There’s no secret formula locked away in a Target Field safe somewhere, Derek Falvey joked amid the joy of a division championship last week, no proprietary eyes-only blueprint laying out exactly how to transform the Twins from bottom-feeders to perennial title contenders.
“We know where we’re trying to get to,” the Twins’ chief baseball officer said, “but you have to stay agile and nimble about how you get there.”
Still, Falvey and his fellow team-builder, General Manager Thad Levine, have been devising a smart, well-researched plan to produce 100-win seasons, record-shattering offenses, and AL Central titles since they arrived in the Twin Cities three years ago.
And here’s the ironic thing about the 2019 Twins, who fulfilled all those lofty ambitions: This wasn’t the plan.
“Surprised? Yeah, you’re always surprised when you achieve dramatic results like this team has. Nobody ever goes into a season predicting outcomes like we’ve achieved this year,” Falvey said. “In any given season, you have a range of outcomes that you project for your team. You look at the 50th percentile outcome, an average expectation for whatever your roster is, and you plan for that. But in some players and in some years, you’re going to have a 70th, 80th, 90th percentile outcomes. And sometimes you might have a 10th percentile outcome.”
Last year’s moves backfired
The 2018 season must have ranked on that low end, because nearly every move that Falvey and Levine tried — Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison, Addison Reed, a handful of rookies who had minimal impact — produced negative results. But maybe these things even out after all, because for all that went wrong a year ago, everything seemed to go right in 2019, from hiring an inexperienced rookie manager to signing a designated hitter a year older than him.
A couple of stopgap infield acquisitions, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop, turned out to be excellent fits, on the field and off. A couple of young cornerstones, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler, accepted early long-term contracts, then began outperforming their big raises. A veteran utility player, Marwin Gonzalez, signed on during spring training and played all over the diamond. A surprising midseason callup, Luis Arraez, needed about 10 minutes to adapt to his new surroundings and begin thriving.
And most memorable of all, the Twins invested in righthanded power hitters at the same moment that baseball experienced its most meteoric escalation of home runs ever, a fortunate coincidence that reinvented Twins baseball. A franchise that once took pride in “peskiness” rebranded itself as samba-dancing sluggers and became the greatest home run hitting team not just in franchise history, but in the entire sport’s 150 years of existence.
“I thought we’d hit some home runs. You could see the power from the first day at spring training,” hitting coach James Rowson said. “Now, I’m an optimistic guy, but even I can’t stand here and tell you that I thought we’d put up some of these crazy numbers.”
And perhaps the craziest is this: 101. It’s the second-most victories that any Twins team has ever won, and it stands as a monument to the greatest confluence of internal improvement, fortuitous timing and yes, plenty of good fortune that has ever converged on Target Field.
“We had visions of this being a good team. Did we have expectations of setting franchise records for home runs, for strikeouts on the pitching side, of winning 100 games? No, I don’t think we discussed those as tangible, obtainable goals,” Levine said. “We felt this team was talented. That’s a pretty good starting point.”
But Levine himself had given away the front office’s skepticism about what the 2019 Twins could accomplish. This was supposed to be a team in transition, and 2019 a year for evaluation and development, for improving on their 78-84 disappointment from 2018 and determining which players would be a part of the team’s long-term plans for eventual, sustained contention.
So when Levine was asked by a frustrated fan during a TwinsFest appearance in January why the Twins hadn’t bid on some of the pricier free agents still on the market, his answer revealed more about wins and losses than dollars and cents.
“I would say we’re laying in wait right now,” Levine responded. “The best moves are made not when you’re trying to open the window to contend, but when the window is wide open. We’re very eagerly waiting for this window to be opened.”
Turns out, one way to open windows is to smash home runs through them.
The Twins’ plans for “eventual” contention shifted to “instant,” because an average offense was suddenly transformed into a lineup of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, from the leadoff spot to the ninth-place hitter. By Memorial Day, the Twins’ MLB-leading power hitters had already bashed more homers than in some entire long-ago seasons, and they rode that offense into first place in the AL Central. Except for a one-day mid-August blip, they stayed there all season.
Good fits, all
The Twins have a wealth of talent rising through their minor leagues, from overall No. 1 pick Royce Lewis to Florida State League Player of the Year Trevor Larnach to former Appalachian League MVP Alex Kirilloff. So when Falvey and Levine began filling holes opened by Joe Mauer’s retirement and their wave of trade-deadline deals, they weren’t necessarily looking for long-term answers.
Then Cron was waived by the Rays off a 30-home run season, and the Twins quickly claimed him. Mindful of other options at second base rising through their system, they signed Schoop to a one-year deal to buy them some time.
And with few competitors in their search for a designated hitter, they convinced leader-by-example Nelson Cruz to sign on, betting that his prodigious power would remain relatively intact even as his 39th birthday approached.
They seemed like makeshift measures, and received little national attention. But combined with the young Twins roster, they produced magical results.
“C.J. and Jonathan were just great fits for our team. And Nelson, obviously we knew his makeup, the effect he could have on those around him,” Falvey said. Cruz’s age was discussed, he said, “but we looked at all the factors and signs of decline, and said, it’s a really worthwhile risk. He takes such good care of himself, he prepares so well, we were willing to bet that he would continue to be productive. Then he exceeded our expectations in every way.”
Cruz has crushed 41 home runs, a total reached only by Harmon Killebrew and Brian Dozier in Twins history, and became a quiet yet dominant figure in the clubhouse, particularly among the team’s many Hispanic players. He even continued hitting home runs after a ligament tore away from his right wrist, adding a Bunyanesque bit of legend to his considerable presence.
“When I heard he had a ruptured tendon in his wrist, my heart sank. I thought, that might be the last swing of his career,” Falvey said. “The next day, he came in and said, ‘I hit some mandarin oranges in my garage, and it felt pretty good.’ I mean, he’s a pretty incredible story.”
One of many on the good-karma Twins. When Cruz’s wrist injury first flared up in May, 22-year-old Arraez was called up. He immediately displayed textbook mechanics and an instinctive feel for hitting that kept him in the majors. Well, that and his .399 on-base percentage.
“Mike Radcliff, one of our foremost talent evaluators, told us a year ago, when Luis Arraez was sitting in Class A ball, that if we are contemplating a world with Brian Dozier, don’t sleep on this kid,” said Levine of Arraez, whose playoff status is in question because of an ankle injury suffered Saturday. “All he’s ever done is outperform our projections, year after year.”
Salvation lies within
There were other major factors in the Twins’ sudden rise, from manager Rocco Baldelli’s calm stewardship that belied his youthfulness, to the midseason reconstruction of a bullpen around hard-throwing youngsters. But perhaps the most satisfying element for the roster-builders was one at the heart of all their strategies: the development of potential into production.
Miguel Sano overcame an injury that cost him all of spring training and the first six weeks of the season, reconfigured his swing at midseason, and turned into the ferocious power hitter that had been predicted for a decade. Byron Buxton fueled an improved defense and grew confident at the plate before injuries short-circuited his season.
Kepler flourished in the leadoff spot, becoming a dangerous line-drive hitter; Polanco added extra-base strength to his game; and Eddie Rosario became an ideal mid-order complement to Cruz. And it’s difficult to tell which step forward was Mitch Garver’s biggest, his aggressiveness at the plate or his defense behind it.
All were signed and nurtured by the Twins organization. If there’s a master plan somewhere, their names are on it.
“That’s what I’m most proud of. Development doesn’t just stop at the big league level. When someone reaches the majors, we don’t say, ’OK, we don’t have to coach him anymore,’ ” Falvey said. “Mitch called us last winter to say he had things he wanted to work on with us during the offseason. He had some issues defensively that he wanted to address. We have a system, we have people in place to say, ‘OK, we can do that.’ And he reaps the benefits, but so do we.
“We saw this year what happens when you work together as a team.”