Last year was the first time in over a decade that the Minnesota Twins experienced a 90-loss season. The Twins had to beat the Kansas City Royals on the last day of the 2011 season to avoid losing 100 games for just the second time in franchise history.
One year later, things haven’t been much better for Minnesota, which again flirted with the notion of 100 losses. With just two games remaining in the season, that won’t happen to the 66-94 Twins in 2012. Still, the truth remains: two 90-loss seasons is not acceptable for a franchise that has won six division titles since 2002.
With that said, the 2012 season hasn’t felt as frustrating as last year’s losing season, the Twins say.
“I like this group. I’ve said that all along. I like the guys in the clubhouse,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, whose job appears safe for next year despite back-to-back 90-loss seasons. “I like the way they go about their business. I like their effort, and overall, this is a way better feeling, but it’s still not a good one because we’ve lost 90-plus games again.
“But to be at the ballpark with these guys every day is so much easier than last year because they’re really trying. They’re getting after it pretty hard, and it’s a fun group.”
The reasons for the losing seasons are different. Last year, Minnesota couldn’t avoid injuries. Early on, the Twins’ big names were shelved. Star catcher Joe Mauer missed two months in the beginning of the year with what was described as bilateral leg weakness. Center fielder Denard Span missed time with a concussion, and slugging first baseman Justin Morneau — who sustained a concussion in 2010 — was still battling back from post-concussion symptoms, among other ailments.
For the most part, the Twins have stayed healthy in 2012, with a few exceptions. Starting pitcher Scott Baker missed the entire season after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in April. Fellow starters Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano have also missed extended time, while closer Matt Capps missed two months with a rotator cuff injury.
But the big bats have been able to stay on the field. Through Monday, Mauer has played in 145 games and is on pace to set a career high for games played. Morneau made one brief appearance on the disabled list but has played in 134 games.
“We have a core that’s back out on the field now,” Gardenhire said. “I mean, going into the offseason, we have something you can really build around knowing they’re going to be on the field. That’s pretty good.”
The thing the Twins won’t have this offseason? A solidified pitching rotation. Minnesota’s entire projected rotation for 2012 fizzled out before season’s end. Left-hander Francisco Liriano was traded to the Chicago White Sox. Offseason addition Jason Marquis was released after a disappointing start to the year. Baker experienced elbow discomfort in spring training and later had major elbow surgery. Nick Blackburn was outrighted to Triple-A Rochester. And Pavano was shut down for the year with a bruise on his humerus bone.
With so many issues in the rotation, the Twins have had to call up several pitchers from Triple-A Rochester. Entering Monday’s game against Toronto, Minnesota’s rotation had posted an ERA of 5.40 this season, the highest in the American League and second worst in baseball behind Colorado’s 5.89 ERA.
Outside of left-hander Scott Diamond (12-8, 3.54 ERA), none of the Twins’ current starters appear to have earned a spot in next year’s rotation. That makes this offseason an important one for Minnesota’s front office as it looks for several arms, whether via free agency or the trade market.
“We’ve got to find pitching, however we go about it,” said Twins general manager Terry Ryan. “. . . When you lose 90-plus games two years in a row, there shouldn’t be too many untouchables on the club. You’ve got to find a way to get better.”
The Twins seem optimistic about the starting lineup next year, as Mauer and Morneau stayed healthy and free agent acquisitions Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham had career years offensively. Doumit has hit 18 homers and driven in 75 while providing versatility on defense, while Willingham hit a team-high 35 home runs and drove in 110 RBI.
Even with players having career years, Minnesota is in the middle of the pack in terms of runs scored. Entering Monday’s game in Toronto, the Twins had scored 692 runs, 17th-most in baseball.
“We’ve had trouble scoring runs,” Ryan said. “I don’t want to pretend this is all pitching. It’s not. We’re only scoring four and a half runs a game if I’m not mistaken. We’ve got to find a way to get runners in when we get runners on.”
There are plenty of questions for the Twins to answer this offseason. What will the rotation look like? Who will hold down the middle infield positions? Can Minnesota put back-to-back 90-loss seasons in the past?
How the Twins answer those questions could mean the difference between another losing season or possibly contending again in the AL Central. But if 2012 taught Minnesota anything, it’s that there will be plenty of work to do this winter to prepare for 2013.
“It’s nice to see guys have good individual years, but you want to have the team do well, and that’s the No. 1 goal for everyone in here,” Mauer said. “I just think it proves you need 25 guys to win. It’s not going to be one or two guys that can put you over the top. But it’s nice to see we have the pieces here, and maybe add one or two and we’ll probably be fine next year.”