I’m trying to be realistic. Our expectations in that clubhouse should be to make the postseason.
— Twins GM Terry Ryan, 11/4/14
The Minnesota Twins set the tone shortly after hiring Paul Molitor as Ron Gardenhire’s successor. Molitor came out and said that he wanted to win immediately, general manager Terry Ryan said that he expected the team to make the postseason: This after four-straight 90-loss seasons, but before the signing of Ervin Santana and Torii Hunter. “I’m coming here to win,” said Molitor back in November. “I think that it’s very important to lay that out there, right from the start.”
Halfway through the season it looked like the postseason was a distinct possibility. The Twins entered the All-Star Break at 49-40, sending Glen Perkins and Brian Dozier to represent the team in Cincinnati. Perkins, a converted starter who was perfect in save situations up until that point, and Dozier, a converted shortstop who has been immaculate in the field and productive as the team’s leadoff man, were two shining examples of the Twins’ patience in developing prospects and adjusting on the fly. Additionally, Trevor Plouffe was mashing at the plate and handling the hot corner with ease, Aaron Hicks, Eddie Rosario and Torii Hunter had shored up the outfield, and the pitching staff — led by, ahem, Mike Pelfrey — was holding their own. The fact that Joe Mauer’s slow start was overshadowed by the team’s overall success told you everything you needed to know about the Twins up until that point.
It was obvious at the trade deadline that Minnesota had to shore up a bullpen that was relying on Aaron Thompson, who had been sent down after two strong months, and a slew of other pitchers on the wrong side of 30 — Brian Duensing, Blaine Boyer and Casey Fien — to get by up until that point. Kurt Suzuki had regressed from his All-Star status last year, hitting .230 and having trouble throwing out runners and blocking stray pitches, and the shortstop position was held together by a rotating cast of characters — Eduardo Escobar, Eduardo Nunez and Danny Santana. Still, the Twins had built a buffer between themselves and the rest of the AL, and if they got off to a good start to the second half, they might have even been able to challenge the Kansas City Royals for the division lead.
Instead of potentially vying for the AL Central title, the Twins now are in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs, losing six series (and splitting one) since the All-Star Break. Meanwhile, the Toronto Blue Jays revamped their roster by adding David Price and Troy Tulowitzki at the deadline and are now chasing the New York Yankees for the AL East crown. The Houston Astros are driving Twins fans mad, as they were similarly awful along the same timeline as Minnesota, but were declared future World Series champs by Sports Illustrated. They appear to be unfazed by the magazine’s hex, however, adding Scott Kazmir and Carlos Gomez at the deadline in an attempt to stave off Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the AL West. Even the Texas Rangers made a splash, acquiring Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies.
With the Baltimore Orioles also in the mix for a Wild Card spot following a strong start to the second half, the Twins suddenly are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture. They relinquished their Wild Card spot during their series in Toronto, which was infuriating to fans who watched the Blue Jays beef up their roster while the Twins made a relatively minor deal to get Kevin Jepsen, a decent reliever. But it wasn’t just the Jays who have turned Minnesota into a .500 team: The A’s beat them 14-1, the Angles 7-0, the Yankees 7-2, the Pirates 10-4, the Mariners 6-1, the Jays 9-3, the Indians 17-4 — essentially a route per series. And that’s not including New York coming from behind to win after being down 5-0 in Game 2 of that series — a possible turning point in the season — or Minnesota losing 8-1 in Cleveland on Sunday.
After that 17-4 loss, in which the Twins resorted to using Shane Robinson as a reliever despite a nine-man bullpen, many fans and pundits pronounced the team dead (including Cold Omaha’s Sam Ekstrom on The Wake Up Call). Depending on who you ask, Minnesota is either wasting money or not spending enough of it. In truth, the Twins were smart not to sell the farm at the deadline, allowing the team to keep its window of success open longer by not acting shortsightedly. Jose Berrios and Byron Buxton still have something to offer to this club, even if they are not a shortstop or catcher. And, really, Alex Meyer could provide a valuable arm in the pen next year even if at one point he was projected to be a top-of-the-rotation starter.
When it comes to the bullpen, player development is holding back the Twins. Everyone knew that Duensing and Fien were aging last year, and Blaine Boyer, 34, was not a long-term solution. Hope resided in prospects like Nick Burdi, Zach Jones and, to a lesser extent, Tyler Jay. All three are in their 20s, all three have stuff, but none are close to surfacing as a major leaguer. Lester Oliveros, the player to be named later in the Delmon Young trade, is 27 but hasn’t pitched in the majors this year, and Michael Tonkin, a 30th round pick in 2008, has been given opportunity, but never stuck.
At the major league level, Ryan Pressly and J.R. Graham will likely factor into the bullpen equation in the future, given that they have stuff and are in the prime of their careers, but both need to prove they can be reliable in high-leverage situations. Ryan O’Rourke is a lefty-killer who could become a value pick (13th round, 2010), as could A.J. Achter (46th round, 2010) if they can stick in the majors. All four players are in their mid-20’s. Perkins, 32, likely will be the exception to the rule in that he should pitch well into his 30’s, and appears to be getting out the rut he was in following the All-Star Break.
While the bullpen should be able to be fixed internally, the Twins will likely have to go outside the organization to fill their need at catcher. Josmil Pinto is battling concussion symptoms and wasn’t a great defensive player to begin with. Chris Herrmann has shown flashes, but hasn’t been consistent enough to challenge for the starting job, and Suzuki has regressed — likely due, at least in part, to the heavy beating he’s taken at that position over the years.
Minnesota could build support in the offseason by acquiring Matt Wieters, the Orioles catcher who likely will be available in free agency, but offering a large contract to a 6-foot-5, 29-year-old catcher runs the same risk they had with Mauer — he gets hurt or wears down and ends up at first base for the last half of the deal. The Twins may have to take that risk, however, given that the second-best catching prospect in the organization, outside of Pinto, is Mitch Garver: a 24 year old in High-A.
Whether or not the shortstop solution comes from within the organization is up for debate. Minnesota appears to be grooming Jorge Polanco for the position, but whether or not he will stick at shortstop is up for debate. “That will be up to him,” says Ryan. “A done deal? Well, we thought Plouffe was a done deal once, and we thought Cuddyer was a done deal once. You know it’s up to the player: Can you handle it or can you not?”
If Polanco doesn’t end up being a major league shortstop — a la Dozier and Plouffe — in the near future, Minnesota will end up having to go to the outside for that position, too. There’s always an outside chance that Nunez, Escobar or Santana make a second-half surge, but given the amount of playing time they’ve had and the fact that none of them has taken over a spot that’s clearly up for grabs, that seems unlikely.
The pitching staff has struggled lately, but Minnesota can’t afford to use more resources there. Pelfrey will likely be off the books next year, and the team must hold out hope that Nolasco will be better when healthy. Trevor May should be back in the rotation, and Berrios hopefully will challenge for a spot — creating a culture of competition that should be good for the rest of the players on the staff.
As far as whether or not this season will be deemed a success, playoff berth or not, that’s probably best judged in the years to come. As much as Twins fans have become impatient after four 90-loss seasons — and reasonably so — there’s reason to believe that the best has yet to come. The pitching staff isn’t this bad. The outfield is suddenly stacked. There’s young arms to replenish the bullpen. The Twins constantly claim that money is not an issue, which should mean they’ll invest in a catcher, at the very least, in the offseason. Mauer’s inability to catch will become overlooked if the team is winning, he’s productive with the bat, and there’s a premier free agent to help out behind the plate.
Keep in mind, most people that follow the Twins thought this would be a 75-win season. It was a logical conclusion, one that would show the team was moving in the right direction. Instead they’ve increased expectations — not a bad thing by any means — and must live up to them. Because even though 75 wins is an improvement from where the Twins were, the goal, as always, should be to play meaningful games throughout the year. “As everybody in this game should be pointing towards the playoffs, we are too,” Ryan said back in November. “I expect to get into the playoffs every year. Why [else] should we take the diamond?”
Follow Tom on Twitter @tschreier3.