The Twins used to be a plucky little team run by a man thought of as a really smart manager. Ron Gardenhire led them to playoff appearances six times in nine years from 2002-10. Once they lost in the ALCS, the other five times in the division-series round, the last three by sweep.
Suddenly, they turned from good to bad, going from 94 wins in 2010 to 99 losses in 2011, a crash that few recent teams have done unless they were rebuilding.
This remarkable fact came to my attention when the Twins fired Gardenhire after 2014, their fourth straight 90-plus loss season: The last Twins manager fired before Gardenhire was Ray Miller -- in September 1986. When Miller was fired, Gardenhire was still playing in Triple-A for the Mets. Tom Kelly took over, won two World Series (but had no other postseason appearances) and then walked away from the game at age 50, never again coaching nor managing. For comparison: Kelly, who hasn't managed in 14 years, is only about three years older than Joe Maddon.
Paul Molitor, a Minnesota native who played his last three years for the Twins, is the new manager -- having never before managed. It's a stretch. He'll be popular, but what he'll do with the team is impossible to tell.
Anyway, I've digressed, and mostly because I don't exactly know what the Twins are doing. Torii Hunter, who left Minnesota for free agency after the 2006 season in somewhat acrimonious fashion, is back saying happy things. But Hunter, who did have a halfway-decent year for the Tigers in 2014, will be 40 in July and is likely there to try to mentor some of the younger players, of whom the Twins have many.
Some of them are actually pretty decent. Brian Dozier had a fine offensive season, but he can't do it alone. Same with Oswaldo Arcia. And Trevor Plouffe. All decent players, none stars.
Stars? Well, there's Joe Mauer. Signed to a gargantuan free-agent deal one year after his monster 2009 season because the Twins felt they couldn't afford the bad PR of losing the hometown kid, Mauer has been decidedly mediocre since signing the deal. Yes, he's been injured, and yes, he really can't catch anymore, and yes, he did put up a 4.3 bWAR year in 2012 and 5.3 bWAR in 2013, but that's not what the Twins are paying $23 million a year for.
Mauer will be 32 shortly after Opening Day and you just get the feeling that he's got one or two of those great years left in him, but he'll have to start doing that or the Twins are likely to post another 90-loss year, because their pitching staff is filled with guys that shouldn't get four-year deals like the one Ricky Nolasco got before last year. Twins pitching allowed the most runs in the American League last year (777).
The offense somehow managed 715 runs, which ranked fifth in the A.L., which surprises me, given that they don't have any real stars. They underperformed their Pythagorean projection by five games, and teams that do that sometimes have a tendency to do better the following year. Maybe Molitor can do something as manager that's been lacking the last few years.
I really can't figure out this team, so your guess is as good as mine. They do have a spiffy ballpark in downtown Minneapolis that's worth seeing if you haven't already. The Cubs will travel there for a three-game series June 19, 20 and 21.