MINNEAPOLIS — The falloff the Minnesota Twins experienced after two straight division titles could be traced in some places to natural regression.
The real surprise was how sharply and swiftly they faded.
The Twins lost five straight games during their first homestand of the season and never saw the .500 mark again. From April 18 on, they were stuck in either fourth or fifth place in the AL Central they controlled in the previous two years. They finished 73-89, a first-to-last turnaround that no franchise ever wants to experience.
“In this game, we sign up for all types of seasons. We don’t just sign up for the good ones. We sign up for all of them,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “There were many challenges this year for us. We didn’t perform the way we needed to. We have to own that in every way. I have to be the first one to raise my hand and own it and take responsibility for what’s gone on here in the 2021 season.”
The biggest culprit was the pitching staff. After ranking ninth (4.18) in the majors in team ERA in 2019 and fourth (3.58) in 2020, the Twins were 26th this year (4.83). Their best starter, José Berríos, was traded to Toronto. The other right-hander at the top of the rotation, Kenta Maeda, struggled in the spring and needed Tommy John surgery in the summer. The short-term additions of J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker wound up hurting more than they helped.
“We have to come back and evaluate that, because we didn’t hit on those for sure,” said president of baseball operations Derek Falvey, who finished his fifth season leading the front office. "Those guys didn’t pitch as well as we thought they could have.”
The challenge for Falvey and company in getting the Twins back on track is that they'll be building a rotation for 2022 almost from scratch. Maeda can't be counted on, though he chose a version of the elbow procedure designed to accelerate a recovery. Joe Ryan, acquired from Tampa Bay for designated hitter Nelson Cruz, and Bailey Ober were the only pitchers starting games in September who appeared to be viable options next year.
Don't expect to see an all-rookie rotation, though.
“I’m not using that word,” Falvey said, adding: “We’re going to find a way to invest in next year’s team. This is not with an eye toward five years down the line.”
There's one offseason issue even more pivotal than the pitching for the Twins, with center fielder Byron Buxton entering the final year of club control before he's eligible for free agency. His agent and the team talked about an extension this summer before reaching a stalemate.
At the end of another frustrating season of injuries, first a strained hip and then a broken hand, Buxton expressed a remarkable buoyance in light of his career-best production at the plate while he was in the lineup and offered no hint of annoyance about his uncertain future in Minnesota.
The 27-year-old Buxton flashed his usual elite defense in the 61 games he played, but he made his biggest strides yet as a hitter — finishing with 19 home runs and a 1.005 OPS in 235 at-bats.
“This year taught me a little bit more about myself and who I can become, not just on the field but off the field,” Buxton said. “Off the field is where you get better and smarter as a player.”
MAYBE MORE OF BIG MIKE?
Michael Pineda tied Maeda for the team lead in starts (21), but he missed several turns due to injury and will be a free agent again this fall. Because of his 3.62 ERA and outsized influence on the rest of the staff, Pineda will likely receive some consideration to return if the two sides are able to find common ground on a new contract. Baldelli called Pineda a “pillar” of the clubhouse.
“I like to be a team guy, so I love to work together,” Pineda said. “I know I’m a leader right now, especially for the pitchers, you know?”
UPS AND DOWNS
The Twins finished 11th in the majors in OPS (.738), boosted by a limited sample of Buxton, a first-half fix of Cruz and a midsummer surge by second baseman Jorge Polanco. First baseman Miguel Sanó tied for second on the team with 135 games played, but the Twins needed far more consistent production from the strikeout-prone slugger. Right fielder Max Kepler also had a second straight disappointing season at the plate.
The Twins start the 2022 season on March 31 at division champion Chicago in a six-game road trip before their home opener April 7 against Seattle. Another highlight of the schedule is an Aug. 26-28 weekend home series against San Francisco, which had the best record in the majors this year. This will be the first trip by the Giants to Target Field since it opened in 2010.