All 90-loss seasons are not created equal.
Nearly lost in the wreckage of another last-place finish for the Twins in 2014 were signs of hope — of actual, tangible progress. The Twins scored 715 runs, more than they had managed since their last division title in 2010, and 101 more than in 2013. They were second in the American League in on-base percentage, mostly because they were also second in the league in walks despite displaying below-average power for the 10th consecutive season.
They scored enough runs to be a pennant contender, in other words, and might be only months, even weeks, away from adding dynamic hitting prospects to the lineup. Which is why the key to the offense in 2015, the linchpin of the batting order, according to manager Paul Molitor, will be — the guy who just suffered through one of the worst seasons of his career.
Wait — Joe Mauer? Is he still around?
“I think we all know that Joe tends to be in the middle of things when we’re going good,” Molitor said. “He’s sort of been the face of this offense for a long time.”
That part is true. The Twins won or tied for the AL Central Division crown in each of Mauer’s three batting-championship seasons, and the former catcher was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2009. But the 2014 Mauer was a surprisingly quiet model, with a career-low batting average (.277), a slugging percentage that ranked last among qualified Twins (.371), and the fewest homers (four) and doubles (27) of any season since 2005, save for the bilateral-leg-weakness disaster of 2011.
To be fair, he was still a relatively useful hitter — the Twins’ on-base leader, in fact — just not his former elite self, and not productive enough at a power position of first base to offset his new singles-hitter identity. But the Twins haven’t lost confidence in him. “I don’t think there’s any doubt,” General Manager Terry Ryan said, “that he’s capable of a big bounce-back season. … Matter of fact, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t better this year.”
If that’s the case, if Mauer, who turns 32 on April 19, regains some measure of gap power and returns his on-base percentage to near his career .400 level, the Twins might transition from an overachieving offense to a legitimately dangerous one. Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe are in their primes and combined for 113 extra-base hits last year. Repeating a 34-double, .345 OBP season may be asking a lot of 31-year-old catcher Kurt Suzuki, but even a regression to his career norms figures to be acceptable. At 39, Torii Hunter isn’t a 20-homer threat anymore, but his .446 slugging percentage would have ranked third on the Twins last year.
And the Twins’ true offensive identity might quickly become the precociousness of their young players, with Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas returning for encore performances this season, and Oswaldo Arcia attempting to ratchet up his power while somehow containing his strikeouts.
Santana provides speed and surprising power for a middle infielder at the top of the lineup, while Vargas contributes the occasional 450-foot spectacle. If a full season of the burly switch hitter produces home runs at the same rate as his debut did, the Twins might build upon their offensive progress.
But it’s all a lot easier if the unique skills of their most recognizable player make a resurgence. The Twins don’t need Mauer to win another MVP award. A Comeback Player of the Year trophy would suit them just fine.