The Most Disappointing Season for … The Minnesota Twins

The 2011 Minnesota Twins

Record: 63-99 (5th in the AL Central, 14th out of 14 in AL)

Pythagorean Record: 62-100

Runs Scored: 619 (13th in the AL)

Runs Allowed: 804 (13th in the AL)

Prior Season Record: 94-68

Manager: Ron Gardenhire

Hype: We will beat the Yankees in the playoffs one year. It’s this year! Let’s just hope Morneau is OK after being concussed.

The Gory Details: It was a great run for the almost-contracted Twins. After Ron Gardenhire took over for Tom Kelly, Minnesota had been in the playoff six times between 2002 and 2010, and their worst record during that period was a 79-83 mark in 2007. But they never got over the hump, and the usual nemesis was the Yankees, who swept Minnesota right out of the playoffs in 2009 and 2010.

As the calendar turned to 2011, Twins fans felt good. They resigned their two big free agents, Carl Pavano and Jim Thome. The only players that they let loose that were major losses were second baseman Orlando Hudson and John Rauch, who filled in for a time as closer in 2010.

Minnesota traded for Matt Capps in the middle of that year, and Joe Nathan was back and hopefully healthy for this season, so the closer position was taken care of, supposedly.

The other big change was at shortstop. JJ Hardy was coming off of an injury plagued season in 2010, with wrist and oblique trouble. They gave up Carlos Gomez, a burner with raw talent, to get him. Twins brass were disappointed in the return, so when Baltimore offered a package of pitching, they leapt and took the deal.

It also helped that they had another shortstop in the wings. Japanese League star Tsuyoshi Nishioka had posted his availability, and the Twins leapt at the chance. They bid $5 million for the rights to negotiate with the 26-year old infielder, and signed him to a three year $9 million deal. Not big money, but not small potatoes for the normally penny-pinching Twins.

But there was a pennant to win, and Nishioka could definitely help. He led his league in batting at .346 and played a steady shortstop. Of course, many pointed out that the .346 average was way over his norm, and that he hit .260 the year before. That didn’t stop the Twins, no sir-re-bob.

Going into spring, there was a debate on where Nishioka would play. He started out at second in Japan and was adept at both positions over there. Alexi Casilla had been the teams fill in at both second and short over the past few seasons, and Gardenhire thought he was ready to start as well (thus the lack of concern when Hudson signed elsewhere).

As spring training got underway, though, there were worries in camp. Justin Morneau was having a dynamite year in 2010, but then got a knee to the forehead during a slide into second base, and had a major concussion.

He never returned in 2010 as Michael Cuddyer filled in there the rest of the season. Morneau was due $15 million in 2011, and it looked 50/50 that he would be able to answer the bell to start the year.

Joe Mauer was Minnesota’s favorite son. He was a catcher who could do it all, the next Johnny Bench. He re-signed for some pretty serious coin, as you would expect a catcher who was under-30, a former MVP and smacked 28 home runs in 2009.

In 2010, though, as Twins moved to their new park, Target Field, his power diminished. Target Field was a pitcher’s park, and while Mauer had a fine year with a WAR of 5.9, some lamented his power shortage.

The more immediate concern were Mauer’s knees. He had offseason arthroscopic surgery and was having trouble with them in camp. Thus the two most expensive, and important, players on the Twins roster were iffy in regards to starting the season on the roster.

The bell rang for the season, and everyone answered it though. The outfield and DH positions were set with Delmon Young, Denard Span, Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome. Danny Valencia took over at third the year before and acquainted himself well with an OPS+ of 119. Gardenhire made his decision in the middle, and Casilla started the year at short with Nishioka at second.

The pitching staff was full of the ‘pitch-to-contact’ types that Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson loved. Only Francisco Liriano was a flame thrower, and he finally got on track in 2010 after having Tommy John surgery in 2007.  Besides Liriano and Pavano, the Twins were high on Scott Baker, who looked to bounce back to his 2008-09 form.

In the pen, Capps and Nathan were back. Nathan took his place as closer, with Capps on standby if Nathan’s recovery wasn’t complete.

They started the season on the road with three each at Toronto and New York. The Twins lost the opener 13-3. They won game three against the Blue Jays, then split the first two games of the series at Yankee Stadium.

During the series finale, in the bottom of the 7th, with the Twins down 4-3 and Nick Swisher on first, Mark Teixeira hit a grounder to Valencia at third. He flipped to Nishioka at second, and Swisher slid into him. Snap!

The slide into second was a bit high, but not dirty. Nishioka wasn’t used to the aggressive game they play in MLB, and didn’t get out of the way fast enough. The result? A broken fibula. Nishioka would be out for six weeks at least, and the Twins would have to make do with Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes, who were utility players at best, at second base for the near future.

The next bad news came on the homestand. After losing two of three to Oakland, Minnesota beat Kansas City 4-3 on Tuesday the 12th.  Mauer went 1-4 with a sac fly in that game. But he wasn’t in the lineup on the 13th or 14th, and was placed on the DL on the 15th with “bi-lateral leg weakness.”

That’s doctor speak for ‘he didn’t do enough during his rehab to strengthen his knees, or we screwed up his PT. Either way, D’oh!” Mauer was out for an unknown time, and that meant the club would be starting Drew Butera at catcher.

Drew. Butera.

Drew. Butera.

Oh, they had a couple of backups stashed in Rochester. The first one up was Steve Holm (say it while raising your arms) and he went 2-17 with one walk before they ditched him and called up Rene Rivera. Rivera last saw action in the majors in 2006, where he hit a tasty .152 with an OPS+ of 13 for Seattle. At least Butera had an OPS+ of 42 in 2010.

So no Mauer, no Nishioka, and a staff that was leaking a bit. When the Tampa Bays rolled into town on April 27th, the Twins were 9-12, but on a three game winning streak. That ended, and escalated quickly. The Rays outscored the Twins 29-6 in a sweep, and then the Royals, the laughingstocks of MLB, swept the Twins right out of KC outscoring them 25-8 in three games.

Well, shoot. The Twins aren’t doin’ so hot, are they?

Gardenhire and GM Bill Smith tried not to panic. Everyone seemed mired in a slump, and Morneau was dinged up for a little bit. Thome had an oblique strain and missed some time. Cuddyer played first for a while, then moved to second for a spell (and he played it about as well as I would).

Casilla was then shifted over to second and Trevor Plouffe was called up. Kubel manned right field more than he normally would, and he wasn’t the best outfielder in the world, either. Neither was Young, so Span had to really hustle around in outfield lest an epidemic of doubles would break out.

The leaky pitching was now taking on water. In a stretch of seven games, the Twins gave up 9, 10 or 11 runs five times. All in all it was a nine-game losing streak that put Minnesota at 12-26. Nathan was demoted from closer, Anthony Swarzak came up to help as did Jim Hoey, one of the prizes of the Hardy deal.

The Twins rallied to win three straight on the road, but then were swept by Arizona on the road, lost two of three to both the Mariners and Angels at Target field, and then lost three in a row at Detroit. They were 17-37.

Twins fans were thinking about going to their cabins, and dreaming of the opening of Vikings training camp and pheasant season. On top of all that, Kubel went on the DL with a foot sprain, and Ben Revere was recalled to fill in.

Yikes. The Twins keep gettin’ hurt, that’s not so good, is it?

Suddenly, on June 2nd, something finally clicked, but of course bad news came with it. They won two straight in Kansas City. In that second game, Span crashed into Bryan Pena, and came away a little dazed and confused with some neck pain.

Ben Revere started a few games in his place, and that didn’t stop the Twins. They finished a four game sweep of the Royals, and then Span started on June 6th at Cleveland, a 6-4 Twins win.

He didn’t play on June 7th, or the 8th, or the 9th. Finally, on June 10th, the Twins placed Span on the DL for a concussion. It was hoped he could come back soon. Of course, they hoped Morneau could come back the year before, and that didn’t happen.

On June 9th, Morneau was the DH. He had a little soreness and was off to an awful start, hitting just .225. Turns out he had pinched nerves in his neck, and needed surgery. He was lost for at least six weeks as well.

Still, without Mauer, Monreau, Kubel, Span and Nishioka, the Twins somehow rolled on in June. From June 2nd to June 21st, Minnesota compiled a 15-2 record, inching themselves up into fourth place at 32-39.

Now, they were just 6 ½ games behind. They had 91 games to play. Win 60% of those, you get to 87 wins. Stranger things have happened. That could be enough to ease into the playoffs. They just have to win three out of every five games.

Mauer came back during the winning streak and was put on a limited diet of catching, with some DH work thrown in there as well. That meant Butera and Rivera would still get more playing time than optimal (which would be none, but I digress.)

Nishioka was back, too. Gardenhire decided that he should play shortstop, where he was more comfortable. Casilla moved to second, and Hughes then moved to play first in place of Morneau, which was needed since Cuddyer had to play right since Kubel was hurt. Thome was hurting at DH as well with an Achilles problem and wouldn’t you know he went on the DL soon as well. You needed a diagram to track all of the player movements around the diamond.

So despite the hot streak, now the Twins had no Morneau, no Kubel, no Thome, no Span.

No dice.

It had to happen, didn’t it? Another tailspin, losing two at San Francisco, three at Milwaukee and the first game of a home stand against the Dodgers. They were outscored 43-8 in those six games, including a 15-0 pasting by LA as ‘pitch to contact’ Nick Blackburn gave up 13 hits in 4 1/3 innings.

The Twins never did get Voros McCracken’s memo about the lack of control pitchers have when contact is made. A nine-hop dribbler in the hole is just as much of a single as a solid liner over the head of the shortstop.

Thome got healthy enough to bat, which helped overcome a Delmon Young injury (of course, the Twins can’t have nice things for long). As the All-Star break neared, it was hoped some of the injured players would be back soon.

The Twins took heart in getting Mauer and Thome back, at least, and won 10 of 13 going into the All-Star break, and coming out of it, took two of three against the Royals. There they sat, 44-49, five games behind. Anything was possible.

Even with Kubel and Young back at it, and Nathan regaining some form as the closer, possible didn’t happen. The Twins finished July on a 6-9 mark, and were 50-58, and seven games behind. Span was going to be activated soon, and Morneau was due back in a couple of weeks. If they could keep close enough…

Early August was the last hope, and it turned into no hope, losing two of three to the Angles, getting swept by the White Sox and losing two of three to the Red Sox. They were 52-65 and out of it, and moving on to Cleveland.

Nishioka seemed lost in the majors. He wasn’t hitting and he was making mental mistakes. He made a lot of physical mistakes too, and they came to roost on August 12th against Cleveland, where he misplayed at least four balls at short, either for errors or with the Indians taking advantage and taking an extra base.

That kind of took the shine off of him as any kind of contributor moving forward, not that his play since returning from injury was stellar. Trevor Plouffe was installed at short for most of the rest of the season. While he was even a worse defender metrically, at least he showed hustle and grit.

Baker, the star of the staff, had elbow problems, and pitched with a strained flexor that required two DL stints. Morneau still wasn’t hitting. Mauer was playing everywhere but catcher it seemed, which meant that Butera and Rivera sucked up outs.

It really was over on August 15th, when the Twins traded Young, an underachiever at best and a disappointment at the bat and in the field at the worst, to Detroit for a 1974 Chevy Vega. They didn’t even get that for Thome, as they let him go on waivers to Cleveland later in the month. Thome hit well when he could, but it was for the best.

With the Vikings training camp starting, few people cared about the Twins. It was a bad September, with a bunch of kids and rehabbing vets flailing about, and a bad season.

Cuddyer, the steady one who played wherever he was asked, led the team with 20 home runs and a .346 OBP. Kubel had a decent year before and after being injured, and Mauer still had OBP skills, but no power whatsoever, which hampered his value at first and DH.

Morneau, when he did play, was a disaster, with only four home runs and a 70 OPS+. He also still had lingering issues with his concussion. Valencia led the team in RBI, but had an OBP under .300. Nishioka had an OPS of .527 and -1.2 WAR in the field, for a -1.9 WAR total. The defense in entirety had a -7.7 WAR and the entire TEAM had a 2.8 WAR in aggregate.

Yuck.

After the season, Smith was fired. His big trade, sending Hardy away for pitching, went bust. Hardy had a great year in Baltimore. The pitchers stunk. Nishioka, his big signing, stank. He didn’t try to wheel and deal; he went down with the ship.

Baker’s elbow would never really recover, though he still tried with several teams. Pavano was just so-so in 2011 and was done after 11 starts in 2012. Liriano had an awful year and was gone soon enough, traded away to a contender when he magically woke up and started to pitch well again in 2013. The bullpen struggled, except for Glen Perkins. Nathan and Capps were opening the door more than shutting it. Disasters all around.

2011 put Minnesota in a huge funk for several seasons, one that they’re finally recovering from. It was a combo of injuries, a lack of scouting, and a lack of talent that doomed the Twins in 2011 and going forward.

Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Baker had a 4.4 WAR. Baker only made 21 starts. Span led the position players with a 2.4 WAR mostly due to his defense. Span played in just 71 games.

Honorable Mention Team: The 1991 Twins won the World Series. The 1992 Twins finished second and won 90 games. The 1993 Twins skidded to 71-91 as Scott Erickson turned into a pumpkin, Eddie Guardado showed he wasn’t a starter, and hot prospect Dave McCarthy hit two home runs and struck out 80 times. But, they did get 68 innings of 6.19 ERA ball from George “The Animal” Tsamis, now the manager of the highly successful St. Paul Saints.

Bad Blast from the Past: The Twins were once the Washington Senators, and the Senators were always disappointing it seemed. The low point, though, was 1904. Washington had high hopes as Patsy Donovan was coming to town to lead the squad. He was a fine player that would give the team a bit of ginger on the field.

He was delayed a bit due to some contract and business entanglements, so Malachi Kittridge, the veteran catcher, was the interim manager. Malachi went 1-17 as the fill-in, and Donovan didn’t do much better, as the team went 38-113 and almost went bankrupt. (Which, of course, was a common lament in Washington).

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