The Minnesota Twins have been an awful team since Joe Mauer proved he was human and Justin Morneau the flashiest flash in the pan that ever flashed (or panned, for that manner). They will probably be awful again this year, according to FanGraphs. Their team is presently a whirling vortex of suck, a rotation of retreads who haven’t been good in years, and minimal young talent (except for Danny Santana).
Yet, here’s what we forget: just five years ago, the Twins ended a mini-dynasty atop the AL Central, with six division titles in 9 years (2002-2010). If you recall, those Twins teams were positioned as the anti-A’s. Small market, successful, but not with any of those fancy “numbers.” They did it based on pure moxie, damn it! One guy ran the team, interesting, from awesome to suck to awesome and back to suck: Ron Gardenhire.
Why were these Twins so good? Let’s take a (somewhat) in-depth look.
2002: Let me take you back to a time. A simpler time. The first Spider-Man movie came out to rave reviews, spawning hopes for a comic book movie orgy of awesome. Ironically, Spider-Man failed miserably after a good second attempt and has not benefited from said orgy. Nickelback had the #1 song in America. (I said simpler time. Not better.)
Along come the plucky Twins. They hadn’t made the playoffs since their World Series win in 1991. Yet the 2002 Twins would take the baseball world by storm, losing in the ALCS to the Angels. They would never be that successful again in the playoffs, but I digress. They did win 94 games and unseat the glorious Indians, who had won six of the previous seven division titles and made two trips to the World Series.
The 2002 Twins were part of a three year swing that saw the Twins go from worst to first, after an even longer cycle of suck that stretched from 1993 to 2000. What did the 2002 Twins do so well?
First, the Twins had pretty okay pitching. Brad Radke, Eric Milton, and Joe Mays, were, for the time, relatively lukewarm stuff. Radke was drafted by Minnesota — Mays and Milton were acquired via trades. Milton was part of the Chuck Knoblauch deal where New York got an awful second baseman and the Twins got players who, while hardly Hall of Famers, were not Chuck Knoblauch. This is a win. Mays was swapped from the Mariners for Roberto Kelly, in another move that had analysts going “eh.” Kyle Lohse was acquired in 2001 from the Cubs in another minor deal. These four pitchers all put in innings of slightly below to slightly above league baseball. 37 year old Rick Reed joined the Twins in trade where Matt Lawton went to the NY Mets. He had a surprising year, serving as de facto staff ace. Johan Santana, a rule 5 draftee who was traded to Minnesota in exchange for a bag of baseballs (essentially), had an impressive season in relatively few innings as well. Santana spent a good chunk of the season in the bullpen.
Except for the weird career renaissance of Rick Reed, none of the starters were imposing. The bullpen, on the other, was superb. Eddie Guardado was the closer, termed “Everyday Eddie” even though he had fewer innings than everyone else in the pen (except Mike Jackson). Tony Fiore, LaTroy Hawkins, and J. C. Romero were also superb. The bullpen, it could be said, was the key to Minnesota’s success in 2002.
What about offensively? Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones were good both at the plate and in the outfield, Hunter won a Gold Glove; Jones was reasonably competent (although he wasn’t always.) Their third best hitter, David Ortiz, would never play for Minnesota again despite a pretty good season. He was released (released!!!) in the offseason for no particular reason. Only two offensive players were actually bad — Luis Rivas (who made up for his awful bat by being almost as awful with the glove) and Cristian Guzman (who was less awful all around, but still hardly “good.”)
The 2002 Twins were basically a great bullpen, a lineup with two scrubs and seven good to great hitters, and starting pitchers who, it must be said, did not stink as much as you thought they might. It had lots of homegrown talent, too: Hunter, Jones, Corey Koskie, A. J. Pierzynski, and Doug Mientkiewicz were all drafted by the Twins, as were three of those top notch relievers (Hawkins, Guardado, and Romero).
2003: Apart from the DH, the Twins had an identical lineup. Matt LeCroy filled in as DH (and wasn’t as awful as he first appeared). Torii Hunter and RF Dustan Mohr were much worse, offensively, Rivas and Guzman were still dreadful, but everyone else was pretty okay. Hunter made up for his worthless bat with a very, very good glove and lots of homers (if nothing else). Mohr’s terrible glove totally negated even the modest production of his bat. 2003 was one of Cristian Guzman’s “turf triple” years, raising a putrescent slugging percentage all the way up to .365! Shannon Stewart was eventually traded for, replacing Mohr’s worthless bat and having an excellent season.
The rotation was about the same as 2002. Radke, Rick Reed 2.0 (otherwise known as Kenny Rogers), and Lohse all had years right around league average in ERA+ but pitched impressive numbers of innings. Rick Reed 1.0 (otherwise known as Rick Reed) was still in the rotation, but he pitched worse. Joe Mays was a non-factor. Santana had 18 starts, but still spent lots of time in the pen, helping both parts of the club.
The bullpen was still the strength of the team, but while there were no superstars in the lineup, there were lots of stars. Great defense from Hunter and Pierzynski, good defense from Mientkiewicz and solid contributions from the rotation took them to another title.
2004: The lineup was considerably worse in 2004. Pierzynski was flipped to San Francisco for Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser. Nathan would take Guardado’s place as closer and hardly missed a beat. Henry Blanco, Pierzynski’s replacement behind the plate, was a decent catcher who couldn’t hit his way out of a wet paper bag. He was the Cristian Guzman of catchers. Fortunately, Joe Mauer came up, hit the bejeezus out of the baseball, and turned out to be pretty awesome at the backstop. Lew Ford played the outfield amazingly well for a single season. Justin Morneau got his first crack at the lineup and turned out to be pretty okay (which is good, because Jose Offerman as a DH was a sight to behold, but in the bad way.)
The real secret to 2004’s success, however, begins and ends with Johan Santana, who won his first Cy Young. Radke had the best season of his career, and rookie Carlos Silva provided 200+ innings of pretty okay pitching. The Twins bullpen was still good (if not amazing), but Johan Santana in his prime solves a lot of problems.
If Minnesota had 2003’s lineup, or even played Mauer/Morneau full time, they might have won close to 100 games. That’s scary. As it is, they won two more games than 2002 (a total of 92).
2005: The rotation was, as a whole, even better than 2004. Santana was slightly worse, but Radke almost repeated 2004, Silva went from 200+ innings of league average pitching to slightly less than 200 innings of better than league average pitching, and Lohse once again enjoyed being an average starter. Santana probably deserved Cy Young #2, but Bartolo Colon won 20 games that year.
The lineup actually got worse. In 2004, four Twins had a WAR over 2. In 2005, two did. Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett took over from Luis Rivas and Cristian Guzman; both were sound defensively but still offensive blackholes.
The team barely finished over .500 (83-79). It’s important to note how many of their genuinely good players still came from the draft. Mauer, Morneau, and surprisingly good replacement for Koskie Michael Cuddyer gave the team three young offensive starters from the draft; Hunter and Jones were still around (and also provided quality play at this stage in their career).
2006: Reading about the Twins of this era gives me a new appreciation for Brad Radke. He was a really, really solid pitcher, the kind who always stayed deep in games and didn’t embarrass himself. The last year of Radke’s career, all with the Twins, he really was “Mr. Twin”, almost by default, for a generation, connecting the Twins of Kirby Puckett to those of Joe Mauer. He was never great, never awful. I’m a little sad he couldn’t muster at least 1% of the Hall of Fame vote.
Even as Silva imploded, Francisco Liriano was a hot new rookie sensation. Boof Bonser made his major league debut and started his career as the next Brad Radke, at least for a year. The pen was great (especially Joe Nathan and Denys Reyes). Johan Santana won his second Cy Young.
What made 2006 special, where the previous years weren’t, is that with amazing pitching finally came great offense. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were almost identical twins (HAH HAH HAH) offensively. Mauer got the batting title, Morneau the MVP. Cuddyer moved from 3B to RF and still played very well. Torii Hunter was still very talented. Even Punto and Bartlett were offensively competent, as was new 2B Luis Castillo.
The 2006 Twins won 96 games, tied for 5th most in the team’s history. You can make a strong case that it is the best Twins team of the 21st century.
2007: This was a bad Twins team. Yet, all of the same pieces were in place. True, Mauer didn’t win a batting title, and Morneau didn’t capture a second MVP, but they were almost as good. Hunter had another excellent year. Jason Kubel played LF very well. Only Nick Punto made a serious step back, and honestly, he’s Nick Punto. He’s Cristian Guzman with more defensive versatility.
Silva returned to respectability. Santana was still ace level, if not Cy Young level. Boof Bonzer continued the Brad Radke career path. Even the bullpen was pretty good.
The absence of Liriano is the most obvious failing here. Instead of two potential aces, you have one (who had a down year) and a bunch of meh. Honestly, I wonder if Brad Radke had come back to stabilize the rotation or if Liriano hadn’t blown out his arm, if the Twins might have made the playoffs again. Probably not, but it’s possible.
2008: What a different a year makes. Morneau and Mauer are back to their old tricks (if a bit shy of 2006 level). The infield is varying levels of acceptable. An all new outfield has some nice surprises (Denard Span) and some not so nice surprises (Carlos Gomez in his rookie year).
The trade of Johan Santana did damage to the rotation, but a patched together rotation actually held together. 7 pitchers had at least 10 starts. Boof Bonser realized that the Brad Radke career path was far too ambitious, but Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Glenn Perkins, and Kevin Slowey were all reliable if not great hands in the rotation. Livan Hernandez was terrible, but Francisco Liriano’s return gave some hope that Santana wouldn’t be missed that badly.
The bullpen, except Joe Nathan, was terrible. Denys Reyes was still a good LOOGY, but everyone else was awful (or average, in the case of Jesse Crain.) For the second year in a row, the Twins missed the playoffs, but still won 88 games and were only one game behind the White Sox.
2009: Joe Mauer won an MVP. Morneau was very good. Kubel and Cuddyer made their contributions. Yet, despite only losing one more game, this was a very, very vulnerable team.
Blackburn and Baker were good #2-#3 starters, but the rest of the rotation was putrid. Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano were the best of the rest at “merely below average.” The bullpen was improved, but in all honesty, without Mauer, these Twins don’t make it be swept in the first round.
2010: When Carl Pavano is the key to your team’s rotation, you know you’re in trouble. Liriano finally fulfilled some of his promise, and Baker and Slowey continued their path to mediocrity. The bullpen was solidly above average; no one great and no one awful.
Why did the 2010 Twins win 94 games, you ask, the second highest total of the period? Jim Thome, surprisingly, had an amazing season, hitting 25 HRs and just smacking the shit out of the baseball for 300+ PAs. Morneau was equally awesome (in part time play, due to injuries). Only Denard Span was actually bad with the bat.
What made the Twins great during this year was, for the most part, the draft. Yes, key players came from other teams, but the core was from the draft. Smart veteran pick ups (Thome and Pavano prominently) added to the roster without blocking anybody’s spot. Unfortunately for the Twins, that farm system isn’t what it used to be.
Joe Mauer was selected #1 overall in 2001. He’s provided 46.3 WAR since then, out of a class of 61.8 WAR. Now, let’s look at the most valuable players the Twins have drafted since then:
2002: Denard Span, 1st round. 23.0 WAR. Total draft: 51.4 WAR.
2003: Scott Baker, 2nd round. 15.9 WAR. Total draft: 21.3 WAR. [1st rounder Matt Moses no longer in baseball, never made the majors.]
2004: Glenn Perkins, 1st round. 7.7 WAR. Total draft: 15.5 WAR.
2005: Matt Garza, 1st round. 15.3 WAR. Total draft: 30.2 WAR. [0.8 WAR for Garza with the Twins; traded for Delmon Young and a pair of nobodies]
2006: J.D. Martinez, 36th round, 3.0 WAR. Total draft: 1.5 WAR. [1st rounder, Chris Parmalee, has less than 1 career WAR. Martinez has 0 WAR for the Twins, as he did not sign with them.]
2007: Ben Revere, 1st round. 4.2 WAR. Total draft: 4.8 WAR.
2008: George Springer, 48th round. 2.0 WAR. Total draft: 4.5 WAR. [Springer has 0 WAR with the Twins, as he did not sign. Aaron Hicks, with .6 WAR, is the most productive Twins player in the draft.]
2009: Brian Dozier, 8th round. 9.6 WAR. Total draft: 9.5 WAR.
From 2010 on, no Twins draftee has produced even 1 WAR. That’s beyond awful. An organization that thrived on the draft has simply been terrible at it for years now. If you want to know why it’s been 4 years, and almost certainly 5 since the last playoff appearance for Minnesota, now you know.