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The Twins Are Only Four or Five Pitchers Away

After finishing last season with 103 losses, Minnesota has the best record in the American League. It has all the core pieces of a decade-long contender — except for a starting rotation.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Minnesota Twins have the best record and run differential in the American League. Sure, it’s been only a week, but it’s worth celebrating because this team is a lot of fun and I have no idea how long it’s going to last.

Looking back on it, the difference between the 2000s Twins and 2010s Twins is jarring. Minnesota had a nice run from 2002 to 2010, winning six division titles in nine years, despite a consistently noncompetitive payroll. Seemingly every year, the Twins would win about 90 games, then get waxed by the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs — you could set your watch by it. Since 2011, however, Minnesota’s lost 90 games five times in six years, peaking above .500 with a surprising 83–79 record only in 2015. So is this 5–1 start, by a cumulative score of 30–13, an aberration or a return to the glory days?

Well, let’s just say it’s too early for Minnesota folk rock giants Trampled by Turtles to start a 2017 World Series concept album, but the blueprint looks familiar.

Right now, the Twins are building around a homegrown core of All-Star second baseman Brian Dozier, Costco-sized third baseman Miguel Sano, and a pair of superathletic outfielders: Byron Buxton and Max Kepler. The easiest path to a World Series title includes a five-year amateur scouting and player development hot streak in which the team picks up the heart of its lineup, and maybe its future ace, for next to nothing. That’s what the 1990s Yankees did, as well as the Even-Year Magic Giants and last season’s Cubs.

The 2000s Twins had one of those scouting and player development heaters, too. They drafted future MVPs Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, then traded for Rule 5 draft pick Johan Santana, who gave Minnesota the first half of a Hall of Fame career. Even then, without a commitment from ownership to spend big in free agency, the Twins kept up with the Yankees and Red Sox thanks to an equally impressive run of trades. In the 2003–2004 offseason alone they sold high on left-handed pitcher Eric Milton (for utilityman Nick Punto and Carlos Silva, who, for as much of a national joke as he became in Seattle, gave the Twins nearly 800 league-average innings), and A.J. Pierzynski (for Francisco Liriano, who at his best was as good as Santana; Joe Nathan, who saved 260 games and made four All-Star teams in seven seasons in Minnesota; and the exquisitely named Boof Bonser). Those deals filled in the gaps around Santana, Mauer, and Morneau, while Milton and Pierzynski lasted only a year with their new teams before moving elsewhere.

But Minnesota’s luck eventually ran out. Mauer, Liriano, and Morneau started getting hurt. The Twins traded Santana to the Mets for a package headlined by Carlos Gomez, then gave up on him after two seasons and traded him for J.J. Hardy. They gave up on Hardy after a year and traded him to the Orioles for two guys you’ve never heard of. They traded Matt Garza for Delmon Young, the no. 1 overall pick in 2003 whose life since has been characterized by a string of ugly acts, and haven’t developed a good starting pitcher since.

But they’re heating up again. In 2009, the Twins spent an eighth-round pick on Dozier. The same year, they made an international push: Kepler, the 6-foot-4 son of ballet dancers, got $775,000, just shy of the record total for a European prospect, and Sano’s $3.15 million signing bonus was the highest ever for a Dominican position player. Three years later, they selected Buxton with the second pick in the draft. And all of those guys are starting to put it together.

Except, this was supposed to be together already. Minnesota’s 83–79 showing in 2015 was supposed to set up a run to contention last year, but almost everything that could go wrong did.

Buxton, who was drawing Mike Trout comps in A-ball, hit .220/.274/.398 over 2015 and 2016, and is hitting just .077/.111/.115 in Minnesota’s first seven games this year. An inability to make contact consistently has hampered Buxton’s young career, but his physical tools are as good as anyone’s in baseball.

Sano missed the 2014 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, which is unusual for a third baseman, but after posting a 149 OPS+ as a rookie, he put together a 2016 campaign in which he struck out 178 times in 495 plate appearances and slugged only .462. Sano, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound cross between a human and a tree, is the kind of player who slugs “only” .462. He has true top-end power, 40-homer power, Stantonesque power, which he used to salt away Sunday’s win over the White Sox with a two-run blast to dead center.

Former Yankee John Ryan Murphy was supposed to take over behind the plate, but he lasted only 90 plate appearances and hit .146/.193/.220. Korean first baseman Byung-ho Park cost the Twins $12.85 million in posting fees, but after one year of hitting .191/.275/.409, Park was DFA’d this spring and, after none of the other 29 teams thought he was worth a waiver claim, now sits in Triple-A. But the position players weren’t really the biggest problem last season.

Top pitching prospect Jose Berrios, who pitched for Puerto Rico in the 2013 WBC at age 18, posted an 8.02 ERA in his first big league campaign. Closer Glen Perkins, coming off three straight All-Star appearances, missed almost the entire season with shoulder surgery. Phil Hughes was limited to 11 starts by a shoulder injury of his own, and his 5.95 ERA makes you wonder how much those 21 missed starts really hurt the Twins.

And that’s just counting the guys who made the majors. Kohl Stewart, the no. 4 overall pick in 2013, has struggled with a series of nagging injuries and minor league strikeout numbers that don’t match his stuff. Gerrit Cole outgrew that criticism, but Mark Appel hasn’t. In 2015, the Twins took Tyler Jay, a hard-throwing lefty out of Illinois who pitched his junior year like someone had sawed Andrew Miller in half, with the no. 6 overall pick. Rather than bring him to the majors in the same role quickly, Minnesota spent 2016 on an ultimately unsuccessful bid to make him into a starter. Jay’s now on the shelf for the month of April with an undisclosed injury, and when he comes back, it will be in the bullpen for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts.

It was, in other words, exactly the kind of pitching staff you’d expect from a 103-loss team.

The turnaround from 59–103 to a 5–1 start could very well be a matter of a weak schedule — Minnesota’s played the Royals and White Sox so far — and a couple of good starts from Hughes and Ervin Santana, who, 0.69 ERA aside, is still the second-best Twins pitcher to be born Johan Santana. But Sano had a good first week, as did catcher Jason Castro. Last season, Castro put up the same 89 OPS+ as the man he replaced, Kurt Suzuki, but was 23 runs better at framing, enough to earn him a three-year, $24.5 million contract from the Twins.

There are other bright spots — 23-year-old shortstop Jorge Polanco hit a quiet .282/.332/.424 as a rookie in 2016, and his .389 batting average this season leads the team’s regulars — but this is still a club with a developing core and a pitching staff of Santana and 12 guys who aren’t good for whatever nervous fidgeting habits you might have.

Still, Sano’s power and Buxton’s speed alone make the Twins fun, and Target Field, one of the best ballparks in the country, has hosted all of one playoff series since it opened in 2010. The Twins’ 5–1 start doesn’t tell us anything, really, but considering how much fun Sano, Buxton, Kepler, and Dozier are, and how bleak the Minnesota baseball landscape has been this decade, it’d be cool if they kept it up at least a little while longer.