The Twins stayed in or near first place in the AL Central for 3 ½ months this season thanks to a combination of strong defense, adequate offense, a bend-but-don't-break bullpen, mediocrity within the division and — let's face it — some good old-fashioned luck.
They were 48-46, half a game out of first place, on July 19 — less than two weeks ago. They had given up 61 more runs on the season than they had scored, but they had been very good in close games — 10-5 in one-run games — and their bullpen, while sporting a bruised ERA, had established at least a capable 1-2 punch of Taylor Rogers and Brandon Kintzler at the end. If the Twins could get deep into a ballgame with a lead, they felt reasonably good about their chances.
All along, though, it seemed like the Twins were one or two dependable bullpen arms away from feeling really secure about life after the sixth inning.
It was a failure of roster construction — much of it bad luck for new bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, and part of a lack of urgency on their part. Eventually, the bullpen woes became a self-fulfilling prophecy that fueled the Twins' seemingly inevitable slide, leading to Monday's deadline trade of Kintzler for a Class A prospect.
The bad luck was that so many of the Twins' power minor league arms — the guys they have been waiting on for two or three years — succumbed to injuries. Also: Trevor May and Glen Perkins haven't pitched all year because of injuries. Ryan Pressly regressed. Those are significant obstacles.
The lack of urgency was this: The Twins bullpen was a problem last year (and in past years) under the old leadership team. To that group, the notable outside additions were Matt Belisle (a 37-year-old with a career 4.22 ERA) and Craig Breslow (a 36-year-old journeyman who has since been designated for assignment after a poor season). Neither was likely to be a high-impact reliever.
The Twins survived because Kintzler and Rogers overachieved, Tyler Duffey was good enough as a third option and the lower-leverage guys were used as much as possible when the Twins were ahead by a lot or down by a lot (more often the latter based on their run differential and 13-21 record in blowout games this season).
Then everything fell apart at once. Cleveland and Kansas City went on big winning streaks, turning the AL Central from mediocre to competitive. The Twins lost a bunch of winnable games on the West Coast, the last three of which came in walkoff fashion. In two of those three games, the Twins led 5-0 only to lose 6-5. In the other, they led 4-3 in the ninth. Rogers had a bad week. Kintzler took the loss a walkoff. Suddenly the Twins looked up Monday and were seven games back in the division race at 50-53.
After Rogers gave up the two-run walkoff home run Saturday, manager Paul Molitor said this (while also praising Rogers for how good he had been for most of the year): "It just goes to show you, you can't take for granted the value of outs late in games and people who can handle that."
It sounded like a manager throwing his hands up and saying, "This is all I have to work with, and when Plan A doesn't work we're in trouble."
The bullpen the Twins built turned them from buyers to sellers right at the trade deadline. Maybe that's the appropriate course of action. Maybe it's what Falvey and Levine envisioned all along, and they sure helped the Twins get there.