Baseball ends, offseason chess match begins for Twins

Baseball players high-five each other.
Twins' Jorge Polanco celebrates scoring during a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers in Detroit on Sept. 25. Fans are howling for the Twins to sign a top free-agent pitcher this offseason to complement the team’s hitting attack. Team executives are already weighing players to keep and pieces to add to build on 2019.
Paul Sancya | AP Photo file

After the magic of a six-month season swirled down the drain of an awful three days, Twins brass put on a brave face as they tried to reconcile the team’s historic success in 2019 with Minnesota’s latest postseason pratfall to the superior New York Yankees, vowing to mature from another three-game series sweep and bolster a pitching rotation in need of an upgrade.

“We’re going to target impact pitching,” Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, said Wednesday. “I think that’s going to be a big part of our focus, and try to figure out if we can get there.”

Fans are howling for the Twins to compete aggressively in the free-agent or trade markets and invest in a frontline starter to supplement a talented and stable lineup that slugged a major-league record 307 home runs and led the team to 101 victories — second-most in franchise history.

Jose Berrios is the only lock to return in 2020 after the back end of the rotation crumbled in the season’s second half because of illness, suspension and ineffectiveness.

Right-handers Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda and Kyle Gibson are all free agents while left-hander Martin Perez has a contract option the Twins are uncertain to exercise.

Houston’s Gerrit Cole will be the marquee starting pitcher on the free-agent market this winter and could command a contract worth $30 million annually. Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants also will be available.

Whether the mid-market Twins are willing to get into potential bidding wars with traditional big-market spenders like the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox, or trade one of their young position players or prospects, remains to be seen.

Twins general manager Thad Levine said the championship window is open and the time is ripe to lobby team owner Jim Pohlad and team president Dave St. Peter to make bold moves.

“I think we feel like we’re getting to a place now where we feel a little bit more emboldened to sit down with Jim Pohlad and Dave and talk about being a little bit more aggressive,” he said. “We feel like we’re progressing, for sure.”

In Cruz we trust

Nelson Cruz of the Minnesota Twins
Nelson Cruz of the Minnesota Twins hits a solo home run against the New York Yankees during the first inning of a game on July 22, 2019 at Target Field in Minneapolis.
Hannah Foslien | Getty Images file

The Twins struck gold last offseason with the free-agent acquisitions of designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who led the team with 41 homers, and versatile hitter and defender Marwin Gonzalez. Both have lengthy postseason resumes and became clubhouse mentors to many of Minnesota’s younger players.

Coming off a disappointing 78-84 finish in 2018, which prompted the firing of manager Paul Molitor and hiring of first-year skipper Rocco Baldelli, the Twins won their first American League Central Division title since 2010 and established themselves as a perennial playoff contender.

Falvey said the Twins should be able to compete financially and aesthetically to attract quality free agents to Minnesota.

“We’ve always been supported if we think it’s a good baseball decision and the right investment. Jim Pohlad has supported that every step of the way,” he said. “What we’re selling and the environment that we have? Last year, admittedly was probably a little bit harder to have that conversation coming off of where we were, closer to a .500 team”

He added: “I think we’re selling what people saw on the field this year. I think we’re selling a good group of players that are coming back here, a great environment in our clubhouse. … I think that’s known across baseball right now and a chance to go compete with a team that just won 100 games. So, in my mind, I feel like we’re positioned pretty well to recruit certain types of players this offseason.”

Twins Tigers Baseball
Minnesota Twins' Nelson Cruz celebrates with teammates after the Twins clinched the AL Central on Sept. 25, 2019, in Detroit.
Paul Sancya | AP Photo file

The Twins already are active. The team exercised the 2020 option on Cruz’s contract, according to multiple media reports, bringing back one of the most productive signings in club history.

Cruz, 39, became just the third Minnesota player to hit 40 or more home runs, set a record for slugging percentage (.639) and eclipsed 400 home runs for his career.

“The Nelson Cruz experience could not have been more perfect for us,” said Baldelli. “He is a guy that changes an atmosphere single-handedly, both on the field during the game and every single day that he shows up to the clubhouse. He’s been a joy to be around.”

‘Huge positive feeling’

Injuries plagued the Twins during the second half of the season and were a factor in their American League Division Series loss to New York.

Center fielder Byron Buxton, lost for the season after August shoulder surgery, is expected to be fully healed for spring training after a winter of rest and rehabilitation.

Right fielder Max Kepler, hampered by a shoulder-back injury in September, went 0-for-13 at the plate against the Yankees but is expected to recover without surgery.

However, first baseman C.J. Cron might require surgery on his problematic thumb, which resulted in two trips to the injured list and limited his swing.

Entering the postseason, Baldelli and many of his players insisted Minnesota’s long playoff losing streak and dubious history against the Yankees were irrelevant, and that this team was well-positioned to end the curse and advance perhaps to the team’s first World Series since 1991.

Pitcher Tyler Duffey of the Minnesota Twins reacts
Pitcher Tyler Duffey of the Minnesota Twins reacts after allowing a grand slam home run to Didi Gregorius (background) of the New York Yankees in the third inning in Game 2 of an American League Division Series on Saturday in New York.
Al Bello | Getty Images file

All that confidence turned to ash after the Twins lost the first two games at Yankee Stadium, and limped back to Target Field for Monday’s Game 3, series-ending loss.

Outscored 23-7 in the series, the Twins were swept out of the playoffs for the fifth time since winning their last postseason game in the 2004 ALDS.

They set a baseball record with 16 consecutive playoff losses, 13 of which have come at the hands of the Yankees, who yet again dominated Minnesota with superior hitting, pitching and defense.

“Just like I’m going to take a lot out of this and learn a lot from what we just experienced, I hope all of our players do, too,” Baldelli said. “Hopefully we’re in this position again next year and again after that.”

The pieces are in place for the Twins to sustain their regular-season success in a relatively weak division.

Cleveland, which finished eight games behind Minnesota, will return healthier and just as competitive. However, the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals are rebuilding while the lowly Detroit Tigers, who lost 114 games, are flailing.

The scars from another postseason failure eventually will heal, said reliever Tyler Duffey, who was on the 2016 Twins team that lost 103 games. Rookies who had never felt playoff pressure can build on the experience while 2020 cannot get here soon enough.

“We’re all better for having been through this, and I think it’s a huge step in the right direction. [In] 2016 we lost 100 games,” said Duffey. “Fast forward, now we’re here. A lot of guys were on that team that lost all those games, and I think there’s a huge positive feeling. Guys are growing and getting better every year, and I think we’re looking forward to next season already.”

Brian Murphy is an MPR News sports commentator and former sports writer and columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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