CHICAGO – Tom Brunansky has had a major role on both 100-loss teams in Twins history, as their rookie right fielder for the 60-102 seventh-placers in 1982, and as the hitting coach for this year’s 57-103 disaster. Naturally, he sees a lot of parallels between the two seemingly cursed teams. And as he looks around the clubhouse and thinks back 34 years, he believes those similarities build an ironclad case for …
Despair? Anger? Mass firings, a wave of releases, dozens of trades?
“Patience,” Brunansky said, invoking a word that has become an expletive for a wide swath of the Twins’ fan base.
That lack of patience is understandable, because the Twins have been terrible for most of six seasons now, and this year, juxtaposed with the encouragement provided by an often exciting 2015, was the worst yet: The pitching cratered, the hitters demonstrated little concept of the strike zone, and the architect of it all, General Manager Terry Ryan, was fired by a team famous for its inexhaustible … yep, patience.
So how can 2016 be judged as anything but an unmitigated disaster?
Even Paul Molitor, assured by owner Jim Pohlad’s absolution that he will survive the wreckage and return as manager in 2017, has a difficult time believing what he has seen. “It certainly didn’t go the way I expected,” Molitor said of his second season in charge. “You try to find ways to grow through the adversity that we’ve faced — and it’s been significant. You don’t want to lose the belief or the hope that there were things that could have happened along the way that might have changed … at least the course we were on. We didn’t see the progress that we had hoped.”
Far from it. The Twins scored roughly the same number of runs they managed a season ago, a below-average 710 this year. But they are a couple of bad innings this weekend from setting a franchise record for runs allowed, and becoming the first team since the 2008 Rangers to allow more than 900.
At the plate, they are chasing futility, too; the Twins entered the weekend with an astronomical 1,405 strikeouts, just 25 short of their three-year-old franchise record.
Put it all together, and the numbers look even worse: A nine-game losing streak to open the season. An eight-game skid to open May. Thirteen straight losses to close August, and a 2-11 slog to close the season, so far. Five losing months out of six, four of them without even winning 10 games.
“The season balanced itself out for a fairly extended period [in July], but then the ending was probably worse than the beginning,” Molitor said. “When’s the last time we won two games in a row?”
That would be Aug. 16 and 17 in Atlanta — 40 games ago.
Brian Dozier was one of the few bright spots to the season, and even his year appeared to be a debacle after two months. He batted .202 through April and May, had only five home runs to offset his 35 strikeouts, and the debate had begun about whether the former All-Star should be benched. “We were all a little bit in shock in those first couple of months. We didn’t recognize this team. We couldn’t understand what went wrong, and I guess we still don’t,” said Dozier, who reversed course with perhaps the greatest four-month stretch — an MLB-leading 28 home runs after the All-Star break — by a Twin since Harmon Killebrew’s era. “There’s a lot more talent here than we’ve shown, but once you start to spiral, it’s hard to change things around.”
Many have tried …
The Twins have used 49 different players this season, 29 of them on the mound, both franchise records. Glen Perkins, their three-time All-Star closer, pitched only twice before specialists discovered a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder, an injury that imperils his career. Perkins’ replacement, Kevin Jepsen, allowed runs in as many appearances as he didn’t, and was unceremoniously cut before midseason.
Phil Hughes was hoping for a return to the form that earned him a $42 million contract extension, but after just 11 starts and a fractured knee, he too needed major surgery to remove a rib.
Trevor Plouffe played only half the season because of a multitude of injuries. Miguel Sano’s move to right field proved to be a debacle, and it ended with a trip to the disabled list. New designated hitter Byung Ho Park started well but faded and was sent to the minor leagues. Eddie Rosario and Oswaldo Arcia did, too; Arcia was eventually lost on waivers, and Rosario fractured a thumb. With a depleted and overworked pitching staff, the Twins were forced to continually raid Class AAA Rochester for emergency help of varying quality.
“There are a lot of moving parts to any season,” Molitor said at one point. “But there’s not supposed to be this many.”
Even the weather turned on the Twins, who were interrupted, delayed or postponed more than two dozen times by rain.
Amid all this baseball misery, Molitor and Brunansky doggedly picture the Twins bouncing back quickly, though evidence suggests it may take a while. Of the 40 AL teams that have lost 100 games since Minnesota joined the league in 1961, only six posted a winning record the following year. The average record following a 100-loss season: 70-92. Hurray.
Yet Molitor and Brunansky doggedly look for clear skies and sunshine.
“I always find ways to imagine scenarios that increase the pace of our recovery,” Molitor said. He singled out infielder Jorge Polanco, for instance. “It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but I like the intangibles of his desire to prepare. He seems to have a steadiness to him that I think is required to be successful,” the manager said. “He’s impressed me.”
Brunansky harkens back to that 1982 team for hope. Of the 10 players who appeared in at least 89 games, only one had spent more than a month or two in the big leagues. Like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jose Berrios and Polanco, those players were getting force-fed major league experience, and slowly adapted. Two years later, that team challenged for the AL West title until the final week of the season.
“The record is what it is, but the players — they’re benefiting. The first stage is, prove to my teammates I can play. Then prove to the league that I belong. And the next stage is, I want to win,” Brunansky said. “We’re trying to expedite the process, but it never changes. Young guys come up and struggle, and it’s not because they can’t play, it’s because it takes time. It just takes time.”