Twins still searching for an identity at the All-Star break

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2013 - 11:48 PM

Headed for their third consecutive season of 95-plus losses, these nondescript Twins bear little resemblance to successful teams of not so long ago.

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Minnesota Twins' Josh Willingham during a game against the Cleveland Indians, Saturday, June 22, 2013, in Cleveland. Cleveland won 8-7.

Photo: David Richard, Associated Press - Ap

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Maybe a nickname would help.

The Twins of 2006 knew exactly who they were and how they won when former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen dubbed their bottom-of-the-order nuisances “Piranhas.” They were dirt-on-the-jersey gamers, they were no-name pests, and they somehow managed to scratch together enough runs to win.

 

They had an identity, in other words, a concept that seems foreign at Target Field today. The Twins have adopted a few identities over the years, from the Hrbek & Puck champions of a couple of decades ago, to the M & M Boys lineup that carried the Twins to the postseason in the post-Piranha years.

“I used to hear a lot of teams say, ‘We want to be like the Twins,’ ” General Manager Terry Ryan said before this season. “I used to take a lot of pride in that statement. But we don’t have anybody saying that right now.”

Maybe that’s because the 2013 Twins are virtually impossible to categorize, and that nebulousness may explain their descent into the depths of the AL Central.

“There’s not one thing where you say, ‘Here’s what we do. Come and beat us,’ ” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We need contributions from all 25 guys. The lineup, the pitchers, the bullpen, me and my coaches — everybody.”

They are not …

So far, that formula hasn’t worked. In fact, it’s far easier to pinpoint what the Twins are not than what they are.

They’re not a veteran team, not with first- or second-year players occupying almost half the active roster. Then again, they’re not a start-from-scratch team of kids, not when the four hitters considered the heart of the batting order are all over 30.

Are they built around pitching, the way that Atlanta and Los Angeles seem to assemble their roster? Hardly, not when the top two spots in the rotation are held by stop-gap pickups in Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey; their team ERA is next-to-last in the league. Do they muscle you with home runs, as Baltimore and Toronto specialize in? Not with the second-fewest homers in the American League, no.

A shutdown bullpen? Twins relievers are having a stellar season as a group this year, but it’s not like opponents are saying, “You’ve got to get them early,” particularly after setup specialist Jared Burton’s rough June.

Smothering defense, perhaps, the Baltimore Ravens of baseball? Not really — baseball analytics site FanGraphs.com places the Twins squarely in the middle among the major league’s 30 defenses, with only slightly more runs saved by good defense as surrendered by bad.

“We’re not a speed team, for sure,” Gardenhire said, and the Twins’ standing as the 14th-best base-stealing team bears him out. They’re not a “small ball” team, either; they rank 11th in sacrifice bunts, and virtually all came in National League parks, where pitchers were in the lineup. “We’ve got a few guys who can run, but we’re more of a base-to-base team,” Gardenhire said. A database maintained by Baseball Prospectus illustrates this, too; the Twins rank 19th in going from first to third, or second to home, on a single, for instance. “We just don’t have enough speed to do that, to really create a lot of moment on the bases.”

The Piranha label hasn’t carried over, that notion of little-known players creating a surprising number of runs. The Twins are on pace to score just 664 runs this season; only once since 1982 have they scored so few (strike years excluded), and that came during the 99-loss disaster of 2011.

Even their payroll is nondescript — with roughly $82 million committed this year, the Twins aren’t big spenders, though they admit they could afford more (and once did), and they aren’t stripped-down cheapskates, as they once were, like Miami and Houston.

‘A rough patch’

So who are these Twins?

“They’re a team that plays the game the right way,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said last month by way of describing a franchise that was once his team’s fiercest challenger. “They pay attention to details. They care about fundamentals. You don’t see them beat themselves very often.”

No, but they get beat by better rosters often enough.

“They don’t quit. [Gardenhire’s] got them playing hard, even though they’re in a rough patch right now,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “They make you earn it.”

Maybe so, but earning a few wins for themselves matters more. And that’s what is missing.

Gardenhire explains his current team almost like a school, with half the roster demonstrating how to play at the big-league level, and the other half watching and learning. The lesson he wishes would sink in more quickly is that setbacks are to be expected, and that one day’s failure doesn’t have to turn into the next day’s excuse.

“We all feel the effects of missing opportunities. But if we don’t get it done, then we go, ‘Oh, here we go again,’ ” the manager said. “You can’t let it affect you, but that’s not easy.”

Hitting coach Tom Brunansky has observed that phenomenon, but says the reverse is true, too. His biggest battle, he said, is teaching that critical, game-turning situations don’t require a different approach. “Our young hitters tend to be more aggressive in those situations. They’re excited, they want to do the job, and they’re just amped,” Brunansky said. “The result is, you swing at a pitch that you wouldn’t in other circumstances. But that just takes time, being in those situations more and more.”

For now, Gardenhire said, the Twins’ ideal identity is this: starting pitching that keeps games close, a ninth-inning near-certainty in closer Glen Perkins, and an offense “that relies on the big guys in the middle to hit some balls off the wall,” the manager said. “String some hits together on a regular basis. We need it up and down the lineup, and we’ve got guys who can do it.”

At the moment, that’s their secret identity.

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