The Cleveland Indians come to Target Field this weekend 6½ games behind the division-leading Twins in the American League Central, with another three-game series in Cleveland to be played next weekend at Progressive Field.
This is a big stretch for not only the Twins, who haven’t won a division title since 2010, but also for Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey, who was brought in from Cleveland with the goal of making the Twins the class of the A.L. Central Division again after a difficult decade.
From 2001-2010, the Twins won six division crowns in 10 seasons and finished in second place twice and third place twice.
But after Terry Francona took over as manager in 2013, Cleveland clearly surpassed the Twins as the top team in the division. The Indians finished second once and third twice in Francona’s first three seasons, then have won the past three division crowns. They reached the World Series in 2016, losing to the Cubs in seven games.
That’s why when the Twins front office went looking for someone to lead their baseball operations, they went after Falvey, who had worked his way up the ranks to become the Indians’ assistant general manager before the Twins hired him in October of 2016.
Falvey told me during the offseason that he still looked at Cleveland as the team to beat if the Twins were going to be the best in the Central.
“We look at our division and try to get a sense of where we think teams are,” he said. “Ultimately Cleveland has been the division champs here for [three] years now, and until you unseat them, they remain the division champ. We look at it as we need to measure ourselves up against them.
“There is certainly wild-card contention that comes into play, but we want to focus on how do we make this team the best it can be to compete [in the division].”
Falvey told me last month that when he was looking to hire a new manager for the Twins in the offseason, he thought a lot about what he learned in Cleveland watching Francona, who led the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 and has a 626-485 record in seven seasons with the Indians. He said some of the qualities that make Francona great also apply to Rocco Baldelli.
“I think what they do is they really approach every night the same way, there is a consistency to it,” Falvey said. “I have seen Tito [Francona’s nickname] operate as a manager and it is something to really watch. Whether they are down 10 games or lost a game 10-0 or up 10 games and won a game 10-0, the approach the next day in the clubhouse is the same.
“I know sometimes there is a view when you’re struggling that you have to change things up and kind of fire up the group, but I think in this day and age with these clubs and so much intensity throughout the games, you have to find a way to stay stable throughout the season. I think Tito does that exceptionally well, and I have noticed that as well with Rocco.”
While the Twins can’t win the division this weekend or next, there’s no doubt they can send a signal to Cleveland that they could be a real division power over the next decade.
Cleveland has the superior pitching staff at this point, but there’s no doubt whose offense is more dominant.
The real positive news for the Twins is that the entire offense is under contract for next season except for catcher Jason Castro and infielder Jonathan Schoop, who will be unrestricted free agents.
Mitch Garver and Willians Astudillo are still short of reaching arbitration.
Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton will be in their second year of arbitration. C.J. Cron will be in his third year and Ehire Adrianza will be in his fourth.
Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco will be in the second year of five-year contracts.
Marwin Gonzalez will be under contract for $9 million and Nelson Cruz for $12 million — both will be free agents in 2021.
The Twins have an active payroll of about $38.6 million for next season. And while there’s no doubt those arbitration-eligible players will get some hefty raises — and standouts such as Buxton, Sano and Cron could be given big-money extensions — the Twins will have a mountain of money to work with heading into next season to try and improve the club.
The incredible success of the Minnesota United soccer franchise in St. Paul is another reminder of how former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges really missed a huge opportunity when it came time to try and work with Major League Soccer to finance a stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
Nobody expected the Loons to be this successful, selling out every home game — and a lot of their exhibition games — and also having a great season. They lost in the U.S. Open Cup final and also figure to make the MLS playoffs, where they are in third place in the West.
There is no question that when MLS announced a franchise was coming to Minnesota, the league wanted to be in Minneapolis. All the early indications were that the club would build a stadium on the Farmers Market site near Target Field.
That stadium site would have been perfect and most likely could have given the club even more stadium seating than the 19,400 Allianz Field currently holds in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood.
But the Legislature led the franchise away from downtown Minneapolis once they realized Hodges wasn’t going to back any kind of state funding for the stadium, even though the MLS group — led by Bill McGuire, Jim Pohlad and Glen Taylor — had guaranteed they would pay for all construction costs.
So far, the soccer stadium in St. Paul is a big success. The website Soccer Stadium Digest reported recently that the Loons are 11th in MLS attendance, even though their stadium capacity is only 20th out of 24 in the league. They have averaged 19,739 fans through 14 MLS home games this season.
And the total number of fans at Allianz Field (276,341) doesn’t even include the international games they have hosted at the stadium or events such as the friendly between the World-Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team and Portugal on Tuesday, which the Americans won 3-0.