The Minnesota Twins completed their improbable run to the playoffs this week when they wrapped up a spot in Tuesday’s American League wild-card game. All season long, as I looked at this team’s lineup and numbers, I found myself asking “How are they doing this?” With more talented teams like the Orioles and Royals also in the picture, it seemed inevitable the Twins would fade. But they didn’t and they’re into the postseason for the first time since 2010.
I still ask myself how manager Paul Molitor pulled this off. The fact he was coming off a 103-loss season in 2016 and faced the usual limitations of a small-market franchise were problematic enough. Then the following also went wrong…
*Minnesota’s pitching was a sore spot all year long. They finished 10th in the league in ERA
*One of the few effective pitchers was closer Brandon Kintzler. The Twins traded him at the July 31 deadline to Washington. It seemed a clear indication that even the team’s own front office wasn’t buying on their playoff chances.
*Miguel Sano, the muscular third baseman, who is the team’s most exciting offensive player, missed 50 games with injury. To make matters worse, the injury came at the most important stretch of the season. He went out on August 19 and was just activated yesterday. The Twins pulled away with the second wild-card without him.
*On its face, Joe Mauer’s .381 on-base percentage is enough to make him a good offensive player. But when set in the context of his $23 million annual salary from a team that doesn’t have a lot a cash to throw around, his complete lack of power over the past several years is a big drag on the ability to compete. With only seven home runs this season, Mauer’s transformation from MVP catcher to singles-hitting first baseman was further solidified.
All of that would be enough to cut Molitor some slack for another bad season. But the Twins had the following things going for them…
*The pitching staff might have had problems collectively, but they had two starters that were outstanding. Ervin Santana enjoyed a revival at age 34, winning 16 games with a 3.28 ERA. The real surprise came at the other end of the career spectrum. 23-year-old Jose Berrios has14 wins with a 3.89 ERA.
*A number of players stepped into the power void left by Mauer. Brian Dozier continued his emergence as one of the American League’s most complete second basemen, hitting 34 home runs. Eddie Rosario went deep 27 times. The trio of Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Eduardo Escobar combined for 56 homers. And Sano, even in his limited season, popped 28 out of the park. It was enough to make the Twins the fourth-best offense in the AL.
Those are the players who deserve the kudos. But the whole for the Twins is still vastly greater than the sum of its parts. And for that, the big shout out goes to Molitor, who should be a lock for Manager Of The Year.
TheSportsNotebook’s MLB spring training previews have included separate articles on the ten teams in the American League who either made the postseason in 2013, were right in the race to the end or at least should have been the race to the end. That leaves five darkhorses left on the board.
What’s listed below are the five American League darkhorsesand their betting odds to both win the World Series, along with their Over/Under on the win props. We then offer a few brief comments on what might need to break right. I’ve chosen to focus on the positive with these teams because the track record tells us we can assume the negative. Thus, it makes sense to keep our eye on what might make break the mold.
One thing that doesn’t make sense is that two of the teams that got separate previews have World Series odds amongst the darkhorses. The Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians are each disrespected enough to be among these five in the eyes of Las Vegas, although not in the eyes of TheSportsNotebook. A true darkhorse offers both long betting odds and a recent track record of disappointment, and these are the five that qualify.
Toronto Blue Jays (50-1, 79.5): I like the way Colby Rasmus stepped up and slugged .501 last year. The 27-year-old centerfielder, whose career has been a roller coaster, has the talent to stabilize and be a regular contributor to a lineup that already includes Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes. The Jays need for third baseman Brett Lawrie to follow suit and start performing up to the expectations that accompanied him into the major leagues.
Starting pitching is a problem, but if you can envision R.A. Dickey or Mark Buerhle having one big last hurrah season, that could change the equation for Toronto. Buerhle’s been settled in for a while as more a steady innings-eater than anyone who’s likely to have a huge year. Dickey is a different story. I wasn’t surprised by his struggles last year, but his 4.21 ERA still wasn’t terrible and if the veteran can get his knuckler to dance for one last ride, the Blue Jays can get in the race.
On paper, I look at this team and see at least one that could get a little bit over .500 if not make the playoffs. But with the schedule that includes 72 games against the AL East quartet of Boston, New York, Tampa Bay and Baltimore, it’s tough to see Toronto breaking in. And if the starting pitching collapses—a realistic possibility—than the house of cards really tumbles. Consequently, I’d lean to the Under.
Chicago White Sox (50-1, 74.5): The South Side of Chicago is witnessing a massive renovation project, the kind old Richard Daley Sr. might have overseen, as he made sure the work fell in the hands of the right contractors. At least the White Sox have some pitching going for them, with Chris Sale at the top of the rotation. If Felipe Paulino and Jose Quintana come through, Chicago will have a genuinely solid rotation.
What they aren’t going to do is score a lot of runs, unless a whole lot of kids all come through together. I suppose it’s not unheard of, but nor is it something you bet on happening in March. The transition from Paul Konerko to Jose Abreu at first is symbolic of what’s taking place in the lineup as a whole.
You know in spite of this, I’m going to lean ever so slightly to the Over 74.5. The reason is simple—I do think the starting pitching is going to be pretty good and I think this team is going to play hard. That can at least get you into the high 70s for wins.
Seattle Mariners (50-1, 81): The Mariners made the big offseason splash when they signed second baseman Robinson Cano away from the New York Yankees. There’s no question Cano is going juice up an offense that was terrible last season, but he’s going to need some help. The candidate to step up would be Justin Smoak at first base. I’m not optimistic, but we’ve hit this theme for three years now, and the most we’ve seen is Smoak hit 20 home runs and slug .412 last year. But that was a tiny amount of improvement, and at 27-years-old, it’s not unreasonable he could still bloom.
Seattle can pitch, with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, although the latter is dealing with a hand injury and questionable to open the season. If this was an amateur men’s league that played a couple times a week for seven innings, these two alone would have been enough to win a bunch of 2-1 games.
Unfortunately, when you want to win with pitching, it doesn’t do a lot of good when your bullpen is awful, and Seattle’s was just that in 2013. To that end, the Mariners added Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney. I suppose it’s odd that a team with a bad bullpen acquired a closer off a bad year, but Rodney was spectacular in 2012.
I still have to go Under 81. The offense has too many question marks, I don’t consider Cano a real leader and if Iwakuma can’t replicate his performance of last year, things could get ugly. The Over/Under for this team is a straight referendum on whether they’ll have a winning season and I say they aren’t very good.
Minnesota Twins (125-1, 71): Joe Mauer is switching from catcher to first base, which will help the long-term health of the player the franchise has tied up so much money in. Minnesota is also still hanging on to veteran outfielder Josh Willingham who has nice power, and I’m surprised hasn’t been dealt at either of the two last July 31 trade deadlines. Jason Kubel, a veteran DH, can also hit, as can young third baseman Trevor Plouffe.
Can the Twins get starting pitching? That’s going to depend on a top three of Ricky Nolasco, Kevin Correia and Phil Hughes, who gets a second chance at a career in the rotation after inconsistency in the Bronx. This is an interesting top three, and it’s feasible to see them all coming through and Minnesota having a winning season. The flip side is that “interesting” isn’t a word managers like to hear when it comes to the foundation of their pitching staff.
I’ve gotten burned on being optimistic about this team the past two seasons, but I am still going Over 71. In this case optimism doesn’t mean any more than saying they’ll go 72-90
Houston Astros (250-1, 62.5): I really like young second baseman Jose Altuve, and left fielder Robbie Grossman is another everyday player with some promise. Chris Carter, the first baseman/DH, has nice power and needs to improve his plate discipline and on-base percentage. I like young starting pitcher Jarred Cosart, and that the team went out and signed legitimate major league veterans in centerfielder Dexter Fowler and starting pitcher Scott Feldman.
The mere fact that we utter the sentence “signed legitimate major league veterans” still underscores how bad this lineup is top-to-bottom. The Astros are getting better, but they’re starting at somewhere below the bottom of the barrel. The 62.5 win number is really a question that asks whether or not this team will lose 100 games again. The answer is still yes.
If these five teams were a division of their own, Toronto would be the best of the group. But in the real world, the Blue Jays’ chances of making the playoffs in the AL East might be even longer than everyone else’s. While I wouldn’t actually predict any of these teams to make the postseason—final picks will go up Monday morning prior to the first pitches of Opening Day—if I had to take a flyer on a surprise entrant in October, it would be the White Sox.
It was just over two years ago that the Minnesota Twins unveiled their new ballpark. After spending 27 years playing in the awful indoor facility that was the Metrodome, the Twins moved outdoors and into Target Field. I had the good fortune to not simply see this ballpark for the first time on Friday night, but to get a free tour thanks to a family connection. TheSportsNotebook goes on a brief walkthrough not simply the Twins’ park, but the team’s heritage and its culture…
The city of Minneapolis made personal history for me on Friday night. There have been several places where I’ve been to two different parks—Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati come to mind. But never have I have been to three different parks for one team. I was at the Old Met in 1977, the place the Twins used to share with the Vikings back in the glory days of the NFL franchise when cold weather gave Bud Grant’s Vikes the late-season edge they needed to win four NFC titles in eight years. It’s surely noteworthy that since moving to the Metrodome in 1982 the Vikes haven’t been back since. Their fortunes are the mirror image of the Twins.
While the baseball franchise won consecutive division titles in 1969 and 1970 under the leadership of feisty manager Billy Martin and won a pennant back in 1965, the 1970s were mostly hard times, with the lone source of excitement being Hall of Fame first baseman Rod Carew’s run at .400 back in ’77. That was the year I made it out to the Old Met and saw the Twins lose, ironically to the Orioles—I say ironically because it was Baltimore who swept them out of the ALCS in 1969-70. I was also in the Dome in 1982 to watch Oakland and Rickey Henderson, who was on his way to a single-season stolen base record of 119. Rickey didn’t do anything when I was there. But the Twins, though it took a few years to get started, began doing plenty of their own.
What the Metrodome took from the Vikings in homefield advantage it gave to the Twins, and by 1987 the baseball team had a breakthrough year. The 87-75 record seems modest, but the AL West (the division the franchise resided prior to the creation of a Central Division in 1994) was balanced top-to-bottom and all seven teams won at least 75 games. Despite being an underdog in the ALCS to the Detroit Tigers, the homefield edge of the raucous Dome with its waving white handkerchiefs and the way balls flew out of the park helped the Twins grab the first two games and then they finished off the favored Tigers in five. The homefield advantage was even more pronounced in the World Series, as Minnesota won a seven-game series over St. Louis by taking all four games under the Dome.
Major league baseball awarded homefield advantage at this time on a rotation system, so four years later it had again cycled around to the AL West to have the edge in both the LCS and World Series—it took the 1994 creation of the Central Division and the accompanying three-division alignment to expand the postseason. In 1991 the Twins followed the same model—get momentum in the ALCS with two quick wins, this time over Toronto, and finish the job on the road. Then they win on an all-home-team World Series.
The 1991 Series against Atlanta is on the short list of the greatest ever played. In Game 6, Kirby Puckett, arguably the franchise’s greatest player (only Harmon Killebrew is a credible alternative) first made a spectacular catch in centerfield, then hit a game-winning home run in extra innings. One night later Jack Morris pitched one of the World Series’ most epic games, tossing 10 shutout innings and Minnesota finally won 1-0. As our group of Wisconsin residents toured the stadium and saw the World Series trophies, the guide launched a pre-emptive shot in the sports rivalry that exists between the two states, calling them Minnesota’s answer to the Super Bowl trophies that exist on the other side of the border. The two championships are part of a long track record of success—the Twins would win divisions again in 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2009 in the Metrodome and their ’02 division title is one that deserves a further look.
Major league baseball was talking about contraction as a red-hot labor dispute built up through the summer. Commissioner Bud Selig wanted to reduce the number of teams by two. The Montreal Expos—now the Washington Nationals—were one team that was logically on the chopping block. Less logical was the Twins as the American League team put on death row. Owner Carl Pohlad apparently wanted out of the business about as much as Michael Corleone wanted out of the mafia in Godfather III and used his connection with Selig to push contraction. But just when Pohlad thought he was out, a vibrant protest from both Minnesotans and nationwide pulled him back in.
It’s not that contraction per se was a bad idea. But why was Minnesota singled out? This was a team with a consistent record of supporting its team so long as the product was viable. No one was suggesting this was St. Louis or Boston when it came to being a baseball town and no one compared Twins’ fans to Cubs’ fans when it came to blind loyalty. But if you were going to have a league with 28 teams in it, it was incomprehensible that the Twin Cities should not be one.
Particularly when the city of Oakland was so haphazard about supporting a team that was clearly a contender. The A’s were in the midst of a 2002 season that would ultimately be enshrined in the movie Moneyball, as general manager Billy Beane received correct praise for producing a winning team on a limited budget. But compare Oakland to Minnesota. The Twins’ budget wasn’t exactly overflowing, yet they won the division titles mentioned, and they beat Oakland in the very year Moneyball was set!And in a year where they were under threat of contraction! No disrespect to Oakland, but for some of us, it was GM Terry Ryan and the Twins who ran the best operation in baseball through the ‘00s.
The rest of the tour allowed us to get a good look at the facilities, which are in line with the other new ballparks that have popped up in places like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati, all of which I’ve seen, and San Francisco and Texas, which I have not. The Twins wisely visited the other stadiums which fall into an artistic class I’d call “cutting-edge traditional”, with their old-timey feel and the use of modern amenities. The architectural job was frankly amazing, as the park had to be dropped into a tight area of downtown, with rail tracks nearby and little room to move. You get a nice view of the Target Center, where the Timberwolves play their NBA games (the NHL ‘s Wild are across the river in St. Paul) and the agricultural firm in the background of leftfield, right behind the Budweiser sign has a definite Midwestern flair to it.
There’s nothing more Midwestern than friendliness and there was one instance where the good people of Minnesota went to an extreme. At a booth, which you see in the accompanying photo below at right, they include a jersey of Aaron Rodgers. What the ?$%*&#@!!! Seeing the jersey of the Packer quarterback on sale in Minnesota is up there with seeing a Derek Jeter jersey being sold in Fenway Park or a LeBron James full-sized portrait on sale in Cleveland. There’s a time to put friendliness aside and get in the business of dispensing irrational sports venom.
The game itself was a stroke of good fortune as it proved to be one of the better baseball games I’ve ever seen. Brewers-Twins isn’t going to electrify a national audience, but it packed Target on Friday night (with locals still providing about 75-80 percent of the crowd). Francisco Liriano took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. After two walks the first hit was a dead-center line drive home by Ryan Braun that suddenly put Milwaukee up 3-2. Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe hit two home runs and the game was tied 3-3 in the ninth. With a man on, two outs and two strikes, Milwaukee catcher Martin Maldonado, the ninth-place hitter, hit a two-run shot that stood up and the Brewers won 5-3.
It was a great game on a perfect evening in what is the latest jewel of baseball’s treasure chest of cutting-edge traditional ballparks. Minnesota has already won one division title in the new place, in the opening year of 2010. After a rough year in ’11, they’re retooling with some younger pitching and hoping the new place brings more fond memories to the fans and perhaps a third World Series trophy. The latter can’t be underestimated—because if the Series is Minnesota’s answer to Wisconsin’s Super Bowls, the Twins still need two more to pull even. But if nothing else, they have a much better place to watch the games.
Editor’s Note:The Twin Cities are having a rough go of it in the sports world right now, and TheSportsNotebook asked contributor Isaac Huss, a native of the Minneapolis/St. Paul and diehard fan to communicate the distress the fans are feeling on matters big and small.
By all accounts, Thursday night should have been celebratory for Minnesota sports fans.
The longsuffering Minnesota Vikings had just chosen the best player available (Matt Kalil) as well as a player at their greatest position of need (left tackle). On top of that, they were able to get three extra draft picks out of the deal by trading down one spot so Cleveland could take a player the Vikings didn’t want or need.
But if you think Vikings fans were able to rest easy because of their team’s good fortune, think again. I think the mood of the night was aptly summed up by some dude at the bar who, immediately after cheering the Kalil pick, yelled out, “Great! Now, go ahead and move to L.A.”
And who could blame him? It’s hard getting excited about your team when in a few short months it might no longer be your team anymore.
Just a week ago, the Vikings’ new stadium plan was left for dead, presenting the biggest threat thus far that the franchise might become the next purple-and-gold-clad pro sports team to leave the great white north for Los Angeles, California.
And while there’s still a chance they’ll work out a stadium deal, you can see the reason for the muted enthusiasm regarding the Kalil pick. It’s a bit like trying to get excited about your high school girlfriend finally getting her braces off, knowing that her newfound perfect smile is soon gonna kick you to the curb in favor of the captain of the football team.
And that pretty much sums up life as a Minnesota sports fan. It’s not that Minnesota sports haven’t had any success in recent years, and there certainly are more cursed franchises and sports cities out there. But perhaps no sports region in America has had such a roller coaster ride of near-successes coupled with agonizing failures as Minnesota.
I was born in suburban Minneapolis in 1985, so I was just old enough to experience (as much as a 6-year-old can, anyway) the Twins’ World Series championship in 1991, the last championship among the four major pro sports teams in MN (other than the Twins, no other championships since the Lakers played in Minny circa 1950).
The Twins had also won in ’87, so all I knew at that point as a baseball fan was success. That quickly changed as the Twins suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons beginning in ’93, right about when I was old enough to realize what was going on.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves were still figuring out how to play that sport called basketball, as it took them nine seasons to earn a winning record since their first game in ‘89. Then the North Stars hockey team left for Dallas in ’93, just as I was getting used to them posting seven straight losing seasons.
In terms of wins and losses, the Vikings were the shining stars, posting only one losing season from ’86-’00. And that’s about all you need to know about Minnesota pro sports. If the Vikings are your best sports team, you are in for a world of hurt.
And not because there weren’t successes. The Vikings have been to three NFC Championship games in my lifetime, 1998, 2000, and 2009. But since we were so high, it made the fall all the more painful. Those were perhaps the three worst losses of my sports-watching life, and each for different reasons.
Let’s start with 2000. The Vikings had a good, yet flawed team. But that team didn’t even bother to show up on that fateful January day, laying a goose egg against the Giants in losing 41-0. And when a 41-0 loss a game from the Super Bowl is only your team’s third-most-agonizing NFC championship game in a decade, you start to want them to leave town.
Much more agonizing was 2009, as the heartbreak was delayed until the waning moments of the game. Driving late, the Vikings had crossed midfield with the score tied and a chance to win against the favored Saints in a hostile Superdome. A 12-men in the huddle penalty and a Brett Favre interception sent the game into overtime, where New Orleans prevailed.
And the granddaddy of them all was in 1998 when the 11-point favorite Vikings team lost at home to the Falcons, blowing a 7-point fourth quarter lead thanks to a missed 38-yard Gary Anderson field goal (his first miss all year) and a curious decision by coach Denny Green to run out the clock with 30 seconds left, perhaps forgetting that he had the highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL at his disposal (I hadn’t forgotten).
Since ’09, the Vikings followed Favre’s deterioration to win a combined nine games the last two seasons. And to add injury to insult, franchise running back Adrian Peterson’s knee was annihilated in a meaningless loss late last year, threatening the career of one of their few players who was worth watching.
So if the Vikings were a braces-faced girlfriend, my friends, family members, hell, even complete strangers would probably be screaming at me to dump her. But somehow I stick with her even though she might leave me at any time.
Because who else is there? The Twins have been the next-best local team of my lifetime, even with that near-decade of futility to finish the ‘90’s, thanks to a ten-year run which included nine winning seasons and six division championships.
But anyone who roots for the Twins, or the Yankees for that matter, knows where this is going. Four of those division championship seasons ended with first-round playoff losses to the Yankees, the last two being series sweeps.
Which offers a glimpse into the ever-growing inferiority complex of Minnesota sports fans in relation to big-market teams, specifically New York teams. It seems whenever we have something good going for us, we run smack dab into a big-market bully who beats the crap out of us and steals our lunch money for good measure.
In addition to playoff failures, which include the Twins’ v. Yankees and should also include the Timberwolves v. Lakers, no Minnesota sports fan can enjoy watching a young star rise on one of our teams without worrying that a richer franchise (not to mention one with a more appealing climate and market) will lure it away in free agency.
Torii Hunter and Marian Gaborik come to mind as players who fled town for L.A. and New York, respectively, simply for bigger bucks, while Johan Santana was traded to the New York Mets for fear of losing him to free agency (which surely would have happened). More heartbreaking was former Wolf Stephon Marbury’s trade demand (before he went completely nuts) based on the fact that Minnesota is, in his words, “too cold.”
Even the contract extension the Twins gave to Joe Mauer, while refreshing at the time that we were able to keep a hometown hero from the clutches of the evil Steinbrenner empire, was driven up by the threat of losing him to the point he may prove to be too costly in the long run.
However, money may have been no object had Mauer not come down with a mysterious leg ailment last year which limited him to his least-productive year as a pro. Combine that with Justin Morneau’s concussion problems which have deprived him of most of his MVP-caliber productivity, and the Twins are spending upwards of $30 million/year on oft-injured former MVP’s.
Add that to a pitching staff which has gone into steep decline ever since Santana’s departure and you have a team coming off a 99-loss season which might be even worse this year.
But it wasn’t just Santana’s departure. A sometimes-forgotten but no less devastating event preceded the Santana trade, and seems to have set off a string of calamities from which virtually no Minnesota sports team has been able to avoid: Francisco Liriano’s elbow injury.
In the summer of ’06, Liriano had set the sports world on fire by posting a 12-2 record, a 1.96 ERA, and 137 strikeouts in 115 innings. He was arguably the most unhittable pitcher in the league already in his first season in the majors. But he injured his elbow in August of that year and required Tommy John surgery, and hasn’t been the same since.
The Twins won 17 fewer games the following year. Then, in 2010, posted 94 wins only to lose Morneau to a concussion for the rest of the season and bow out to the Yankees in three games in the playoffs. Since then, the Twins’ best pitcher, Scott Baker, as well as their best pitching prospect, Kyle Gibson, were found to need Tommy John Surgery themselves.
And the Angel of Devastating Injuries struck elsewhere. The Minnesota Gophers basketball star Trevor Mbakwe, the aforementioned AP, and most recently Wolves star Ricky Rubio each tore ACL’s in a four-month span this past winter. Since Kevin Love suffered a concussion that ended his season eight games early, the rest of the Minnesota pro athletes have reportedly been afraid to leave their hotel rooms, and have been smearing slaughtered loons’ blood on their doorposts.
I can’t stress the catastrophic nature of Rubio’s injury enough. Here’s a franchise whose lone memorable player, Kevin Garnett, was traded for pennies on the dollar only to see him win a championship the following season in Boston, and continue to dump on his former team whenever he gets the chance.
Rubio presented an opportunity to forget Stephon once and for all, finally move on from KG, and to team with Love and try to reverse a legacy of losing. And he was doing it. Until an L.A. Laker named Kobe “inadvertently” (ok, fine, it was an accident..) destroyed his knee. We can only hope this isn’t Liriano all over again.
Nope, it’s hard to be a Minnesota sports fan these days. Just in case you’re wondering how the rest of our sports teams have been doing, the Wild just became the first team to have the NHL’s best record in December to miss the playoffs. Oh, and the Gopher football team hasn’t finished better than sixth in the conference since ’03, fourth since ’86, or third since ’67. But at least we have a sweet new stadium!
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Minnesota Lynx’s 2011 WNBA Championship. But forgive me if it seems like celebrating your little sister’s 8th preschool “graduation” after her six older brothers all dropped out of high school. Yay Lynx!
Finally, the Gopher hockey team was admittedly decent again this year, which is great except nobody cares about college hockey outside of Minnesota and wherever the hell Ferris State is.
So you can see how one might be secretly hoping the Vikings put us out of our collective miseries and move to Tinseltown. But then there’s this: if the Vikings move away, that means we might have to start rooting for the Packers… And let’s be honest, nobody wants that.