COMMENTARY | Upon completion of the 94-win 2010 season, it was not hard to see the Minnesota Twins as the Cardinals North.
Like St. Louis, the Twins Cities are not particularly large, but both are great sports markets with loyal fans and a history of success in Major League Baseball.
The Cardinals, of course, recently defeated the "Mickey Mouse" Los Angeles Dodgers, a big-market team with a large payroll, to advance to this year's World Series. If they defeat the Boston Red Sox, it will be the 12th World Series victory in team history.
For Twins fans, it was hard not to root for the Redbirds. Even with the silliness of their "Best Fans in Baseball" claim -- certainly the roughly 30,000 fans that showed up to Target Field every night last year would dispute that -- it was hard not to live vicariously through the Cardiac Cards.
The narrative of the L.A.-St. Louis matchup was compellingly similar to Minnesota's series with the New York Yankees in 2009 and 2010. For the Cardinals, it was the "Cardinal Way" vs. Hollywood theatrics (again, kind of overblown); for the Twins, it was a homegrown team vs. one that was built through free agency. The common theme was money: The Twins and Cardinals had payrolls that were dwarfed by those of the Yankees and the Dodgers.
Minnesota couldn't cry poor in 2010. The Twins had a new stadium, moving from the decrepit "don't worry about the snow leaking through the roof" Metrodome to arguably one of the greatest ballparks in America. Their payroll increased from a paltry $65.3 million to a more reasonable $97.7 million. Joe Mauer was re-signed, fans were showing up in droves, and the team appeared to be in command of the AL Central.
It didn't matter, they ended up with the same result as 2009: an 0-3 sweep.
There was reason to believe that things were going to get better, though. Minnesota had won in the old dome with a small payroll against spenders like the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox, so things could only get better when the team could keep its best players, right? It would be like giving the Tampa Bay Rays a stadium by the water or moving the Oakland A's to San Jose: Same tactics plus more money should yield better results.
A series of poor trades, the implosion of a starting rotation and the inconsistency of first-round picks are three primary culprits for why that didn't happen. Instead of worrying about whether the Twins could break through and beat the Yankees in a playoff series -- and given the Bombers' recent trajectory, it's hard not to think that they could -- fans suddenly became concerned that the team would have its fourth-straight 90-loss season in only its fifth year playing baseball al fresco.
The decline began when the Twins traded Matt Garza, Minnesota's first-round selection, No. 25, in 2005. In 2006, he was the No. 7 prospect in the organization's farm system. By the next year he was No. 1. After the 2007 season, he was packaged with Jason Bartlett and sent to Tampa in a six-player deal that brought Delmon Young to the Twin Cities.
Young was the first overall selection in 2003, but came with some baggage. In the minor leagues he had hit an umpire with his bat following an ejection. He was also a poor fielder, often overweight and had lazy at-bats. Following his time in Minnesota, he would be arrested for an anti-Semitic hate crime and refused to play in the minor leagues for the Philadelphia Phillies. Garza, on the other hand, went on to throw a no-hitter in 2010 and became a highly sought-after pitcher at the trade deadline this season.
The Johan Santana trade was even worse. It started a domino effect that ultimately did not work out in Minnesota's favor.
Upon being named general manager in October of 2007, Bill Smith's first major task was figuring out what to do with Santana. Still playing in the Metrodome, team ownership was not willing to retain Santana, a three-time All-Star, and Smith was essentially asked to get the best return for him.
In February of 2008, Santana was shipped to Queens in exchange for Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber and two minor league players. Santana went on to lead the NL in ERA in 2008 and pitch a no-hitter against the Cardinals in 2012. Humber was the No. 3 overall selection in 2004, but had decidedly mixed results and left the Twins as a free agent in 2009. He threw a perfect game in April of 2012 but was released by the Houston Astros after they declined his $3 million option for next year.
Gomez had decidedly more success in Minnesota, becoming the everyday center fielder after Torii Hunter joined the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and hitting for a reverse cycle against the White Sox in 2008. He eventually became expendable, as Denard Span and Ben Revere both were able to play center field, and was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers for J.J. Hardy.
Hardy was a hard-hitting shortstop in Milwaukee, but struggled in his first year in Minnesota (.268/.320/.394 with six home runs) and appeared to be expendable when the team signed Japanese superstar Tsuyoshi Nishioka to play short. The Twins dealt Hardy to the Baltimore Orioles for cash and two minor league players. The Nishioka experiment ultimately failed, and Twins fans watched Hardy hit 30, 22 and 25 home runs for the O's in the next three years.
It's a scary time to be a Twins fan now. Even with anticipation of the arrival of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, Joe Mauer's concussion might move him from behind the dish and because the team sent Wilson Ramos, a top catching prospect, to the Washington Nationals for Matt Capps -- a closer that flopped.
On top of that, the three Southern California first-rounders, Trevor Plouffe, Chris Parmelee and Aaron Hicks, have had mixed results in the major leagues and the rotation is still a work in progress and two Venezuelan signees, Josmil Pinto and Oswaldo Arcia, need to improve defensively.
It's hard not to imagine a rotation led by a one-two punch of Garza and Francisco Liriano and J.J. Hardy turning double plays with Brian Dozier while hitting 20-30 home runs a year.
It's hard to think that the team went from 94 wins to 66 in a year, that it actually has played worse in Target Field than the Metrodome and that there may be one more dismal year before Buxton and Sano bring the team back to respectability.
It's hard to see the Cardinals beat the Dodgers and not think that a team that once dealt A.J. Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants for Liriano, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser could have had a breakthrough like that if only they had been better managed.
Perhaps Pedro Florimon is more productive at the plate next year, the rest of the lineup fills in around Mauer, Sano and Buxton and Kyle Gibson, Alex Meyer and J.O. Berrios become the foundation of a reliable rotation for years to come.
But for the time being, Twins fans will just have to wait and see.
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