MINNEAPOLIS — While the New York Yankees doused themselves with cheap drinks down the hall in the Target Field basement, the Minnesota Twins were left to wonder how 101 wins, 307 homers and so much summer fun could lead to such an abrupt autumn exit.
Minnesota’s major league record streak of 16 straight postseason losses, with 13 of those defeats exacted by the Yankees, will gnaw at the franchise and the fan base for yet another year.
For the free agents to be, the 2019 regular season might well be the highlight of their time in Minnesota rather than the start of a dynastic run.
The players who return in 2020, even with their experience of October disappointment, will likely face the same questions next year about slaying the pinstriped dragon in the American League.
One bad weekend of baseball on the big stage, though, can’t erase the consistency, resiliency and success displayed by the Twins as they won the AL Central division for the first time since 2010.
“So many memories. There was something special that happened pretty much every day,” said catcher Mitch Garver, one of a record five players who topped 30 home runs. “We were crushing this league for a long time, and it just felt incredible.
“But that’s all due to what these guys come in and do every day. They come in and put in the work, and we all stayed dedicated to our craft. We dealt with a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries, a lot of guys missing time, and it just seemed every day we found a new way to battle back and another guy stepped up. That’s all you can ask of a team.”
So while the Twins became the first 100-win team to be swept in a division series, they also were just the second 100-win team in Twins history. The major league record for the most home runs ever hit during a regular season will stay in Minnesota for at least a year.
Breakout performances by players like Garver, right fielder Max Kepler, shortstop Jorge Polanco, second baseman Luis Arraez and relief pitcher Tyler Duffey will serve as a foundation for next season that the Twins will surely start among the leading AL contenders.
“I’m going to take a lot out of this and learn a lot from what we just experienced,” rookie manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I hope all of our players do, too. Hopefully, we’re in this position again next year and again after that.”
As quiet of an acquisition Nelson Cruz was at the time, the 39-year-old designated hitter gave the Twins one of the best bargains from last winter’s market, which was dominated by the major-money signings of Manny Machado ($300 million) and Bryce Harper ($330 million).
Cruz, who out-homered both Machado and Harper, played for $14 million this season. And his $12 million option for 2020 is a sure bet to be exercised by the Twins.
Despite two stints on the injured list, Cruz became the third slugger in team history to reach the 40-homer mark after Harmon Killebrew (seven times) and Brian Dozier (once).
The emergence of Arraez, who batted .334 in 92 games with just 29 strikeouts after being called up in mid-May, has given the Twins additional flexibility for their roster maneuvering this winter with his ability to play left field as well as his natural spot at second base, where Jonathan Schoop will be a free agent.
Garver’s success was well-timed, too, with fellow catcher Jason Castro on an expiring contract.
As for the rotation, the Twins can count on two-time All-Star Jose Berrios, who will enter his first year of salary arbitration eligibility, to lead the way. However, after that, they have holes to fill with Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda about to become free agents.
The Twins have a $7.5 million option to bring back Martin Perez, but he was left off the postseason roster. Pineda’s suspension for a banned diuretic will continue well into 2020, putting his return in doubt. Gibson faltered down the stretch. Odorizzi made the All-Star team, but his price tag might not be of interest to the front office.
“If I’m back, that’d be great. I’ve really taken a liking to here,” Odorizzi said. “If not, I wish nothing but the best for everybody. These are great people top to bottom, so it’s tough to end the year.”
Relief pitching was a major question mark entering the season, and five members of the bullpen who appeared in more than 20 games this year were either left off the postseason roster or jettisoned much earlier.
The Twins’ bullpen had a 4.17 ERA, which ranked 10th in the majors.