By a show of hands: How many of you watched the Twins stumble through a 1-6 start and believed they would go into the last weekend of the season contending for the playoffs?
Sure you did.
The Twins certainly made this season a lot more interesting than the previous four. Throughout September, I ran into lots of people eager to talk about the Twins (even just to complain) than the Vikings or any other team in town. Few made it out to the ballpark because they weren’t convinced the Twins could pull it off, and you know how sports fandom works around here. It’s a bandwagon town. A second wild card berth wasn’t enticing enough for a bandwagon.
But you’ve got to start somewhere, and a 13-victory improvement over 2014 and the first winning season since 2010 provides some hope that better days are ahead. Going into this winter, these five players will generate most of the talk and attention as the Twins look to 2016 and beyond.
1. TORII HUNTER
Let him walk. There. Surprised? The 40-year-old Hunter is a free agent who, in the final weeks of the season, dropped all kinds of hints to his media buddies (and there are lots of us) that he was definitely not cool with a part-time role next year. Holding court at his locker last Saturday, he said he wouldn’t return to the Twins to play 81 games. Earlier, he floated some assurance of at least 400 at-bats.
Some of this is straight-up male pride. No one, whether an All-Star outfielder or a manual laborer, easily concedes they can’t do what they used to. (If you’ve ever come home to find your 80-year-old father trying to take a bulky old air conditioner out of a second-floor window, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)
There’s a reason Angels manager Mike Scioscia shifted Hunter from center field to right when he played in Los Angeles, and why Twins manager Paul Molitor cut back Hunter’s playing time the second half and pulled him late in games for defense or a pinch-runner. Even an aging athlete in the best of shape has limits, and rest is a key to maintaining peak performance. It’s counterproductive for Hunter to demand people treat him like he’s 25, especially on a team with three outfield gazelles in Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Aaron Hicks.
Look: Hunter did exactly what he was supposed to do when general manager Terry Ryan brought him back. He mentored Hicks and Buxton, who often pulled up chairs at Hunter’s corner clubhouse locker before and after games. He instilled a positive vibe in an immature clubhouse. He rallied the players shaken by that awful start. He justified every penny of the $10.5 million the Twins paid him.
But there’s always a little drama with Torii, and Ryan is playing this exactly right: Let Hunter go home to Texas, watch his two sons play college football, and sort out whether to keep playing or retire. That gives Hunter’s agent, Larry Reynolds, time to gauge to market. He and Hunter may find limited interest in an outfielder turning 41 next July who hit .217 in the second half, even after rallying in September and October (.275, 4 homers and 17 RBI in 27 games).
If Hunter agrees to return on terms befitting a part-time player, it’s all good. The Twins need backup in case Buxton needs more time in Class AAA. If not? Shake his hand, wish him well, and bring him back in two years as a special assistant to Ryan.
2. MIGUEL SANO
Ryan, at his season post-mortem Tuesday morning, said he preferred the Twins find a defensive position for Sano, their promising Dominican slugger, instead of using him as fulltime designated hitter. He also declared Joe Mauer and Trevor Plouffe the starters at first base and third, respectively, “as we sit here today,” and dodged questions about putting Sano in left or right field.
Mauer isn’t going anywhere. Plouffe had a career year (22 homers, 86 RBI, .244) and made himself into a better-than-average third baseman. Sano showed enough dexterity and arm strength in limited action at third to suggest he can handle it.
This sets up like the fall of 2003, when the Twins, knowing they had Mauer coming, traded A.J. Pierzynski to Giants for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser, three young pitchers who helped the Twins to varying degrees in the ensuring years. Catchers who can hit bring more value than third basemen who can hit, and most teams have a guy like Plouffe. But the Twins don’t have much near-ready pitching in their system beyond Class AAA prospect Jose Berrios, and even he isn’t a sure thing. Nobody is.
Remember: Ryan is a scout at heart, and still the most trusted talent evaluator on the Twins payroll. Whenever Ryan travels to Rochester or Chattanooga or Fort Myers to view Twins farmhands, he watches their opponents as well. Don’t be surprised if Ryan deals Plouffe or someone else for young pitching. That’s his way. If Plouffe is still here next spring and Hunter isn’t, look for Sano in right field or, perhaps, shuttling between third and first a couple of times a week to give Mauer and Plouffe breaks.
3. TREVOR MAY
He needs to start. The Twins sorely lack power arms in their bullpen, and May was terrific in a setup role before back problems flared. But when you look at the potential starters going into 2016 – Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Tyler Duffey, Kyle Gibson, Tommy Milone, Ricky Nolasco and Berrios – who would you trust in a wild-card game or a Game 1 of a Division Series? None make batters quiver like a Madison Bumgarner, Jake Arrieta, Yordano Ventura or Dallas Keuchel. And you better have one of those guys, along with a stout bullpen, to advance in postseason.
Maybe May isn’t an Arrieta either, but the Twins at least need to see if he can outpitch the incumbents. More than ever, teams must develop their own starting pitching to compete and manage their payrolls, because the price for free agents is so exorbitant. Max Scherzer cost the Nationals $210 million for seven years. If past performance holds they will be fortunate to get four productive years out of him. That’s an expensive gamble even for the richest teams.
The Twins just went through a period of turning almost all their top starter prospects — Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak et al – into relievers, with Gibson the notable exception. That’s got to stop. Let’s see what May can do in the rotation.
4. JOE MAUER
In the last few weeks, I heard more fans griping about Mauer and his $23 million salary than any other issue surrounding the Twins. That’s understandable. Nobody like it when your highest paid player bats .265, well below his career norm, with a career high 112 strikeouts. With that Mauer’s career average dropped six points, from .319 to .313.
Ryan stopped short of saying Mauer, 32, could win another batting title, but thought him capable of another .300 season. Mauer never adjusted to the lower strike zone, or defensive shifting that took away hits up the middle and the opposite field gaps. Mauer tried pulling the ball more and even bunting to make defenses rethink their positioning; his four bunt hits were the most since 2008. But it didn’t work.
According to FanGraphs.com, Mauer hit significantly fewer balls hard the last two seasons (28 percent in 2014 and 29.1 percent last year) than any previous season where he played at least 100 games. A strained oblique affected Mauer in 2014 but he appeared healthy this season, logging career highs with 158 games and 592 at-bats.
“His strikeouts were high. His walks were lower. His on-base percentage was lower. I believe he can do better than that,” Ryan said. “The strike zone is lower. I think that’s documented. That’s just adjustability. He saw a lot of things that I think he hasn’t seen in prior years.
“There was some good things with Joe this year – defense is one of them, hitting with runners in scoring position was one of them (.352). But there are also some things I’m hoping that he can improve upon.”
5. GLEN PERKINS
Until back and neck problems wrecked his season, Perkins was the best closer in the American League, converting his first 27 save chances and making his third consecutive All-Star Team.
Most pro sports managers and coaches insist you can’t lose your job because of an injury, but that’s what happened with Perkins. By the last week of the season, Molitor no longer trusted him with the ninth inning. Twice in the final 10 games of the season, Sept. 25 in Detroit and Oct. 2 against Kansas City, Perkins entered tie games in the eighth and allowed the eventual winning runs to score. His ERA in September and October: 8.22. A healthy Perkins changes the dynamic, and maybe the Twins are still playing.
Ryan said Perkins and Kevin Jepsen, so effective closing for the Twins (10 saves in 11 chances with a 1.61 ERA), will compete for the job in spring training. Smart move. Jepsen’s velocity was down slightly over 2014 (94.4 mph this season compared to 95.5 in 2014, per FanGraphs), but he and Perkins, who turns 33 next March, would make a formidable end-game tandem. Not Wade Davis and Greg Holland, but plenty effective.
One more thing: Perkins has two years left on his team-friendly four-year, $22.175 million deal. A healthy Perkins is the club’s most marketable veteran. Not saying Ryan will actively shop him, but if Perkins bounces back next spring and the Twins find themselves with a surplus of bullpen arms, other teams will ask about him. Any deal that returns young pitching is worth considering.