sure, they have new uniforms, a bunch of quality players returning from injury and have made big splashes in free agency two of the last three offseasons, but good luck convincing anyone to jump on the bandwagon.

Going anywhere near that bandwagon is a bitter blend of Lucy pulling the ball back from Charlie Brown, a dash of Bill Buckner, a little hubris, that meme of Michael Scott saying I’m ready to get hurt again, the Timberwolves, and a general aesthetic of being both old-fashioned and a little brother. Imagine a toddler wearing a baseball uniform from 1910 and just getting kicked in the nuts repeatedly. If you’re new to the Twins, that’s kind of where we’re at.

This may be a controversial take, but I think 2022 was something different. To the untrained eye, a middling team got hot in April and let it slip away due to regression to the mean and some key injuries. The starting pitching was mediocre and the bullpen often struggled to get the game to superstar ace reliever Jhoan Duran. The lineup needed another right-handed bat. But I saw flashes of a complete team with correctable flaws and most importantly, a different feel about them. Maybe it was the media getting to go back into the clubhouses and seeing the human side of the players once again. Or maybe something changed when Correa was brought in.

The easiest difference to pinpoint was that the Twins certainly seemed like a more serious team. A lot of that may have come from Correa, which I think is why the front office appears to be making a real play to bring him back. Getting a dedicated, serious, superstar player who is bilingual and wants to lead seemed to make a big difference. Arraez went from being sillier than Juan Soto in the box, to looking almost menacing at times, and played meaningless games down the stretch on a busted hamstring just to say his batting title was legitimate. Tom Kelly would have hated that. Buxton was a warrior- he’s played through injuries before but nothing like what he tried in ’22. Duran had one of the best reliever season in Twins history and I don’t think he smiled once. Ditto for Sonny Gray. Even Rocco Baldelli letting his inner-Rocco out from time to time on the umpires was a welcome change.

That isn’t to say having a funny moment from time to time is what led to eighteen straight playoff losses, but with that streak and the somewhat stunning implosion of 2021, it made sense to raise the standard for professionalism a notch. They still struggled against the very best teams but had a winning record against the AL East and played competitive games for the most part, including a few more add-on runs, an Achilles heel of the 2019-2021 teams. Eventually the lineup got overmatched with the system fresh out of right-handed corner guys, Sandy Leon catching half the time, Arraez playing hurt, Gary Sanchez watching his career slip away and Miranda looking gassed. I don’t blame the injuries to the star players; I blame the injuries to the first layer of depth; Royce Lewis’ injury was the most devastating, but Alex Kirilloff’s was a close second. Trevor Larnach looked like he was starting to figure out breaking balls before he tried to play through a hernia. Kyle Garlick going down ended up being a big loss when Jake Cave and Mark Contreras were sent to replace him. How does Jordan Balzovic’s season go if he doesn’t hurt his knee? Those guys were the reinforcements, and the third string options weren’t there, as would be the case with most teams. For example, if the Dodgers top four outfielders all got hurt, that would open holes for them, as well. James Outman looks like a decent prospect, but the thought of him with his sixteen career PA and Joey Gallo being your best options out there is pretty rough. And if you include Kepler’s toe, the Twins had five outfielders (six if you include Lewis) with significant injuries, with all five of them either healthy or “about to be” healthy at the trade deadline. Either Target Field was built on an ancient Native American burial ground, or that is some garbage luck.

My point isn’t that the 2022 team was amazing, it’s that they were respectable. Sometimes the best laid plans get you kicked in the stones. Running it back and expecting different results goes against conventional wisdom, but sometimes a group needs to experience a good stone kicking. 2001 was the last time Cleveland chased down the Twins and ended up grabbing the division by a good margin and we all remember what happened after that.

And here we are, with 50M to spend and no gaping holes, with a lineup that could look like this:

DH Arraez

CF Buxton

3B Miranda

2B Polanco

1B Kirilloff

RF Larnach

LF Gordon

C Jeffers

SS Farmer

Bench:

Celestino

Sandy Leon or something

Eduoard Julien?

Kepler/Wallner/Gordon

 

And a rotation that looks like this:

Sonny Gray

Tyler Mahle

Kenta Maeda

Joe Ryan

Bailey Ober

 

Louie Varland

Simeon Woods-Richardson

Josh Winder

Jordan Balazovic

 

And a bullpen like this:

Duran

Lopez

Jax

Thielbar

Alcala

Moran

Pagan (the unseriousness is still strong here)

Henriquez

 

Not a lot of holes, and you don’t have to squint hard to see this team easily outperforming its 81-81 projection. Another factor is that the Twins front office is even more desperate now, with their jobs very much on the line. They signed the number one free agent last offseason and had the most aggressive trade deadline in Twins history last year (albeit not a high bar to clear). They are going for it more than any Twins team I can remember, and if they can put the payroll space they have available to any sort of good use, this could be a championship club. Don’t let your past trauma and embarrassment convince you otherwise!

If they get Carlos Rodon with that money, they have the best rotation in the Central with incredible depth and can match up with any team in a short series.

If they get Correa with that money the lineup is a force and the depth is similarly incredible if Royce Lewis is able to come back and/or Brooks Lee, Austin Martin and Edouard Julien arrive.

If they get Willson Contreras with that money the lineup goes eight deep and leaves 30M or so left to continue adding or to add a huge piece at the deadline.

It’s interesting stuff, and thanks to this front office’s frugality outside of the handful of big free agent signings, there is a chance for some sustainability here. Mahle, Maeda and Gray are likely gone after this year… and that’s it, unless you’re a big Max Kepler fan. The teams of the 2000s, by comparison, were capped by an astounding lack of quality depth, with massive holes not addressed, or filled with Tony Batista types. Sift through any of the 8-20 batters on a Twins baseball-reference page in the 2000-2010 era and you will be met with the absolute dregs or organized baseball: Brent Gates, Luis Rodriguez, Juan Castro, Brent Abernathy, Brian Buscher, Jason Repko, Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes, Brian Dinkelman, Rene Tosoni, Clete Thomas- and some of those guys got 300 at-bats. If Gordon and Celestino are paired with Lee, Martin, Lewis, Wallner and maybe even Jeffers, the difference is clear to see.

I don’t want to overstate this, because the Astros are on another level with incredible depth that looks to be getting even better, but the Yankees finished second in the AL last year, and if they don’t sign Aaron Judge they are still well into the luxury tax penalty with a lineup consisting of:

1. Whatever is left of D.J. LeMahieu

2. Gleyber Torres unless he is traded

3. Anthony Rizzo

4. The declining and increasingly cringe-swinging Giancarlo Stanton

5. Josh Donaldson and his sub .700 OPS

6. Aaron Hicks

7. Harrison Bader

8. Jose Trevino (That all-star nod is looking a little Bryan LaHair-ish)

9. IKF or a rookie (Volpe and Peraza do look pretty good)

 

My guess is the Yankees would still make a significant signing, but even if it’s Bogaerts or Correa they have a problem here. For the first time in thirty years, I think I would prefer to be in the Twins boat right now.

The future is bright, you just have to let yourself see it. For fifteen years or so the Twins were, more or less, embarrassing to be a fan of, alternating between bad, scrappy, and sorta good but always accompanied by a certain unseriousness, whether that be Gardenhire not knowing how to utilize the number two slot in the lineup or how the internet worked, extending Phil Hughes for no reason, or discouraging lifting the ball to the pull side. Thankfully, the roster construction has evolved from a stars and scrubs team (2000’s), to a team full of three WAR guys (2019-2020), to a stars and three WAR guys team provided they spend even 30M of the money they have left to reach last year’s payroll, with a front office desperate to make that happen. Becoming a powerhouse is the best way to shake off decades-old narratives and restore the credibility/respect needed to have any intimidation factor come playoff time. Any of the following scenarios work for me:

Correa and Tucker Barnhart, 40M AAV

Dansby and Narvaez, 40M AAV

Rodon and Danny Jansen, 35M AAV (minus some combination of Larnach, Wallner and Kepler, maybe David Festa or someone similar)

Bogaerts and a trade for Brandon Woodruff (minus Arraez, RIP, plus a top ten org prospect) plus Mike Redmond out of retirement, 40M AAV

I think it will happen in some combination, but these things tend to not work out the way you imagine. Last year we as fans thought they would trade for a starter after Sonny Gray- we didn’t think it would involve Taylor Rogers and now he's at a career crossroads. Trading Donaldson and IKF was beyond my level of creativity, and I would say that trade was a resounding success.

The division is terrible, and just as the Twins can probably count on fewer injuries next year, so too can Cleveland count on having some. I cannot stress enough how obnoxious it was that they dealt with no significant injuries the entire year. Their pitching is overrated, their lineup is underrated, but somebody crucial will deal with injury next year. The Twins adding seven WAR via free agency gets them to an 88 win total in theory, and one of their young guys busting out gets them to 91. Then there is the Buxton wildcard- if he misses time but gets healthy for the stretch run, the true talent level goes through the roof. If Kirilloff’s bone shaving operation works (it did for a young Kirk Gibson) he becomes one of the highest upside bats on the team.

The Guardians are the division champs for now, and give them credit. But the Twins are no longer the team that accommodates Nelson Cruz’s mid-afternoon naps, Brian Dozier’s Rubix cube prowess or Michael Cuddyer’s magic show then has no idea what intensity is in the playoffs. Even if Correa leaves, his impact has been felt and with a few good signings and a couple in-season breaks, this team will strike fear in teams in ways it hasn’t since Killebrew and Carew. Now return to your regularly scheduled refreshing of MLBtraderumors.

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The Twins were the opposite of respectable last year, they were an embarrassment. They played in an absolutely awful division and couldn't even bother attempting to win it. Every time they had a chance to compete in the division they pissed down their leg.

While you are impressed with the Twin's lineup, I just see injuries all over it. The absolute ceiling of this team is sneaking into the playoffs. They are much closer to a rebuild than any small chance of success. 

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8 hours ago, Hans Birkleberry said:

This is what I'm talking about, and I don't blame you for feeling that way. Frankly the Twins deserve miserable fans after the past 15 years. Hopefully they make a big signing, play well, and you can feel joy again.

Why on earth do you believe this team as somehow gained intensity?

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Some glaring holes is what I see, with no guarantee of filling them with the type of quality players this team needs to become serious contenders. The best move they could make IMHO would be to sign Correa, for once being on top in a FA bidding. (last year doesn't count due to the strike and shortened time to deal). After that they need a quality catcher which there aren't a lot of on the market. RH hitting OF'er that can mash lefties and play defense. And, the way this team has chosen to manage the pitching staff, at least 2 relievers capable of going 2-3 innings every couple of days. Although its still early in the off season, nothing has been done, and the only rumors heard are the Twins still in on Correa. An awful lot of holes to fill IMO. Then, a subject for another time, is this management team capable of coaching this team up unless there are studs across the lineup?

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1 hour ago, TwinsRealist said:

Why on earth do you believe this team as somehow gained intensity?

I believe this team with Correa, has gained intensity. Intensity to me means doing waht is necessary to win. Like getting a covid shot so you can travel to Toronto to play in meaningful games, like watching Johan Duran pitch the ninth inning, like watching Buck run down a fly ball, Duran, like watching Ryan and Gray wanting to stay in the game and get angry when being removed early, like watching a Luis Arraez at bat, like watching a stoic Griffin Jax pitch 1,2,3 in the 8th inning, like watching an Acala fastball, Duran,  Correa's arm, finally seeing Polanco smile, Miranda at the plate, attacking a fastball, Rocco arguing with an umpire, and Duran.

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1 hour ago, Karbo said:

Some glaring holes is what I see, with no guarantee of filling them with the type of quality players this team needs to become serious contenders. The best move they could make IMHO would be to sign Correa, for once being on top in a FA bidding. (last year doesn't count due to the strike and shortened time to deal). After that they need a quality catcher which there aren't a lot of on the market. RH hitting OF'er that can mash lefties and play defense. And, the way this team has chosen to manage the pitching staff, at least 2 relievers capable of going 2-3 innings every couple of days. Although its still early in the off season, nothing has been done, and the only rumors heard are the Twins still in on Correa. An awful lot of holes to fill IMO. Then, a subject for another time, is this management team capable of coaching this team up unless there are studs across the lineup?

Except for the Astros and Dodgers, which team doesn't this describe?  There are always more teams than there are superstars.  Would you trade this Twins team straight up for any other team in the Central?  This team's not perfect.  It probably never will be.  It's just baseball.

 

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2 hours ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

I believe this team with Correa, has gained intensity. Intensity to me means doing waht is necessary to win. Like getting a covid shot so you can travel to Toronto to play in meaningful games, like watching Johan Duran pitch the ninth inning, like watching Buck run down a fly ball, Duran, like watching Ryan and Gray wanting to stay in the game and get angry when being removed early, like watching a Luis Arraez at bat, like watching a stoic Griffin Jax pitch 1,2,3 in the 8th inning, like watching an Acala fastball, Duran,  Correa's arm, finally seeing Polanco smile, Miranda at the plate, attacking a fastball, Rocco arguing with an umpire, and Duran.

If intensity means doing whatever is necessary to win, this team must be at the bottom of the barrel in intensity, because they didn't win with any sort of consistency...

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Wow.  You must be working at least part time for the Twins public relations department.  Your article has more holes in it than the twins team.  The past two years have been amongst the worst ever in Twins baseball IMO.  They play boring, listless baseball.  I've been following the Twins since the mid 1960s.  IMO. They are closer to bottoming out than being a major contender.   Too much wishing, hoping and iffing in your opinions with little to back it up.  That's the team in a nutshell.  A lot of hype and hope without the substance.  What good will it do to sign Correa to a mega contract if there isn't more monies available to fill some of those wholes.  You will have a great shortstop making a lot of money leading depleted team to mediocrity.

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28 minutes ago, TwinsRealist said:

If intensity means doing whatever is necessary to win, this team must be at the bottom of the barrel in intensity, because they didn't win with any sort of consistency...

Or maybe, due mainly to the excessive injuries experienced in 2022, they just did not have good enough talent to win. 

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15 minutes ago, Whitey333 said:

Wow.  You must be working at least part time for the Twins public relations department.  Your article has more holes in it than the twins team.  The past two years have been amongst the worst ever in Twins baseball IMO.  They play boring, listless baseball.  I've been following the Twins since the mid 1960s.  IMO. They are closer to bottoming out than being a major contender.   Too much wishing, hoping and iffing in your opinions with little to back it up.  That's the team in a nutshell.  A lot of hype and hope without the substance.  What good will it do to sign Correa to a mega contract if there isn't more monies available to fill some of those wholes.  You will have a great shortstop making a lot of money leading depleted team to mediocrity.

I respectfully disagree. I blame the season long, division leading Twins, falling out of 1st place in September  in 2022 on an unprecedented amount of injuries. 

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3 hours ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

I respectfully disagree. I blame the season long, division leading Twins, falling out of 1st place in September  in 2022 on an unprecedented amount of injuries. 

You're the Pohlad's ideal fan, never willing to admit there's not enough talent on the team to win but instead always blame luck for why the Twins continously suck.

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I see two problems here.  First and foremost, your entire premise is built on "if's".  Arraez, Polanco and Gordon are the only of your starting lineup position players that can be counted on to start more than 40% of the games.   

 Your starting pitching rotation is ALL questions marks and what if's.  When Sonny Gray, who has a stout history of in season injuries in his MLB career, is your sure thing---you are aiming to make a damn by pitching pebbles.  It can happen, but rarely does.  

Second problem is the style of ball the Twins front office has engineered that last several years.  Please go listen to the replay of Alan Hahn describing the problem with the Yankees this year.  He was spot on! Its the same serial formula that has kept the Twins from winning any playoff games in the last decade. 

Fans love a good homerun, but they are bored to tears with strikeouts!, and scripted pitching changes, and poor starter outings......  

I LOVE BASEBALL. TWINS are my team, but they can't win playing this style of ball.  100 wins in a season means 0 if you can't win in the playoffs.  The Phils figured it out this year like the Braves and Rays did the last several.  You have to have a smart front office (do we have one?) to retool during the season and manage/play situationally.  Let's see if the NEW POLAD is as patient with decreasing attendance.  This will be my first year to skip Twins Spring Training, April, May and June.  I'll buy the MLB package and watch some good baseball in other markets this year and see how things are going in July!

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14 hours ago, TwinsRealist said:

Why on earth do you believe this team as somehow gained intensity?

I think they usually fail because they're just goofy, corny and nobody takes them seriously mainly due to the fact they don't stack depth and emphasize contact over power. I think Correa changed that but the injuries made it hard to see, especially given the context of how things usually go with the Twins.

 

I watched probably 150 games this year and they fought harder than I've seen until that last Cleveland series. Much different than '21, '18, or '16 in my opinion, when the team was just completely lifeless. The outfield injuries just killed them this year.

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5 hours ago, GeorgiaBaller said:

I see two problems here.  First and foremost, your entire premise is built on "if's".  Arraez, Polanco and Gordon are the only of your starting lineup position players that can be counted on to start more than 40% of the games.   

 Your starting pitching rotation is ALL questions marks and what if's.  When Sonny Gray, who has a stout history of in season injuries in his MLB career, is your sure thing---you are aiming to make a damn by pitching pebbles.  It can happen, but rarely does.  

Second problem is the style of ball the Twins front office has engineered that last several years.  Please go listen to the replay of Alan Hahn describing the problem with the Yankees this year.  He was spot on! Its the same serial formula that has kept the Twins from winning any playoff games in the last decade. 

Fans love a good homerun, but they are bored to tears with strikeouts!, and scripted pitching changes, and poor starter outings......  

I LOVE BASEBALL. TWINS are my team, but they can't win playing this style of ball.  100 wins in a season means 0 if you can't win in the playoffs.  The Phils figured it out this year like the Braves and Rays did the last several.  You have to have a smart front office (do we have one?) to retool during the season and manage/play situationally.  Let's see if the NEW POLAD is as patient with decreasing attendance.  This will be my first year to skip Twins Spring Training, April, May and June.  I'll buy the MLB package and watch some good baseball in other markets this year and see how things are going in July!

I think you can count on Gray, Mahle, Buxton, Larnach, Polanco, and Arraez all missing a little time.- hopefully it happens early. I'm real bullish on Kirilloff. I think if the pitching is thin around the deadline the FO will make a move, just because their jobs are on the line.

Hanh's not wrong- I think you have to blend the old with the new. Use data to inform, but ultimately make decisions with your eyes. I don't have any qualms with them pulling Archer and Bundy early- they were terrible third time through, and it looked like Rocco gave Gray and Ryan a longer leash starting around September. The Yankees may have been victims of waiting for the three run home run to an extent, but I think ultimately they just vastly overestimated the lineup around Judge, which ended up being Rizzo, maybe Gleyber Torres, and whatever Stanton is these days. I don't share that concern with the Twins- most of their guys are trending up and they have more of them. The biggest strikeout guys are Buxton and Larnach- you live with it with the former, I think the latter's failures had a lot to do with the hernia because he was spraying the ball in April and May.

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