The 16-straight postseason losses is a story hard to ignore. So is the fact that 13 of those defeats — Monday night’s ALDS ousting being the latest in that inglorious stretch — have come at the hands of the Bronx Bombers. October has indeed been a cruel month for the Minnesota Twins.
Remember Prince singing, “Two thousand zero zero, party over”? Since the dawning of the 21st century, Kirby Puckett’s old club has been a playoff piñata.
That’s not going to be the primary focus here. Words will be spilled on the just-completed series — mostly from the mouths of the participants — but let’s not forget that the future is what matters most (not just for the Twins, but for all of us.) As Henry Ford once said, “History is more or less bunk… the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.”
Back in 2004, with the Red Sox on the brink of elimination in the ALCS, Kevin Millar defiantly told the Yankees: “Don’t let us win today.” With the Twins facing their own lose-one-and-you’re-done scenario, I mentioned Millar’s proclamation to Trevor May in Sunday’s workout day press conference.
”Don’t give us an inch, because we’ll take a mile,” May responded. “That’s been something — when doors have been opened for us all year, we’ve exploded through them. That’s what we’re looking to do.”
That’s not what happened, of course. Monday’s 5-1 loss put Minnesota’s 2019 season in the history books, and what comes next is some meaningful tinkering. Without it, an implosion looms as a possibility.
Okay, “implosion” is probably too strong a work. The Twins are coming off a 101-win season — the second-highest total in franchise history — and they possess both a power-packed lineup and a mostly-young core. Even so, there are reasons to be concerned. Sans shrewd offseason moves by the Derek Falvey and Thad Levine-led front office, meaningful regression in 2020 is a distinct possibility.
Five pitchers made 25 or more starts for the Twins this year, and of them, only Jose Berrios is guaranteed to return. Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, Martin Perez, and Michael Pineda all become free agents following the World Series. In all likelihood, more than one of them will have a different address next year.
Let’s hear from Gibson, albeit on a different subject. Prior to Game 3, I asked the right-hander how satisfied he’ll be with the season if the team he’s been with for the past seven years doesn’t advance beyond the ALDS.
“I don’t know that there’s any level of satisfaction that comes out of winning 100 games, and winning a division, [but] getting knocked out in the first round,” said Gibson. “But only one team is going to come out at the end as a World Series champ. If every other team looks at their season as a failure because of that, there are 29 failures. I don’t think it would be fair to the guys in the locker room, who accomplished a lot, to say this was a failure just because we lost in the first round.”
Gibson also said the team “exceeded expectations of a lot of people,” adding that a lot of the younger players took steps forward and “put themselves in a spot where this team is going to be really good for the next couple years.”
The disappointment permeating the Twins clubhouse following Monday night’s ouster was accompanied by a healthy dose of positivity. Odorizzi, despite being distraught after getting the loss, lauded the young players he saw “develop and come into their own.” Marwin Gonzalez spoke of how the team is proud of itself, and thanks to that emerging talent should be “good for a long time.” Nelson Cruz said “the future looks really good for us, and hopefully I’ll have a chance to come back.” (A fait accompli, as the Twins’ have exercised their team option on the so-far ageless slugger.)
But again, is a return to the postseason something that should be assumed — especially if the rotation isn’t adequately retooled? What if the bullpen doesn’t once again stand on its head? What if Cruz’s fountain of youth finally does run dry, or some combination of Mitch Garver, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco can’t repeat their career-best years? What if Byron Buxton doesn’t come back strong? Is it possible that the 2020 Twins will be a 90-win team that falls just short of yet another October opportunity?
Even if that doesn’t happen — and by no means am I suggesting this can’t be a championship-caliber club going forward — would it be fair to call this year’s ALDS disappointment a blown chance? Could better in-game decisions, particularly in regard to the bullpen, have resulted in a different outcome?
Rocco Baldelli, who merits strong American League Manager of the Year consideration, isn’t about to second-guess himself. At least that was the case when I queried him on that possibility prior to Game 3.
“I don’t regret anything that we’ve done with our pitcher usage,” Baldelli said. “The games have not played out, obviously, in an ideal fashion. I’d have loved to have gotten our high leverage guys out there and given them an opportunity to pitch in close games, and keep us in the game and help us win. That doesn’t necessarily mean that… we made any decisions that I would regret.”
Which brings us back to the future. Twins relievers were worth 7.3 WAR this year, the third-highest total in the majors behind the Yankees and Rays, while their 3.92 FIP was the lowest among the 30 teams. Given the year-to-year volatility of bullpens, is it reasonable to expect Taylor Rogers, Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, Ryne Harper, and Zack Littell to replicate their 2019 success? As talented as they all are, this is a fair question to ask.
Of course, Minnesota’s pitching staff could be even better (assuming enough quality arms). Wes Johnson has received rave reviews since being hired as pitching coach last November, as has assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, who likewise was in his first season. Data-savvy, and with a boatload of bio-mechanical knowledge, the duo has pushed numerous Twins hurlers to a whole new level.
According to Derek Falvey, farm director Jeremy Zoll and his staff are have been “pushing the envelope on development.” I asked the organization’s Executive Vice President/Chief Baseball Officer to elaborate.
“On the pitching side, two areas that we focus on are the ability to get swing-and-miss, and the ability to limit power,” said Falvey. “We’re employing some new strategies around trying to help guys develop their put-away pitches [and] our strikeout numbers throughout the minor leagues ranked very well this year.”
Indeed they did. Among the 30 farms systems, Minnesota’s minor league pitchers had the second-highest strikeout rate.
And then there are the bats.
“On the hitting side, we have a group that is invested in swing-mechanics,” Falvey told me. “Those adjustments were mostly spring training and early on, and from there it’s been more about approach and making sure guys understand their plans. And every guy is individualized. People always asks, ‘What’s your organizational philosophy on hitting?’ I say, ‘My organizational philosophy on hitting for Luis Arraez is very different than Nelson Cruz.’ Same for when I’m asked ‘What’s your organizational philosophy on pitching,’ Well, we’re not a groundball organization, we’re not a fly ball organization, we’re not a slider organization, we’re not a changeup organization. Every one of our pitchers is going to have an individual plan that maximizes his strengths.”
Minnesota’s minor league system is a strength. It currently sits seventh on THE BOARD, with 20-year-old shortstop Royce Lewis ranking as the game’s No. 2 prospect. Outfielders Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach are both ranked in the top 60, while Jordan Balazovic pitched in the Futures Game. Recent pipeline graduates with high ceilings include Arraez and Brusdar Graterol.
The long-term future looks good, but again — this at the risk of sounding like a broken record — are the Twins going to come close to matching this year’s 101-61 mark in 2020? Unless they dip their toes into the higher-end free agent market and add an impact pitcher or two, the answer is probably “no.”
Could the Twins slide back in the win column next year and still earn a return trip to the postseason? Given that they play in the AL Central, the answer to that is almost assuredly “yes.” That said, whether it’s 90 wins or 100 wins that gets them there, what ultimately matters is what happens in October. For the Twins, that’s a script that needs to be flipped.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.