Ken Rosenthal, bar none, is the best reporter working the game today, combining incredible sources and resources with great journalistic instincts and fair and responsible analysis. So to see him praising the my beloved Twins this morning is pretty gratifying:
The Twins have flipped the script again, winning eight of their last 10 games and moving within 1 1/2 games in the race for the second Wild Card, with only the Rangers ahead of them.
Amazing. And even more amazing considering how much has gone wrong.
Minnesota has, indeed, far outstripped expectations in 2015, and after taking two of three from the banged up Astros are four games above .500. And even if they can't keep pace in the playoff hunt, after four years in the wilderness, 2015 will go down as the year everything changed for the Minnesota Twins.
Rosenthal is right in that so many things have gone wrong for the Twins in 2015. They've dealt with ineffective play and injuries, rebuilding their pitching staff and their lineup on the fly when Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, and Ervin Santana were sidelined. And they've managed to compensate for Joe Mauer's ongoing struggle to be better than replacement value.
Where I think a lot of people are going to make fun of Ken is where he talks about the Twins' "culture" changing under manager Paul Molitor and veteran outfielder (and occasional bigot) Torii Hunter's leadership:
"Let's face it -- while analysts such as my good friend Brian Kenny of MLB Network won't want to hear it -- the Twins succeeded in changing their culture by hiring manager Paul Molitor and signing Torii Hunter, even though Hunter's OBP is -- gulp -- only .290."
But Ken is right here, just not in the way that he probably means. We often poke fun at the idea of "chemistry" and "culture" translating in to wins, and I'll be one of the first to lead that charge. I'm not saying that the Twins are winning because they have dance parties after every victory. And I'm certainly not going to credit Torii Hunter for "leading" the Twins, given how awful he has performed over the last two months (.162/.225/.292 since July 1). But there's no doubt that the culture of the Twins has changed from the previous four seasons.
I'm willing to credit some of that to Paul Molitor. After 13 seasons at the helm, Ron Gardenhire had gotten visibly bored managing this baseball team. He filled out his lineup cards out of habit, giving little thought to who should play and where and seemed to leave the veteran Twins by and large on autopilot. He did little to address the team's fundamental mental and physical shortcomings, or to engage with young players, who seemed to be something of an annoyance to him. By the time June or July rolled around, the Twins played with a lack of energy and a sense of defeat that was palpable.
Molitor, on the other hand, has made questionable decisions over the course of the year. He stuck with Danny Santana and Aaron Thompson for too long, for instance, and he insisted on playing Eduardos Escobar and Nunez in left field at the start of the year after Oswaldo Arcia got hurt. However, he's more than demonstrated that he's willing to make moves. Those include enthusiastically playing Trevor May, Aaron Hicks, Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Tommy Milone, and Tyler Duffey. He's also been willing to go with the hot hand at shortstop, rotating the Eduardos in the position until Escobar broke through with a hot August (.295/.375/.577) to claim the position. And he's been willing to sit Hunter regularly in the second half, essentially benching the team's "leader" three or four days a week as his struggles have intensified. While Gardenhire might have simply accepted the Twins' June and July swoon as he did in 2013 and 2014, Molitor clearly worked to shake things up.
All of which brings me to the most important reason the Twins' culture has changed: They got new players. I'm not talking about Hunter here, or even Ervin Santana. I'm talking about the young players they started introducing in 2014 and who the organization has finally embraced this year. Sano and Rosario and May and Buxton and Hicks and Milone and Duffey have all contributed mightily to the turnaround, and still more help may be on the horizon with Jose Berrios and Max Kepler.
The Twins exploded back into relevance in 2001 with a young core who would form a decade of solid big league clubs. Over time, they forgot that lesson and began to prize veteran mediocrity over youth and upside. But finally...perhaps by default...the Twins have taken advantage of the value that youth and energy can generate in a moribund franchise. Regardless of what happens for the rest of 2015, I can't wait to see what the Twins can do next year when Sano, Rosario, and Buxton are all around for the whole season. And perhaps that's the greatest cultural change the Twins have been able to pull off. Transferring their own energy into a fanbase that was desperate to care again.