MINNEAPOLIS – While the New York Yankees were dousing themselves with cheap drinks down the hall in the Target Field basement, the Minnesota Twins were left to wonder how 101 wins, 307 homers and so much summer fun could lead to such an abrupt autumn exit.
Minnesota’s major league record streak of 16 straight postseason losses, with 13 of those defeats exacted by the seemingly indefatigable Yankees, will gnaw at the franchise and the fan base for yet another year.
For the free agents to be, the 2019 regular season might well be the highlight of their time in Minnesota rather than the start of a dynastic run. The players who return in 2020, even with their experience of October disappointment administered by the nemesis Yankees limited to a mere three or four games, will face the same questions next year about slaying the pinstriped dragon that’s bound to be among the AL favorites again.
One bad weekend of baseball on the big stage, though, can’t erase the remarkable consistency, admirable resiliency and staggering success this Twins team displayed in bringing the crowds back to the limestone-and-glass ballpark and winning the AL Central division for the first time since 2010 when the building opened.
Even with the sting of the AL Division Series sweep so fresh on Monday night, the Twins had no trouble expressing pride in their 101-61 record in the regular season that surpassed all expectations, inside and out.
“So many memories. There was something special that happened pretty much every day,” said catcher Mitch Garver, one of a record five players who topped 30 home runs. “We were crushing this league for a long time, and it just felt incredible. But that’s all due to what these guys come in and do every day. They come in and put in the work, and we all stayed dedicated to our craft. We dealt with a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries, a lot of guys missing time, and it just seemed every day we found a new way to battle back and another guy stepped up. That’s all you can ask of a team.”
So while the Twins became the first 100-win team to be swept in a division series, they also were just the second 100-win team in Twins history. The mark for the most home runs ever hit will stay in Minnesota for at least a year. The breakout performances by players like Garver, right fielder Max Kepler, shortstop Jorge Polanco, second baseman Luis Arraez and relief pitcher Tyler Duffey will serve as a foundation for next season that the Twins will surely start among the leading AL contenders.
“I’m going to take a lot out of this and learn a lot from what we just experienced,” rookie manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I hope all of our players do, too. Hopefully, we’re in this position again next year and again after that.”
Here’s a review of some key angles that developed during the season and their relevance moving into 2020:
On a Cruz
As quiet of an acquisition Nelson Cruz was at the time, the 39-year-old designated hitter gave the Twins one of the best bargains from the market last winter that was dominated by the major-money signings of Manny Machado ($300 million) and Bryce Harper ($330 million).
Cruz, who played for $14 million this season with a $12 million option for 2020 that’s a sure bet to be exercised by the Twins, out-homered both of them and became just the third slugger in team history to reach the 40-homer mark after Harmon Killebrew (seven times) and Brian Dozier (once) despite two stints on the injured list for a wrist problem that led to a torn tendon he eventually played through.
Though the Twins can count on two-time All-Star Jose Berrios, who will enter his first year of salary arbitration eligibility, to lead the rotation, they have some holes to fill with Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda about to become free agents. The Twins have a $7.5 million option to bring back Martin Perez, but he was left off the postseason roster. Pineda’s suspension for a banned diuretic will continue well into 2020, putting his return in doubt. Gibson faltered down the stretch. Odorizzi made the All-Star team, but his price tag might not be of interest to the front office.
“If I’m back, that’d be great. I’ve really taken a liking to here,” Odorizzi said. “If not, I wish nothing but the best for everybody. These are great people top to bottom, so it’s tough to end the year.”
The emergence of Arraez, who batted .334 in 92 games with just 29 strikeouts after being called up in mid-May, has given the Twins additional flexibility for their roster maneuvering this winter with his ability to play left field as well as his natural spot at second base, where Jonathan Schoop will be a free agent. Garver’s success was well-timed, too, with fellow catcher Jason Castro on an expiring contract.
Relief pitching was a major question mark entering the season, and five members of the bullpen who appeared in more than 20 games this year were either left off the postseason roster or jettisoned much earlier. Duffey stepped forward as a strikeout machine in the late innings, though, helping build a relatively sturdy bridge with Trevor May and trade-deadline acquisition Sergio Romo to closer Taylor Rogers. The Twins had a 4.17 relief ERA, the 10th-best in the majors.
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