One team consisted of unheralded prospects who jelled into a division-winning juggernaut in the 2000s. The other team is highly touted but has achieved nothing.
But members of the Twins teams that began the run of six AL Central titles between 2002 and 2010 look at this year’s team and see a squad that can win like they did — and perhaps go further than they did.
“I really do see similar characteristics and ability in most of the players on the team now,” said Torii Hunter, a member of four division championship teams as a Twin. “You will have to let most of these guys get their bumps and bruises out of the way first.
“The 2002 team was the result of years of defeat. We made adjustments and then became winners.”
Those teams — anchored by Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, Eddie Guardado and other products of the Twins farm system — were known for their grit, solid pitching, excellent defense and elite team spirit. Those teams ended a 10-year playoff drought in Minnesota and began the AL Central title run.
Hunter & Co. took their lumps in 1999 and 2000, years in which 18 rookies were used. Many of them were teammates in the minors. None was heralded. Hunter was ranked as the 79th-best prospect by Baseball America before the 1997 season — that’s it. Eric Milton was 25th in 1998. The Twins didn’t have a top-20 prospect until Michael Cuddyer was ranked at 18 in 2000 — and he didn’t learn the hard lessons that Hunter, Mientkiewicz and others did in 1999, when they lost 97 games, and in 2000, when they lost 93.
Outfielder Byron Buxton was Baseball America’s top-ranked prospect in 2014 and second in 2015. Outfielder Miguel Sano was ranked ninth in 2013 and sixth in 2014. And righthander Jose Berrios enters this season ranked 26th.
They are viewed as franchise-changing talents. Sano’s first half-season in the majors added to the expectations. He hit 18 homers and the Twins went 83-79 in 2015. Buxton’s expected adjustments and Berrios’ eventual arrival suggest the team can challenge for the postseason this year.
Whoa, the former Twins say.
“They still have a ways to go,” said Mientkiewicz, who has managed Buxton, Sano, Duffey and Berrios in the minors. “But the way the organization was leaning on us, we are leaning on them, with the guys who are already there, to kind of bring back the games that mean something in September. Like they did last year.
“For me, it’s a lot of heat to put on those kids. It took us forever to do it. I think the division that we won is not the same as it is now. Any team can win that division at any given time, and you’ve got the World Series champs [Kansas City] in your face.”
Ultimately, the current group of young players will have to prove they can be like — or more than — their less-talented predecessors. They have to prove they can form into the cohesive unit that Twins teams of the 2000s were known to be.
They are young and talented with plenty of upside. But can they become winners?
Guardado said the teams he played on were grinders with players who cared for each other and who were motivated by contraction talk in 2001. As the team evolved, leaders emerged.
“We took things personal,” Guardado said.
How, the former Twins want to know, will this current Twins team evolve?
“Only time will tell,” Hunter said, “if my beloved Twins will become the World Series champs I’ve dreamt them to one day be.”