The annual Twins media luncheon at Target Field on the first day of TwinsFest always features a State of the Franchise address from club president Dave St. Peter. Standard topics include season ticket renewals, overall attendance goals and anticipated TwinsFest attendance. St. Peter offers dry numbers, and it’s up to the listener to put them into context.
St. Peter’s talk last Friday — while media types enjoyed meat loaf, chicken pot pie and other hearty fare — was striking compared to past years. Season ticket renewals were running between 80 and 90 percent, which sounds peachy unless you know that spread is among the lowest since Target Field opened in 2010. The expected season ticket base of 12,000 is back to where it was in 2017, down about 1,000 from last year and far below the club-record 25,000 in 2011. Most alarmingly, St. Peter anticipated only 10,000 attending the three-day TwinsFest, an event that usually draws between 13,000 and 15,000.
Turns out TwinsFest attracted 11,500, according to the club, better than St. Peter thought but still the fewest since it moved from the Metrodome to Target Field in 2014. With spring training around the corner, discouraged Twins fans may be voting with their feet.
St. Peter: ‘We have work to do’
Last season the Twins missed the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years. Many Twins fans are tired of the losing, tired of seeing favorites like Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar traded, tired of the free-agent bargain shopping, tired of watching highly-touted prospects strike out, tired of paying premium prices for suboptimal performance. Attendance last year fell below two million for the second time in three years, with the final count of 1,959,197 the lowest since 2004. (Remember, Major League Baseball computes attendance from tickets distributed, not the turnstile count, so actual attendance is usually less.)
Twins fans are among the most forgiving in baseball, but you can only sell a Minnesotan hope so many times before they tune you out and shut the door in your face. That door may be shutting on the Twins.
“We have work to do,” St. Peter said after the luncheon. “We have work to do on the diamond to reestablish a level of credibility with our team. My hope is that will happen in 2019, and if it does I think we’ll start to see growth again with that season ticket base.
“When you look at the attendance trends within this ballpark, we’ve seen some declines that are concerning. We think we’re a club that should not be drawing less than 2 million people. This market, for all kinds of reasons, is not a 2 million ticket market. We think it’s a 2.3, 2.4, even 2.5 million market. In order for that to happen, we need to have a product on the diamond that our fan base can relate to, that they can believe in. Hopefully you’re playing meaningful games into August, and more often than not into September. That just hasn’t happened consistently since we moved into Target Field.”
With Dozier gone, Joe Mauer retired and manager Paul Molitor fired one year after winning the American League Manager of the Year Award, the Twins lack a familiar name fans can relate to. The Twins showcased new manager Rocco Baldelli on the Winter Caravan, at the annual Diamond Awards banquet last Thursday and at TwinsFest. He may be a nice guy, but he’s never managed anywhere, and it remains to be seen if he’s a upgrade over the Hall of Famer he replaced. Any chance of promoting Nelson Cruz, the biggest-name free agent acquisition, fizzled when he couldn’t get here until the final day of TwinsFest.
Betting on development
Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine also caught flak from fans for not spending big in free agency. That fits an industry-wide trend that saw more than 100 free agents still unsigned going into last weekend, including All-Stars Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel.
The Twins Opening Day payroll figures to land around $100 million, down significantly from last year’s record $128.7 million and likely among the lower half in baseball. Mauer’s retirement took $23 million a year off the books, and as of now the Twins don’t have anyone under contract for 2020, though 14 players will be eligible for arbitration.
Massive payrolls don’t guarantee world championships — ask the Dodgers — and Falvey explains his reasoning this way: Less free agent spending allows more farm-system products to win roster spots and eventually earn financial rewards.
“I firmly believe this until my baseball career ends: The lifeblood of building and winning, in this market and for this team, will be the growth of a core of players at the front end of their careers,” Falvey said. “We have to count on that. We have to do everything we can to devote our resources to develop those players. Ultimately, that will determine our success.”
Falvey and Levine did choose to pursue free agents earlier than last winter, when they signed Jake Odorizzi, Logan Morrison and Lance Lynn once camp opened and watched all three struggle. Only Odorizzi remains with the club. “We put them in a position where they were more hired guns and mercenaries than part of the fabric of our team,” Levine said.
So the Twins claimed first baseman C.J. Cron on waivers from Tampa Bay in November, then signed Cruz, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, infielder Ronald Torreyes and pitchers Blake Parker and Martin Perez over the next two months. Cruz, a six-time All-Star who hit more home runs the last five years (203) than anyone in baseball, was brought on partly to succeed Dozier and Mauer as a clubhouse leader, and partly to mentor Dominican countryman Miguel Sano. The Twins are largely a Latino team now, and Cruz, who turns 39 in July, is the first still-productive veteran Latino hitter they’ve had in awhile.
“He’s been a leader for quite some time,” said Levine, an assistant general manager in Texas when Cruz played there from 2006-13. “Before he was a leader, he was a learner, and he learned from two of the best in Michael Young and Adrian Beltre. Now he’s ready to give back in a similar light, and he feels well equipped to do that.
“His work ethic is exceptional. That’s where he can really set the tone for a lot of our players. And secondarily, I think he loves to play the game and he loves to win. He plays the game with a smile on his face, and he lets the fans know he enjoyed winning the baseball game. I think that’s going to pay huge dividends for some of our young players who are still cutting their teeth at the major league level and kind of creating their own identity.”
The Twins expected Sano and Byron Buxton to be stars by now, but injuries and strikeouts intervened. Last year Buxton lost time early to migraines before breaking his left big toe on a rehab assignment. He tried to played through it, attempting to emulate his tough-minded mentor, Torii Hunter. Instead it wrecked his timing, and his season. Buxton hit .122 over 17 games before going on the disabled list.
“I wanted to play badly,” Buxton said. “They let me play, and obviously I didn’t do what I wanted to do. Just being able to go out there every day, even though they knew I was in pain, that’s all I cared about. My opinion mattered, and they let me play.”
Eventually Buxton landed in Class AAA Rochester, where he missed even more time with a left wrist strain. The Twins then refused to call him up in September, leaving Buxton 13 days short of the service time needed for 2021 free agency. For months, Buxton seethed. Meantime he said he put on 21 pounds of muscle, some of which he expects to lose this spring in the Florida heat.
“If I wasn’t past it, I wouldn’t be here,” Buxton said. “It doesn’t change how I feel about the organization. It doesn’t change how I feel about the staff. It doesn’t change how I feel about the front office. To me, it’s done and over with. Move on to 2019. I’m ready to see what we’ve got. I’m trying to get us to the playoffs. I can’t do it by myself. So we’ve got to get together, get our team chemistry together, get that bond and get things going.”
Another new pitching coach
Getting the pitching going is key to any team’s success. The Twins anticipate a starting rotation of Jose Berrios (12-11, 3.84 ERA last season), Kyle Gibson (10-13, 3.62), Odorizzi (7-10, 4.49), former Yankee Michael Pineda (who missed last season recovering from Tommy John surgery) and Martin Perez (2-7, 6.22 with Texas). It’s a rare team that leaves spring training with the same five starters it began with, and already there are questions about Gibson and Pineda. Gibson missed TwinsFest recovering from a bout of e.coli; he looked pale and wan on his Diamond Awards acceptance video. And Pineda said at TwinsFest that the right knee he hurt last September finally felt healthy only last week.
Baldelli declined to name a closer or assign bullpen roles going into camp. As many as dozen candidates have reasonable shots of claiming jobs. Francisco Romero, 3-3 in 11 starts as a rookie last year, could become one of those in the bullpen if he can’t push his way into the rotation.
Falvey and Levine showed boldness in hiring Wes Johnson from the University of Arkansas as the club’s third pitching coach in three years. Johnson’s use of video and technology to help pitchers throw harder fits Falvey’s quest to improve the club’s inadequate pitching instruction. It still rankles some fans that Ryan Pressly, who couldn’t keep a major-league job with the Twins despite superior stuff, excelled after his trade to Houston, an organization known for improving pitchers it acquires. The Twins must transform into one of those organizations, too.
“It’s not just about 2019,” Falvey said. “It’s, how do we get this group collectively over the next number of years to be competitive?”
Impatient Twins fans await the answer.