Think of Miguel Sano playing the part of Kent Hrbek. And Byron Buxton as a young Kirby Puckett. And Jose Berrios as Frank Viola.
Bring back memories?
The Twins began a major rebuilding job in the early 1980s around Hrbek, Viola, Gary Gaetti and Tom Brunansky — with Puckett joining the team in 1984 — that led to the organization’s only two World Series titles, in 1987 and 1991. Sano, Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Tyler Duffey got their first taste of the big leagues a year ago as the Twins broke a streak of four straight seasons with 90 or more losses. At some point in the near future Berrios, Max Kepler and others will reach the big leagues.
“Definitely some similarities, no doubt,” Hrbek said of the two eras. “They’ve got some guys with promise.”
There are also distinct differences. The 1982 Twins had a lineup that relied heavily on rookies and veterans best described as journeymen. The current Twins have more veteran talent with the likes of Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe.
The biggest difference, though, is in the pitching. The Twins with the most starts in 1982 were righthanders Bobby Castillo and Al Williams, second-year lefties Jack O’Connor and Brad Havens and rookie lefty Viola. The current Twins have a big edge in pitching talent and experience, with a rotation headed by Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana and Kyle Gibson.
There’s just as big an edge in the bullpen, where the 2016 Twins have Kevin Jepsen and Glen Perkins at the back end. Those early-’80s Twins had Ron Davis as the closer. And the current farm system appears better stocked in pitching potential, with Berrios and a number of hard-throwing relievers led by Nick Burdi.
“Historically the Twins have always been known for developing hitters, but now, hopefully, the pitching is catching up,” said longtime Twins minor league director Jim Rantz, who retired a year ago. “The scouting department has taken a lot of pitchers in the last few drafts, and it’s starting to pay off.”
The veteran talent should enabled the current Twins to avoid the development arc of the 1980s Twins, who in 1982 lost a Minnesota franchise-record 102 games and didn’t have a winning season until the 1987 World Series run.
“We’ve got some young, some betweens and some veterans [in 2016],” General Manager Terry Ryan said, listing the veteran core he deems solid. “When you’re talking the 1980s, I’m not sure they had those type of guys.”
But Hrbek and Andy MacPhail noted two areas where, at present, the 1980s teams had an edge. When the Twins won in 1987, they had two aces in Viola and Bert Blyleven, and in 1991 they had Jack Morris, Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani.
“They still don’t have that one big horse, a Morris or a Blyleven, right now,” Hrbek said.
Nor, at this point, do they have a Puckett, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who set the tone for both World Series winners.
MacPhail described Puckett as “a dynamic personality,” a player who “facilitated, for lack of a better term, a great chemistry that existed in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I do believe that the greatest influence on players, despite the best efforts of the manager and coaching staff, are peers, and if you’re fortunate enough to have a Puckett, it’s a tremendous advantage.”
Can Sano or Buxton, or somebody else, assume the role of Puckett?
“We’ve got to see how this plays out,” Ryan said. “Some of these guys [on the current Twins] have a wealth of talent. Now they have to go out and prove it.”