Hartman: Twins have gone from worst to first before

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2014 - 1:35 AM

Tom Brunansky was part of a terrible Twins team in 1982. Five years later, they won the World Series.

Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky said he believes there is hope for this Twins squad, even though they have lost at least 96 games in each of the past three seasons. That’s because Brunansky was a right fielder on the 1982 Twins who posted a 60-102 record — the worst in franchise history — and then five years later won the World Series.

Brunansky says there is hope for improvement because of the franchise’s crop of good prospects in the minors. Many players on that 1982 squad were young but would eventually mature and have success.

Brunansky, first baseman Kent Hrbek, infielder Roy Smalley, third baseman Gary Gaetti, outfielder/ designated hitter Randy Bush and catchers Tim Laudner and Sal Butera were all members of the ’82 squad who were still active with the Twins in ’87, with all but Butera making large contributions to that World Series-winning squad. Smalley was traded to the Yankees in April 1982, then reacquired from the White Sox before the 1985 season. Butera was traded to the Tigers in 1983 and also played for the Expos and Reds before being re-signed as a free agent by the Twins in May 1987.

There was a drastic difference in the continuity of the pitching staff during those five years: The Twins only had one pitcher, Frank Viola, on the roster in 1987 who was there in ’82. It’s possible to imagine a similar situation happening over the next five years as Twins pitching prospects develop and reach the majors.

Brunansky was asked what he recalled about that ’82 season, his first with the Twins and second in the majors.

“We had a lot of talent and we were young and we were learning how to play at the big-league level and getting our feet wet,” he said. “Unfortunately that meant a lot of losses, but we learned how to play together and we learned how to win. And five years later, we had a good celebration.”

Brunansky also talked about how over the next five years the Twins slowly upgraded the roster. They added shortstop Greg Gagne, who was acquired as part of the Smalley trade but played in only 10 games for the Twins in 1983. In ’84, the team added center fielder Kirby Puckett and pitcher Mike Smithson. In ’85, second baseman Steve Lombardozzi and catcher Mark Salas arrived, along with pitchers Bert Blyleven and Mark Portugal. In ’86, outfielders Billy Beane and Mark Davidson and infielder Chris Pittaro joined the offense and pitchers Keith Atherton, George Frazier, Allan Anderson and Roy Smith were added.

So over the course of four .500-or-under seasons, the Twins added several key contributors to the team that would win the 1987 World Series. In 1983 they went 70-92, in 1984 they were 81-81, in ’85 they were 77-85 and in ’86 they were 71-91.

“Well, that’s what we had to do,” said Brunansky about the slow buildup of talent. “That was something Calvin Griffith [who didn’t have as much financial clout as his successor as owner, Carl Pohlad] still made sure we had a lot of talent, but we were young. He kept bringing up more talent and more talent and we’d trade a lot of the veterans and get younger players in return. Four or five years later, we had matured into a veteran ballclub and put it together.”

Does Brunansky think the current Twins could be in the middle of a similar process?

“Absolutely,” he said. “I see a lot of good stuff going on and I know these kids are young and going through some stages, but we’re trying to expedite that process and go out there and be good. Then all of a sudden, when they start believing they can be good, then we’ll take off.”

Brunansky said he struggled, too, before he became the player who hit 32 home runs, produced 85 RBI and scored 83 runs in 1987.

“There are stages you have to go through as a young player to become an established major league veteran,” he said. “You have to go through those processes. There is no shortcut. Unfortunately with that comes some ups and downs and some tough times, but that’s part of the game.”

During that period of losing, the Twins didn’t have two prospects in the minor leagues as highly rated as center fielder Byron Buxton, who Baseball America ranks No. 1 overall, and third baseman Miguel Sano, who they ranked third before his Tommy John surgery in March.

With the Twins’ minor league system ranked as the second-best in baseball behind Pittsburgh, there has to be hope for other young players out there — such as Hrbek, Puckett, Gaetti and others once did — who will turn the tide for this team.

Jottings

• Twins manager Ron Gardenhire on Joe Mauer’s play at his new position, first base: “He’s fine. It’s a work in progress, but it’s fine. He’s still kind of getting a feel for everything he does over there at first base, but he’ll be fine. … He can catch the ball, it’s just the more experience that he gets over there, the more games played, he’ll be better.” Mauer has handled 64 chances so far with no errors. He is hitting .250 through nine games.

• Gophers guard Austin Hollins is expected to be one of the seniors invited to take part in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational basketball tournament that takes place from April 16-19.

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