Considered a model franchise when they won two World Series in five seasons and again when they dominated their division on a low budget in the 2000s, the Twins enter the 2019 season in a long, ugly, slump.
They’ve made the postseason once since 2010.
They haven’t won a single playoff game since 2004.
They haven’t won a playoff series since 2002.
They have won just one playoff series since 1991.
In their last playoff appearance, they tied a record with their 13th consecutive postseason loss.
If Twins fans seem apathetic or angry, there is good reason.
Within the rampant losing, though, there has been a subtle development. Ever since the Twins fired Ron Gardenhire following the 2014 season, they have at least been unpredictable. That unpredictability extends to this week, when another talented but unproven team takes the field for Opening Day on Thursday at Target Field.
In Paul Molitor’s first season as manager, in 2015, the Twins improved from 70 to 83 victories. Obviously, good times were ahead.
In Molitor’s second season as manager, the Twins dropped from 83 to 59 victories, a stunning failure that cost General Manager Terry Ryan his job.
In Molitor’s third season, the Twins improved from 59 to 85 victories, made the playoffs and took a lead in Yankee Stadium before losing the one-game playoff, 8-4. Molitor received a three-year contract extension.
In the first year of his new deal, the Twins fell from 85 to 78 victories and the front office fired Molitor, then hired Rocco Baldelli.
Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine have remade the franchise. They now have their hand-picked manager and new coaches who are receptive to implementing their analytical ideas. They continue to expand their analytics department with new hires and technology.
All of their moves could pay off as the next generation of draftees and free agents make this team their own, but as the 2019 begins Falvey and Levine find themselves in familiar territory:
They need Ryan’s (and Bill Smith’s) players to win for them.
Ryan’s players are the reason for the Twins’ recent unpredictability, and they are the reason the 2019 team is difficult to project.
They could be great. They could flop. They could continue to deal with injuries that hold the franchise hostage.
Seven years after Byron Buxton was drafted, his future remains a mystery. He has the talent to become one of the best handful of players in the game, but has produced just four quality big-league months to date.
A decade after Smith’s front office signed him out of the Dominican Republic, Miguel Sano remains a mystery, and that mystery will linger until he recovers from an infected laceration. He, like Buxton, could be a franchise-altering star, or force Falvey and Levine to re-rebuild.
A wave of young players carried the Twins to the playoffs two years ago. That wave included Buxton, Sano, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Jose Berrios, Adalberto Mejia, Taylor Rogers and Trevor Hildenberger.
All of those players remain promising. Only three have come close to establishing themselves as reliable performers — Rosario, Berrios and Rogers.
Rosario is the Twins’ best position player. He shouldn’t be. If the Twins are to win big, they will need Rosario to remain productive while becoming their third or fourth-best position player.
Polanco spent half of last season serving a suspension for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Kepler slumped in 2018, particularly against righthanded pitching.
This roster contains too much talent to downplay the Twins’ chances, and too many uncertainties to feel confident that this will be their year. While the atmosphere at their camp was positive, the two most important developments in camp were not — Sano being ruled out of the first month of the regular season because of the cut near his heel, and talented reliever Fernando Romero being sent to the minors after imploding late in camp.
Promising and problematic, the Twins will probably surprise us again this year.
The question is, how?