History offers blueprints for a turnaround

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2012 - 11:09 PM

Other teams have rebuilt from disastrous seasons, as the Twins must do.

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Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, left, and manager Kirk Gibson

Photo: Rob Schumacher, Associated Press - Ap

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The Twins will be attempting a historical first this season, since no team dating to the start of division play in 1969 ever has lost as many as 99 games and managed to reach the postseason the following summer.

But to members of the Twins organization, history also offers hope.

"I think it's important to remind people that we did win 94 games the previous season [in 2010]," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "It's not like we lost 99, 98 and 97 games the previous seasons. ... We basically have a lot of the same guys, certainly in the [starting] pitching staff, that we won 94 games with."

Indeed, none of the teams that lost 99 games in the past 42 years ever won as many games as the 94 the Twins won in the previous season. And yet, Ryan is well aware that in some areas, the Twins are dramatically different today than they were in 2010, dictating a need for change.

The most significant area: the bullpen. And if history offers a lesson, it's that the key to a rapid turnaround almost always includes either a strong bullpen or exceptional rotation.

Six teams since 1969 have lost at least 95 games and rebounded to reach the postseason the next season. Almost all had strong bullpens or dominating starting pitching.

The most recent example is Arizona, where Kevin Towers last year conducted a seminar on a quick comeback. Towers became general manager of Arizona before last season, with the Diamondbacks coming off a 65-97 season in 2010. He said in an interview this spring that he set out to improve three key areas: his bullpen, his bench and the frequency with which Arizona hitters put the ball in play.

Towers hit the lottery with his bullpen, signing closer J.J. Putz as a free agent, trading for setup man David Hernandez, signing Micah Owings as a minor league free agent and plucking Joe Paterson in the Rule 5 draft. All four became mainstays of a Diamondbacks bullpen that became a key to the team's success.

Towers also wanted a veteran bench that could play roles, helping to protect leads defensively and able to put the ball in play when called upon to pinch hit. The Arizona GM brought in numerous low-priced veteran free agents to build his bench, including current Twins infielder Sean Burroughs.

Towers felt a major problem for the offense in 2010 was the team's major league-record 1,529 strikeouts. Power-hitting third baseman Mark Reynolds struck out 211 times and was traded to Baltimore in the deal that brought reliever Hernandez. First baseman Adam LaRoche fanned 172 times and was allowed to leave via free agency.

"We had four or five guys with 150 or more strikeouts, and when you have that many guys striking out, you can't sustain rallies," Towers said. "It takes the pressure off your opponents, because you're playing for big innings. The best way to win games is to apply pressure on your opponents. The quicker you can get their starters out, the more you see of their middle relief. And if they're not a large-market team, that's where they're usually vulnerable."

Twins fans know that all too well. The 2010 bullpen was superb, led by Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier, both of whom pitched in 70-plus games. Both righthanders left as free agents when the season ended, and the Twins still are searching for their replacements. A year ago the Twins had a bullpen ERA of 4.51, worst in the majors.

"Yes, pitching is probably the ingredient that you can turn a team around with in a hurry,'' Ryan said. "Of course, if you don't field, you have all kinds of problems."

Indeed, there's no single formula for turning a big loser into a winner. While most agree pitching is the key, Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin noted that four of last year's playoff teams were among the top five in the majors in runs scored. The stats for pitching and defense did not correlate as well to success, Melvin noted, pointing out that the Rangers were 24th in errors, the Cardinals 27th. And those two teams met in the World Series.

"Your focus has to be on balance," Melvin said. "You can't be bad at one thing -- you have to be balanced. You can't have great offense and no pitching, and you can't have great pitching and no offense. Look at the pitching the Giants had last year, and they didn't make the playoffs."

The Twins of last season were balanced, although not in a positive way. They ranked 25th in runs scored, 29th in ERA and 28th in errors.

But Joe Mauer, like Ryan, contends the Twins, if healthy, are closer to 2010 and 94 victories than last summer's woebegone club.

"We had a lot of things happen to us last year, and if people don't want to believe in us, that's fine," the catcher said. "But there's a good vibe in this clubhouse, and the people in here know what we're capable of."

Capable of making history?

"Capable of making history," Mauer said.

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