MILWAUKEE - These days, as LeBron James, Tom Brady and Joe Biden remind us, age is in. Experience is essential.
Or so the Twins hope.
Five seasons ago, the Twins fielded the second-youngest team in the American League (and lost 103 games for it). Last September, the Twins won their second consecutive AL Central championship by utilizing the overall oldest roster in the league.
And as their 2021 season opens Thursday inside American Family Field, the Twins have reaffirmed, for now, their faith in that demographic.
Of the six Twins in uniform for Opening Day who were not on the roster in 2020, only 29-year-old journeyman outfielder Kyle Garlick is younger than 30. And for the third consecutive winter, following the pickups of Nelson Cruz in 2019 and Josh Donaldson before 2020, the Twins' most pivotal free-agent addition, a still-productive player and a clear upgrade in his role, is also an accomplished veteran whose greatest season is almost certainly in the past.
"Since we've been here, our mission has been a binary one: To position this franchise for sustained, continuous excellence and achievement over the long term," Twins General Manager Thad Levine said, "but also to retain enough flexibility to pivot when necessary in order to have success in the moment. Seize the challenge in front of you."
They lived up to that exhortation this offseason by signing, for this year alone, Andrelton Simmons and his four Gold Gloves to play shortstop, a move that enhanced the defense at two positions by bumping Jorge Polanco to second base. They enticed Alex Colome, who owns more saves than the rest of the pitching staff combined, to buttress their bullpen. And they filled out their rotation with a righty-lefty pair, Matt Shoemaker and J.A. Happ, who have started more than 400 big-league games.
"On paper, we look better" than the 2020 team, said reliever Taylor Rogers. "Really, it'll come down to health. If we're healthy, then it is better than last year for sure."
That's saying something, since by nearly any measure, 2019 and 2020 constituted the most successful two-year span of baseball in Twins history. Their 137 victories are the most in the American League and second only to the Dodgers in the majors. They won back-to-back AL Central titles, hit the second-most home runs in baseball, and employed a player who finished sixth in MVP voting (Cruz) and the Cy Young runner-up (Kenta Maeda).
OK, OK, most successful regular seasons. Their streak of playoff losses also reached 18 games, a mind-boggling stretch of disappointment. "We understand that a certain segment of our supporters view regular-season accomplishments with skepticism, and will until we change our results in October," said Derek Falvey, the team's president of baseball operations. "We can't take quite the same tack, but believe me, we share their frustration."
For now, though, the Twins appear to be a team edging toward another transition, but aiming to stay in contention, with the help of a few targeted veterans, while their top prospects surge toward Target Field. For that task, they have a manager — ironically, the youngest in the game at age 39 — who has made "quality over quantity," the commitment to rest players routinely in hopes it keeps them more productive, his guiding philosophy.
"The idea that you're going to put the same guys in the lineup every day and expect them to be [at their best] 150 times, that's not realistic," said Rocco Baldelli, owner of the best winning percentage in Twins managerial history. "Our depth gives us an advantage."
Baldelli plans to divide time almost evenly between catchers Ryan Jeffers and Mitch Garver, for instance. Byron Buxton and Max Kepler can expect to patrol the outfield most days, but he plans to utilize as many as five different options to fill the void created by Eddie Rosario's departure, a sign of strength, Baldelli insists. And he wants Luis Arraez to bat 400-500 times this season, despite not having a regular position.
Arraez "showed up this year and he's doing everything he can so he's healthy the whole year. And he even looks more muscular, he feels very strong, the way he's running the bases he seems like he's really in full form," said Cruz, the third oldest player in the majors behind Albert Pujols and Rich Hill. "And that will help us. It takes a lot for us to win the division. It's going to be tougher."
Unlike two years ago, when they set a new MLB record for home runs, it's difficult to specify anything the Twins do better than any other team — but it's also difficult to pinpoint any glaring weaknesses. The Twins' run production dropped precipitously, by more than a run per game, in 2020 and was largely responsible for their two-game collapse in the playoffs. But nagging injuries to Donaldson, Polanco, Garver and Buxton were partly responsible, and the Twins are banking on a big bounce-back.
Of course, a silent spring — the Twins were the worst hitting team in the Grapefruit League — didn't do much to alleviate any angst over the offense.
"In 2013, I didn't hit any homers in spring training, and then I led the league in homers. That's the case sometimes, you hit well in spring training, and then the season starts, you're in a slump," Cruz said reassuringly. "[Thursday] is what really matters and what we are really looking for."
On the mound
They're hoping the opposite is true for their pitching staff, after Maeda ripped through the spring by allowing only one run. He'll head a pitching staff that looks sturdy at the top, including Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda, and with Happ, Shoemaker and Randy Dobnak filling in behind them.
"One run per month, that's a long shot. That's a tough one to accomplish," Maeda joked. "Please don't get your hopes too high on that."
A revamped bullpen that has added two pitchers with closer experience, Colome and Hansel Robles, is an underrated factor in this year's team, Rogers said.
"A lot of guys have an internal fire about them. Definitely Colome's got that internal fire," said Rogers, who figures to share ninth-inning duties with the former White Sox closer. "We haven't created our identity yet. … This bullpen has a lot of potential. I'm really excited to see how we end up doing."