Have Twins fans, the most patient in baseball, finally run out of patience?

Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli
Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports
Rocco Baldelli 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.

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.

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by ian wade on 02/01/2019 - 04:11 pm.

    Meh…where else are baseball fans going to go? I watched the same thing happen in Cleveland. Jacobs Field was filled to capacity in the late 90’s when the Indians were hot. Then they went into a slump, had to rebuild and the stands were empty for years. Now the tide is turning once again.
    The sport has much bigger structural problems. Slow play, long game times, lack of action. MLB needs to find ways to recruit youth to the sport or it will die soon enough.

    • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 02/01/2019 - 04:54 pm.

      Don’t forget the permanent scar left on the sport by performance enhancing drugs. I won’t watch it.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/01/2019 - 05:16 pm.

        I only listen to games when I’m driving and not very often then either. The steroid era did a lot of harm to a sport that had a long tradition of records that fell to the dopers. What guys like Aaron, Maris, Ruth, Mays, Ryan et al did was impressive… what guys like Sosa, McGwire, Bonds et al did was pathetic.

        It seems like pro sports in general are slowly losing fans and popularity. The NBA is probably in the worst shape of the bunch. I haven’t watched a basketball game since Bird, Magic and Jordan all retired. Haven’t watch the NFL for several years now.

        I think one thing that might bring back some interest is if they went away from guaranteed contracts and were paid for performance. But that will never happen with the players unionized and having so much clout now.

    • Submitted by John Fredell on 02/02/2019 - 09:12 pm.

      Go Gophers! For about $5.00 you can be right next to the field and watch a Big Ten championship team play sound, fundamental baseball. They even hit the cutoff man on defense and the ball when on offense.

  2. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/01/2019 - 05:07 pm.

    Molitor had to go. Being a good player does not mean you will be a good manager. He had a .471 record in 4 years.. including the most losses in a season in franchise history (a .362 winning percent that year). The Twins finally stopped being “homers” and hired someone that wasn’t a former Twin. Mauer was just phoning it in after he signed that big contract as well. He had maybe 1 season after signing that contract where he played close to what his contract should have been for.

    The Twins need an ace starting pitcher, period. Without that, they’ll languish in mediocrity. Then they can work on getting some power hitters in the lineup. As for Sano and Buxton.. neither can hit. If Buxton can’t stay healthy he’s worthless to the team. It’s unlikely Sano will ever learn to hit major league pitching since he hasn’t shown any improvement yet. The 2 most talked about prospects the Twins have had in many years have so far been a complete bust. This will be a long process as they have to rebuild their farm system first so they have some talented young players to call up.

    Maybe they need to look at St Louis for inspiration… a smaller population area but they have had way more success than the Twins. Time for the “Twins way” to go the way of the dodo and start playing a better form of baseball.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 02/01/2019 - 07:53 pm.

      The Twins farm system seems to be actually getting to be pretty good. That’s a recent development, and the new front office seems intent on continuing the improvements.

  3. Submitted by John Evans on 02/01/2019 - 06:16 pm.

    Twins fans don’t realize that this is not a small market, it’s a medium-size market, (Bigger than Cleveland or St. Louis). They haven’t caught on to the fact that the Pohlads are not giving them anything close to a medium-size payroll. And they don’t realize that it happens only because the fans tolerate it.

    Within that context, (of cheap, exploitive owners,) I kind of like the new management and coaching hires. The cheapest way for a team like the Twins to compete is to become a sort of powerhouse for player evaluation (scouting) and development. That aspect might be fun to watch over the next few years.

  4. Submitted by Margaret Humphrey on 02/01/2019 - 06:59 pm.

    I’ve been a Twins fan for a long time but yes, I’ve lost my patience. I agree with the article and the responders comments. I’ve decided to spend some of my baseball spending to drive to Kansas City or St Louis this year. I’ll still go to a Twins game here once but will wait to see what happens. It’s time for the owners to invest in the team now or else sell to some other person (s) that will. The fans deserve better. I’m tired of being a farm team for the rest of MLB.

  5. Submitted by William Lindeke on 02/01/2019 - 08:00 pm.

    “likely among the lower half in baseball”?

    Easily and definitely below the MLB average. Twins were below average last year, and will be far below average this year in a year when we theoretically could compete for the Division title and make the playoffs.

    It’s really disappointing to see the spending that low, given the ballpark and Mauer contract and a team with a lot of congealing young talent.

    If they sign Kimbrel I will change my tune…? Hope to see it!

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/02/2019 - 06:21 am.

    I saw an article in the Washington Post listing the Twins as one of the teams not trying to win the pennant. Are they? If so, what are they are trying to do? Should they charge ticket prices comparable to teams that are trying to win? If they aren’t trying to win, what are they trying to do, and should fans care?

  7. Submitted by Gary Derong on 02/02/2019 - 09:05 am.

    For all of you Twins fans bored out of your skulls over a team mired in the muck of the American League Central, I recommend you treat yourself to a season of following the rugged National League Central race. There’s much to be learned specifically from the Milwaukee Brewers, whose new management team began a rebuild one year earlier than the Twins and has become a giant-killer as the smallest market in MLB. Whether the Twins make serious inroads this season depends on whether Buxton and Sano become more exciting players than Willans Astudillo, but while you’re waiting, it might be worth immersing yourself in baseball’s most competitive division.

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/03/2019 - 06:36 am.

      The National League? Isn’t that the one that’s one step up from the American Association? They should consider themselves lucky we let them play in the World Series.

      • Submitted by Gary Derong on 02/03/2019 - 11:51 am.

        I don’t sense that Twins fans are taking a lot of satisfaction from “their” World Series championship. What has been missing in this town for decades is a transcendent player. The closest one we have, Maya Moore, wants out. When the promise of Joe Mauer faded, the Twins became pedestrian, and since the Royals crashed to earth they’ve become surrounded by pedestrian divisional rivals. Life promises to be a lot more exciting in the circuit of Yelich, Bryant, Goldschmidt, Cain, Baez, Votto, Puig and Hader. It doesn’t hurt to look around and see what you’re missing.

  8. Submitted by david girard on 02/02/2019 - 11:26 am.

    Most patient baseball fans? Please—I’m a Mariners fan.

  9. Submitted by Don Casey on 02/02/2019 - 11:42 am.

    Twins fans are most patient in baseball?

    Tell that to fans of the Chicago Cubs.

    When it comes to winning the World Series, fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers have been waiting longer than Twins fans.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/02/2019 - 03:40 pm.

    Interesting article, and a nice contribution to the hot-stove league. Analysis of baseball – especially off-the-field baseball (i.e. executive office decisions) – seems to me largely futile, since what matters is execution on the field during games that matter, and people with big offices and a title behind their name don’t generally play the game. Often, they’ve **never** played the game beyond elementary school. The difficulty of those big-office jobs is in trying to decide if the guy they’re considering will, or can, actually produce on the field at a level that meets fan (and executive) expectations. I’m compelled to add that managers almost never have anything to do with a team’s season-long performance. Paul Molitor was not to blame for the Twins’ dismal 100+-loss season any more than a manager should get credit for a season of 100+ wins. It’s the players, not the manager.

    I came here after half a century in St. Louis, where Cardinal baseball is the secular religion, a .500 season is assumed, not hoped-for, and playoff appearances are generally expected, and a dozen years in Colorado, where the Rockies have often made the games exciting (21-18 is fun to watch, at least every once in a while), even if their playoff appearances have been few. Neither of those scenarios seem applicable here. I’ve only been in the Twin Cities a decade, but the list of people hired by the front office with pretty high expectations that were never met seems to me a pretty long one. Some were pitchers, some were hitters, some were supposed “leaders.” All of them failed to meet those expectations. Ultimately, it’s on those players, but it’s also on the executives and coaches who persuaded themselves that player ‘x’ was really a “diamond in the rough.” We’ve gotten a lot of Mica crystals instead.

    I’m not a fan of long-term contracts. My jaundiced view is that – in the name of “security” – you’re rewarding someone in the future for performance in the past. Joe Mauer is undeniably a nice guy, and fits most parameters of what you’d want a home-town professional athlete to be, but his performance after his MVP season was, to be charitable, mediocre, and his contract has been a large, dead albatross around the Twins’ neck for most of the time I’ve lived here.

    Baseball is still about pitching, and the Twins don’t have enough of it – or at least have not in recent seasons. You can only get away with a staff with a collective ERA in the 4.00 range if you have a genuinely killer offense, with a half-dozen guys hitting .290 or better, with power, with speed. That’s not a description of the Twins, though who knows? Buxton and Sano may actually figure it out this year. If they don’t, I’d happily trade Buxton’s often-spectacular defense for a .300 hitter whose defense is only ordinary, and I’d be equally happy to trade Sano’s occasional 450-foot blasts for someone like Willians Astudillo, who almost never strikes out. Wait, we already **have** Astudillo, and he can play 3rd base!! It doesn’t matter that he’s not fast, or that he’s not going to hit many 450-footers. He **doesn’t strike out.** Or, phrased differently, he **puts the ball in play.** That’s a prime characteristic for any position player.

    Teams will happily find a place for you to play if you can hit, but it’s a struggle to interest fans in a team full of people hitting within shouting distance of the Mendoza line. If Buxton and Sano can’t produce, I’d prefer the team admit the mistake, designate them for assignment or trade them, and try someone else. Sometimes players blossom in a different environment or at a different ballpark, and sometimes those first two or three seasons are really a players’ performance peak. The average major-league career is a bit more than 5 years. Twins management and ownership should keep that in mind. Pay the young guys who are producing, trade ‘em if they’re not, and become the experts across all of baseball at developing pitching talent.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/03/2019 - 11:30 am.

    I’m sorry but I have a hard time getting concerned about how many fans the Twins are attracting in their shiny new taxpayer financed stadium. Maybe we should see a story about how that absence of “fans” is downgrading all the big economic promises made to justify the subsidy? After all, those empty seats aren’t just bad for Polad, those were supposed to the people that brought all the riches to downtown MPLS.

  12. Submitted by Jeffrey Brenner on 02/03/2019 - 03:09 pm.

    Twins: “We need a new stadium to be competitive.”

    Ok, you have the new stadium, now when are you going to be competitive?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/04/2019 - 08:17 am.

      And when did the “cometiveness” of a privately owned sports franchise become a “public” taxpayer problem? Even IF the Twins (or the Vikings for that matter) were “winning”… this would be a travesty of corruption. I remind everyone that every single one of these stadium/arena deals had to nullify, bypass, or otherwise work around public opposition because they would have never gotten past the required referendums.

    • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 02/04/2019 - 03:09 pm.

      Someone needs to tell the Zygi Wilf that as well.

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