Were the Twins to go the way of many teams and begin a long rebuild to return to contention? "I'm not using that word," Derek Falvey told the beat writers. Instead, 2022 would be a year for a reload.
But what does a successful reload look like? The Twins set out to return to playoff contention as they had in 2019 and 2020. Doing so would require more money and trades than the team had done in previous years of Pohlad ownership.
Teams often reload for playoff contention for several reasons but usually require a strong central core and only a few critical holes to fill. For the 2016 Red Sox, their last year with Hall of Famer David Ortiz and an ascending Mookie Betts, it meant grabbing David Price on a $217 million deal and Craig Kimbrel in a trade with San Diego. The team went from last to first in the division for the next three years, including a World Series ring in 2018.
However, a better comparison for teams with smaller payrolls might be those 2005 White Sox. Their opening day lineup only featured three of the same faces from 2004, but none were rookies. Instead, Ozzie Guillén and Kenny Williams tried to rethink what kind of players to build around their core, grabbing AJ Pierzynski, Jermaine Dye, Tadahito Iguchi, and Scott Podsednik. Most of their core pitching returned, with Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernández filling in as their fifth man. Their salary ballooned from $65 million to $75 million, while the first-place Twins remained essentially static in the $50 million range. Of course, it was all worth it: the White Sox were an era-defining team, winning the division by six games, going on one of the all-time great post-season runs, and ending an 88-year-old championship drought.
For the Twins going into 2022, there was enough in the revolver for one last go of a core set of players: Jorge Polanco, Byron Buxton, Josh Donaldson, Luis Arraez, Mitch Garver, and Miguel Sano, plus some promise with Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober, Trevor Larnach, and Alex Kirilloff to step up (not to mention the many hopes around the arrival of Royce Lewis). Their bullpen had enough interesting names to build around.
So why didn't the Twins work?
First, the Twins had too many holes to fill, particularly in the starting pitching realm. Ober and Ryan had less than 100 innings under their belts, and Kenta Maeda was merely a glimmer of promise for a late-season comeback. The Twins needed a Day One starter, but quickly missed names like Carlos Rodon, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard, all of who made splashy but not impossible out-of-reach deals for the organization to match.
When the market reopened, the Twins rebounded by making the smart move to trade their first-round draft pick for Sonny Gray. But then they went with not one not two but three different "fix me up" projects: Dylan Bundy, Chris Archer, and Chris Paddack. Beyond Gray, that left five essentially unproven starters on opening day. The bullpen additions were equally shaky with the additions of Joe Smith and Emilio Pagán while dealing Taylor Rogers. Most importantly, the Twins essentially committed almost no new money in this realm beyond their trade capital, an odd sign for a team serious about contending.
Of course, the Twins put money down this season with a pair of $100+ million contracts: an extension of Buxton and a second in a blockbuster deal to commit $35.1 million a year to Carlos Correa. Bringing in a playoff specialist like Correa was the essential move they needed. It at least felt part of their decision to erase bad clubhouse vibes by flipping Josh Donaldson for Yankees veterans Gio Urshela and Gary Sánchez. Neither Urshela nor Sánchez were the top Bronx bombers, but there was plenty of sense they were the kind of players who understood big spots and big games.
And yet, the Twins probably remained slim in other veteran talent to reinforce their lineup. The previous year had demonstrated that the team did not have their prospects ready to go as eight different men took to center field to fill in injury after injury. Whether the Twins expected this year's injury woes to be worse than last year, their decision to depend entirely on prospects to back up Buxton and Kepler felt short-sided with plenty of low-end veterans available on the market (Kevin Pillar for example took a minor league deal with the Dodgers). A strong reload rarely means depending on new players—those 2005 Sox were all veterans beyond their season call-up of closer Bobby Jenks—but the Twins seemingly put a lot of hope on what feels like too many prospects suddenly becoming core players. Jose Miranda, Griffin Jax, and Jhoan Duran, have made themselves essential to this year's success, but others still have question marks about their long term viability (whether injury or ability). Either way, building through prospects is similar to what this year's Mariners have done where team has done after a long rebuild where they plan on years of contention after making a number of high profile trades and signings of known quantities to reinforce any flops of their prospects (Julio Rodríguez and George Kirby has outshined all potential, while Jarred Kelenic has essentially disappeared). Reloads are not just about graduating prospects; it's about building with those who don't need time to figure out their success.
In another world, Donaldson was traded for prospects rather than big leaguers, and you could imagine Buxton, Polanco, and even Arraez packing their bags for other ballparks. Watching multiple seasons of poor performance in the hope of a good team down the road is no one's idea of fun, so the fact that the Twins pushed this year remains a blessing.
But in retrospect, their approach in the reload feels odd. The Twins did increase their salary by 20% this season, but in the end, they were perhaps not in the place for the reload that wins championships.
What was missing from the Twins reload? Sound off in the comments.