Pedro Munoz was an affable young slugger for the Twins in the early ’90s. Teammates nicknamed him “Booger.”
Why? Because repeated utterings of the name “Munoz” reminded someone in the clubhouse of the words “My nose.” In the you-had-to-be-there world of clubhouse humor, Pedro Munoz, nice guy, would forevermore be known as “Booger.”
There was a similar logical leap for baseball writers covering Buck Showalter when he managed the Yankees in the ’90s. Showalter was so smug that he was targeted with the insult, “He thinks he invented the game.” That insult became the root of a tangential joke: “Buck, why 90 feet between bases?”
Since then, Showalter has won three manager of the year awards. He has become more likable while maintaining his status as one of the smartest people in the game.
Now willing to share his insights, Showalter on Wednesday afternoon — after the Twins swept his Orioles at Camden Yards while holding on to first place in the AL Central — offered four.
Showalter said the Twins “aren’t going away,” Target Field might be the game’s best ballpark, Terry Ryan deserves credit along with the new front office and the Twins could have played like this a year ago.
He couldn’t have been more right if he had said that Miguel Sano’s belly-first slide in Wednesday’s game had the same effect on tectonic plates as fracking.
Showalter called Target Field “my favorite ballpark, other than ours.” He’s right. Target Field remains a wonder, one of baseball’s best parks located within a city and on the smallest footprint in the game.
He stole my line, saying of the 2017 Twins, “That’s the team I thought they were going to be last year.” I thought last year’s team might win 87 or more games. This year’s Twins roster is almost identical, yet enters the weekend with the third-best record in the American League.
Showalter said, “It’s a well-thought-out roster. You can see the way it fits, with the switch hitters and the defenders and the runners and the way they can move the parts around. A lot of it is the influence of [former General Manager] Terry Ryan through the years. And with [current GM] Thad Levine coming in, they’ve kind of taken a little step into modernizing some things.”
Showalter is right. The best players on the current team are the result of Ryan’s spending and insights. His front office outbid everyone in baseball for Ervin Santana and Miguel Sano, identified Jose Berrios and Max Kepler as high-value targets and oversaw the international scouting that led to the arrival of Sano, Berrios, Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario.
Levine and baseball boss Derek Falvey dramatically improved the defense at catcher and have more effectively communicated the proper uses of analytics on a daily basis.
Showalter said, “They’re not going away. If they continue to pitch, they’re going to be tough.”
This is the most speculative of Showalter’s observations. An injury to Sano or Santana could devastate the Twins and it remains to be seen if the farm system can provide enough depth to support the pitching staff for another 14 weeks.
But what we’re seeing is less a miracle recovery from a 103-loss season and more a return to the new normal that arrived in 2015, before the bizarrely disappointing 2016 season cost the organization credibility and blew up its front office.
Ryan’s organization built a strong farm system. He was fired because he didn’t develop enough quality homegrown starting pitching.
Today the products of that farm system have the Twins in first place in the Central, and the rise of Berrios, the 2012 first-round draft pick of Ryan’s second tenure, is the best reason to believe Showalter might be right about this team’s staying power.
Showalter’s testimonials should be heartening to the Twins. After all, 90 feet between bases turned out to be just about perfect.