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As I write this, I’m two weeks away from turning 23 years old, which means I was seven when the 2006 Minnesota Twins won the American League Central. It also means I have no meaningful memory of a Twins playoff win, but whatever. I digress. The 2006 season was the first in which I really followed the sport on more than just a watch-guys-hit-ball level. It was that year that I figured out how the standings worked, what a wild card was, and how to calculate basic stats like batting average and ERA. So, of course, the Twins’ magical comeback from 10.5 games back in the second week of August to Division Champs on the last day of the season—their only division lead all year—made me fall in love with the team and the sport. But, the funny thing about falling in love with a team at seven years old is that the way I remember that team is very far from the reality of what actually happened. Obviously, I remember Mauer, Morneau, and Santana being awesome, and, looking back, that memory is absolutely correct; they were awesome. But things get a little more skewed as we move down the rest of the roster. As mentioned in the teaser, I remember thinking that Boof Bonser was some unique diamond in the rough that had a funny name but dominated on the mound. Turns out the opposite is true: he was a highly-touted first round pick that was always young for his level in the minors, but was never great in the bigs. His career lasted only four years and 2006, his rookie and best season, wasn’t even that great. In my mind, Luis Castillo (not the Reds starter, the other one) was THE Twins’ second basemen of the mid-aughts, and that he was one of the better hitters on the team. That just wasn’t true—he finished only seventh on the team in batting average (his main calling card) and Terry freaking Tiffee had a higher slugging percentage than him. Also, the 2006 season was his only full year in a Twins uniform, as he was traded to the Mets at the deadline in 2007. To this day, when I hear the word piranha, I think about Jason Tyner. Ozzie Guillen coined the term “Little Piranhas” to describe Castillo, Tyner, Jason Bartlett, and Nick Punto, but, for whatever reason, Tyner sticks in my head as the most piranha-like. And that’s weird, because according to WAR, he was the least productive of them all, probably because he only appeared in 62 games. And, as sacrilegious as it is to measure the Piranhas using WAR, it does show that he wasn’t nearly as big of a factor as I remember. I didn’t only remember guys for being better than they actually were, though. There were two guys in particular whose output was more significant than I remembered. I remember Nick Punto as a funny, light-hitting, loveable-loser kind of player, and I guess he was that in some sense, but he was a lot more. First, I was shocked to look back and see that he batted .290, and I was even more shocked to find out that he was fifth on the team in WAR, ahead of guys like Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, and Brad Radke. And he did so with one (1) homer. I guess that’s what 135 games of solid third base defense and not terrible hitting get you, but the idea of Punto being legitimately good (if only for a year) is still wild to me. Francisco Liriano will forever stick in my memory as the guy who gets arm surgeries and can’t throw strikes, but he was actually dominant in 2006. He only pitched twice after July and would get Tommy John the following winter, but he made the All Star team as a rookie and pitched to an ERA of 2.16, a WHIP of exactly one, and a K/9 rate of 10.7. His WAR was also third on the team, beating out AL MVP and 130 RBI man Justin Morneau. I also remember Kyle Lohse being an idiot, but I don’t think I’m wrong about that. There’s one more thing I misremember, though. I have very little recollection of the Twins getting swept in the playoffs. I’m sure I watched the games, but they just didn’t stick, though I think I remember my guy Boof starting one of them. That’s okay, though; I will always associate the 2006 Twins with good memories, even if those memories are completely wrong and I have no idea what actually happened. How do you remember the 2006 Twins? What's the first Twins season you remember? Let us know in the comments!
Mauer’s Presence In the 2003-04 off-season, Mauer was coming off a tremendous minor league season. Between High- and Double-A, he hit .338/.398/.434 (.832) with 37 extra-base hits in 135 games. Baseball America awarded him the Minor League Player of the Year and he would be named the number one prospect that off-season. St. Paul’s hometown boy seemed destined to take his place behind the plate at the Metrodome. Blocking Mauer was Minnesota’s starting catcher in 2003, AJ Pierzynski, and he was coming off a strong season himself. He had an All-Star season in 2002, but the 2003 campaign might have been his best in a Twins uniform. He slashed .312/.360/.464 (.824) with 49 extra-base hits in 137 games. He would only have one other season with a higher OPS in his entire 19-year career. Minnesota was ready to hand the reins to Mauer, which left Pierzynski as a tradeable commodity. Trade Time From the Giants perspective, the trade didn’t look that bad on paper. Pierzynski was in the prime of his career as a 26-year old catcher that was coming off a 4.5 WAR season. To top it off, he had three years of arbitration left, so he wasn’t just a rental player. Regardless of his attitude problems, he was a very good player at a tough position that should have gotten quite the return. From the Twins perspective, well… it’s tough to know what they were thinking at the time. Joe Nathan was a 28-year old reliever that was coming off his first decent season in the bullpen. There had been previous concerns about his shoulder and the possibility of those things lingering. Liriano hadn’t pitched more than 80 innings in any season of his professional career and he had injury concerns of his own. Boof Bonser saw his strikeout rate and velocity drop in the year before the trade. At the time of the trade it looked like San Francisco had fleeced the Twins, but baseball is a funny game. Hindsight is 20-20 Twins fans know what happened after the trade. AJ Pierzynski played one season in San Francisco and hit .272/.319/.410 with 41 extra-base hits. He was worth 0.3 WAR that season. Even though, he could have been arbitration eligible for two more seasons, he had caused so many headaches for the Giants that they let him go at season’s end. He ended up in Chicago and helped the White Sox to the 2005 World Series title. Minnesota got quite the value from their cast-off pitching trio. Nathan would turn into one of the best relievers in the game and accumulate 18.4 WAR during his seven years with the Twins. Liriano exploded onto the scene in 2006 and it looked like the Twins would be unstoppable with a Johan Santana and Liriano combo. Tommy John surgery stopped that dream from becoming a reality, but Liriano was still able to accumulate 9.3 WAR in his Twins tenure. Bonser pitched over 390 innings for the Twins, including one playoff start, and was worth -0.3 WAR. Terry Ryan and Minnesota’s scouting department must have known what they were getting in Nathan, Liriano, and Bonser. They also knew what they were giving up in Pierzynski. What do you remember about this trade? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.
It’s easy to look back at the deal that brought Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski as an obvious one to make. Joe Mauer was coming off a solid season between A and AA, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would take over behind the plate sooner rather than later. For that to happen, Pierzynski needed to clear out or change positions, and the latter wasn’t happening, so of course Ryan would deal him to clear space for Mauer. But while Mauer was hitting well in the minors -- particularly for his age level -- he wasn’t beating down the doors. As a 20 year old, he hit .338/.398/.434 including a stint in the Arizona Fall League; Pierzynski hit .312/.360/.464 in the majors that season, earning a deserved All-Star selection. And at 26, it isn’t as though Pierzynski was at the end of his career, or even at the end of his prime, so Ryan’s decision to move him after back-to-back great season could have backfired badly had Mauer not made the jump as well as he did. As it turned out, Ryan moved Pierzynski at the absolute peak of his value. While he remained a solid catcher through his age-38 season -- which shouldn’t be glossed over, that’s an incredible achievement -- he never returned to the All-Star Game and only twice put up above-average offensive numbers. In return for this desirable asset, Ryan got a once-prized prospect who had lost a bit of his luster (Bonser), a converted outfielder who was coming off back-to-back seasons of injury issues (Liriano), and a former shortstop who wasn't far removed from shoulder surgery himself (Nathan). A former first-round pick, Bonser had the pedigree to succeed, and (just like many of Ryan’s other finds) he did make contributions to the major league team, even if he was clearly the worst of the acquired players. He gave the 2006 Twins 18 starts and ended the year fractionally above average by ERA+ and with a 1.0 fWAR. Great? Hardly. But he was just 24, so it would have been a solid foundation for him to build on as he rose to being a mid-rotation piece...except that those 18 starts marked the best year of his career. Even if he wasn’t spectacularly bad, Bonser neither generated enough groundballs nor missed enough bats to make it in the majors and a torn labrum in 20009 ended his time with the Twins. Liriano’s arm had already been an issue when the Twins acquired him and it would continue to plague him throughout his career, though to his credit, he has continued to rehab and make it back to the majors every time he has gone under the knife. Still, his career would be typified by terms like “serviceable” and “solid” were it not for his unforgettable rookie season in 2006. His 2006 line is staggering: 3.6 fWAR, 1.00 WHIP, 2.16 ERA, and 10.71 K/9, but that actually undersells how good he was that year. Liriano wasn’t well-suited to pitching out of the bullpen, but that’s how he began the season (even recording a three-out save in a game which the Twins won by 10 runs, because of course he did) which included a three-inning relief appearance after the Tigers bombed Carlos Silva out of an April game. Liriano fared little better, giving up 5 ER in just 3 IP. Look at his numbers once he joined the rotation full time in May, and they’re even better: 1.92 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 112/28 K/BB ratio, and opposing hitters hit a pathetic .181/.244/.281 off of him. But the arm issues caught up to him once again. He threw just six innings after July 28 and would miss all of the 2007 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. His 2010 season showed glimpses of the form that had made him so unbelievably dominant in 2006, and the fact that he had 31 healthy starts means his counting stats look better, but he never did fully recover the form he had shown. He gave everyone a season to dream on and enough flashes of brilliance to bounce around the league for another decade and counting, but the consistent excellence he showed once seems to be part of his legend rather than his actual legacy. The Baseball Prospectus comment on Nathan prior to the 2003 season began “Nathan continued his comeback from shoulder surgery in 2000, with a year that was impressive only relative to the year before. He was never a great prospect, even before the shoulder woes, but he could be a serviceable innings-eater in middle relief.” Put another way: If you don’t have a player like this in your minor league system, the cupboard is so impossibly bare, it beggars belief. You don’t trade for players like this, they just appear on your AAA roster as if placed there by an occult hand. And to be fair, eating innings is exactly what Nathan did in 2003: His first year as a full-time reliever in the majors, Nathan appeared in just shy of half the Giants’ games, racking up 79 innings in 78 starts. Prior to the 2004 season, Prospectus noted that Nathan had looked leaps and bounds better the previous year than he ever had before -- and how right they were! -- but cautioned that this could be an aberration because it seemingly came out of nowhere. Here, too, they were right: 2003 was an aberration for Nathan, because for the decade following, he never again had a season as bad as 2003 when he was healthy for a full year. 2004 started with a closer-by-committee set-up with Nathan, Juan Rincon, and even a fleeting appearance from Joe Roa before he was relegated to mop-up duty, but by mid-April, the job was Nathan’s to lose. The next time someone besides Nathan would lead the team in saves was 2010, when Jon Rausch stepped in while Nathan was recovering from Tommy John surgery. Like Liriano, there were serious concerns about Nathan’s ability to stay healthy during his time in the minors, but after he moved to the bullpen, those concerns all but vanished. He finished his career with the eighth most saves of all time and appeared in the 54th most games. Of the three players acquired for Pierzynski following the 2003 season, Nathan had by far the best career; taking everyone involved in the deal, only Mauer has a claim at being a better player than Nathan. Whatever the Twins thought they were getting in Nathan, no matter how much Ryan and his staff believed that 2003 was indicative of what he could be, Nathan exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. He filled a hole that had existed since the end of Rick Aguilera’s second stint with the team (Mike Trombley notwithstanding) and held it down through some of the team’s best years post-1991. It’s fitting to see him end such a stellar career as a Twin. The Pierzynski-for-prospects deal is widely considered a heist, Ryan’s Robbery if you will. Some of that is due to Pierzysnki’s decline and some is due to Liriano’s apotheosis in 2006, but given that Bonser added almost nothing and Liriano was more frustration than fulfillment, the idea that the trade was as lopsided as it was confirms just how good Nathan was: If the deal had been a straight Nathan-for-Pierzynski swap, would the reviews be all that much less glowing?
The guys also realize that their show is the opposite of the Bill Swarzki's Superfans. But if they did model their show after the SNL bit, they chose a Minnesota sports power animal equivalent to Hurricane Ditka. Other topics include the Gophers bowl game, how to party on New Years and more. Listen below, on iTunes or on Stitcher: NO JUICE PODCAST, EPISODE #37: TORNADO MAUER