In his first full season as manager of the Minnesota Twins, Tom Kelly guided to the team to the first World Series title in franchise history.
After Kelly retired in 2001, Ron Gardenhire took the helm, and in his first season he led the Twins to the American League Championship Series.
Your move, Paul Molitor.
The Twins have been in a losing funk for such a long time that it can be difficult for fans to remember just how quickly fortunes sometimes turn. But it can happen, and it has. The dramatic shifts that have coincided with the last two managerial changes provide evidence enough of that.
Kelly originally stepped in midway through the 1986 season, with the Twins on their way to 91 losses. At the time, they had not finished above .500 in eight years, but the club experienced a renaissance under Kelly, capturing two championships in his first five seasons.
After this successful stretch, they fell back into a rut, and by the end of the 90s they were caught in an extended losing spell similar to the one they are presently trying to escape. The Twins lost 90 or more games every year from 1997 through 2000, and while it appeared they were headed for a division title in 2001, they collapsed in the second half and fell short.
Gardenhire took over the following year, and we all know the rest of that story.
In light of this history, Molitor shouldn't feel too intimidated as he takes the reigns and seeks to steer the Twins out of the darkness.
Despite the timing, it likely wasn't the changes in leadership that primarily drove these last two turnarounds, but rather influxes of prospect talent and emergences of young star players, as well as savvy veteran additions.
The team is in a comparable position now as Molitor embarks on his journey, so it's not hard to draw a parallel and envision a similar outcome. It stands to reason that the new skipper himself -- uninterested in sitting through multiple years of stagnation -- is doing so.
Will the resurgence be as abrupt as it was in those aforementioned instances? Of course, the answer is 'probably not.' The Twins need to get back to the .500 range before a deep postseason run becomes a consideration. Talk of a worst-to-first swing in the Central is mostly just rosy optimism that always tends to manifest at this time of year.
It's hardly unthinkable that the Twins could find themselves in contention for the division late in the season. Obviously they need to stay healthy and get a lot of good individual performances. But, in a broader sense, two things need to happen:
1) Fast start. The team needs to put itself in a competitive mindset with a surprisingly strong start, and a record at or above .500 heading into July. This would set them up as "buyers" at the deadline, allowing them to upgrade in areas of need midway through the season. It would also make more urgent the calling up of prospects who could make a positive impact (e.g., Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano).
2) Weak division. This part, unfortunately, isn't really in the Twins' control. During his Q&A at the Winter Meltdown event, team president Dave St. Peter opined that the AL Central might be the strongest division in baseball. Well... that needs to be not the case. Not so much because the Twins need to be able to come out on top -- the addition of an extra wild-card spot somewhat negates that aspect -- but because they need a team or two they can beat up on and pile up wins against.
In 2010, when the Twins won the division, they went a combined 26-10 against Chicago and Kansas City. In 2009 they went 24-12 against those same two clubs. Between '02 and '03 they won 29 of 38 games against the Tigers.
With baseball's unbalanced schedule, taking care of business against the division's bottom-feeders is critical to contending for October. For the last few years, the Twins have been that bottom-feeder; they need to swap out of that role.
It's a little difficult to envision such a scenario this year -- the Royals and Tigers ain't what they used to be, and the White Sox and Indians both look pretty good on paper -- but you never know.
What do you think? What will it take for the Twins to be competitive in the division and in the American League this year?