In the age of the MLB rebuild, the Twins just re-upped — and now they’re in first

As the 2017 trade deadline approached, the Minnesota Twins bobbed around the .500 mark, over it for a day or two, before slipping back under. After some tepid additions a few days out, the final moves were all sales of capitulation, culminating in dealing their All-Star from just a few weeks before, Brandon Kintzler.

During the next series in San Diego, Twins players held a closed-door meeting.

“Look guys, they're giving up on us,” they told each other. “But we're going to prove everybody wrong.”

And they did, ultimately snagging a wild-card spot with a second-place finish in the AL Central. They lost that one-game playoff — of course, the 13th of what has now become 18 straight postseason losses — but the midseason chip on their shoulder had proved motivating and the meeting prophetic.

Last year, the Twins were already 18 games back at the deadline, playing .391 baseball on the heels of first-place finishes in 2019 and 2020. So when they traded ace José Berríos, the players didn’t take it as bulletin-board material or turn it into a pep talk.

“Sometimes you see things coming,” Tyler Duffey, who has been with the organization since getting drafted in 2012, said recently.

“We literally just stumbled out of the gate and just couldn't get our feet back under us,” he said, having realized he had become the veteran presence in the clubhouse that season. “And, you know, it wasn't for lack of effort. We were still out working every day and doing everything to make it happen. It just didn't.”

But when the higher-ups took an honest look at the team that finished 73-89 after the season, they still saw the makings of an imminent winner — especially in what was expected to be an expanded postseason field and in a sport where winners are increasingly determined by an organization’s depth. The Twins liked how their second line of defense stacked up against others in the division. And, so, with an ownership group that was willing to spend to contend, they pulled off the coup of the winter, landing Carlos Correa — for now, anyway.

It was the crescendo of a bifurcated offseason that had started by extending their homegrown star Byron Buxton and included the acquisition of pitchers Sonny Gray, Dylan Bundy and Joe Smith, as well as deftly flipping a glove-first shortstop to the New York Yankees for Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela, while freeing themselves from an unpopular and expensive Josh Donaldson contract in the process.

“The pieces that we brought in were guys who really were looking for the opportunity to be on a winning team,” Duffey said. “They showed up and all you heard was one word: win.”

Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa (4) reacts after a play during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Friday, June 10, 2022, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa (4) reacts after a play during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Friday, June 10, 2022, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

Carlos Correa makes an instant impact

On a gorgeous June evening in Minneapolis, the Twins lineup teed off against Gerrit Cole, ace of their perpetual postseason nemesis.

Luis Arraez, an on-base machine with just a single home run to that point, led off the first with a long ball. On the very next pitch, Buxton drove his 14th homer of the season 422 feet. It took Correa just two pitches to add a third straight shot. It was the first inning and already the most home runs Cole had given up in a game this year. When Buxton — an occasionally tragic paradox of talent and fragility — launched a three-run drive the following inning, a ballpark full of people burned repeatedly by the Yankees sounded like believers. A fan in a Buxton jersey behind home plate stood and bowed repeatedly as the real one rounded the bases. When Cole left having given up seven runs in 2.1 innings, it was the third time in three games that a Yankees pitcher had his worst start of the season against the Twins.

The Twins lost that game. All teams blame injuries for their shortcomings but Minnesota’s pitching has been something beyond decimated. And on that particular night, the arms ran out of ammunition. A cynic might say it represented a condensed retrospective of the entire recent Twins experience: promising start cut short by the Yankees. But curses aren’t real and by the next day Buxton, Correa & Co. were teeing off against the Tampa Bay Rays.

When the most famous shortstop in a free-agent class full of them arrived in Twins camp, midway through a shortened spring training, he wanted to talk about everything from what they ate to how they positioned defenders. Buxton is a lead-by-example type, but Correa is a communicator. He slings an arm around staffers as they walk and talk with him, he bridges the gap between Spanish and English speakers in the clubhouse, he regularly spends time in the manager’s office where Rocco Baldelli welcomes his insight. Above all else: He has managed to elevate what the Twins do without alienating his new teammates. In between the lines, his impact is demonstrable and off the field, his influence is explicit.

Part of what was so appealing about Correa was his winning pedigree in October — which the Twins lack and which sometimes came at their expense. Getting Sanchez and Urshela from the Yankees gave them another glimpse behind enemy lines. Perhaps the key to snapping the postseason losing streak is to see themselves through the victors’ eyes.

The Twins are leading a weak division where their strongest competition can’t seem to get out of its own way. October is a long ways off, it’ll take months of carefully managing the precarious health of Buxton — and, to a lesser degree, Correa — to get there at full strength. They’re trying to be cautious, conservative even, with Buxton, but they win so much more when he’s on the field — or at least in the lineup.

The truth is, there’s nothing to be done in April or June or even at the deadline — when the Twins, like so many other buyers, will likely shop for pitching to prevent the kind of stretch they’ve battled through recently — to guarantee even a single win when they’re once again staring down a historic streak of playoff futility. But a team that was never above .500 after April 11 last year believed it could still be a contender (or at least, that it was only an aggressive offseason away — funny how that works) and now it is. Which is the first step.