Despite the largely successful on-field product the Twins produced over the last decade, they have had more than their fair share of misfortunes as well. With a little more luck (or better planning) the hometown team could own a couple more World Series trophies instead of an embarrassing 12 game playoff losing streak. They might be making another playoff run right now instead of competing for next year’s top draft pick.
Here’s a look at a few of the biggest What-Ifs for the Twins in the last decade:
What if David Ortiz Re-Signed?
Ortiz was a promising young hitter, but he never quite put it together with the Twins. Knee injuries took away from his playing time seemingly every year. Still, he hit 20 homers for the 2002 Twins, and was definitely a player on the rise. The Twins, who at that time were still a penny-pinching small market club, chose to let Ortiz walk away and sign with Boston that offseason. Ortiz immediately made that decision appear foolish by becoming one of the game’s premier power hitters. He hit 31 homers in 2003, 41 in 2004, 47 in 2005, and an astounding 54 in 2006.
Some of that success was undoubtedly due to location. Fenway Park is a big-time hitter’s stadium, and the Red Sox teach their players to swing for the fences a lot more than the Twins do. And some of the success came from PEDs; Ortiz tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance in 2003 (the Red Sox seem to have had much better PED connections than the Twins ever did). But it’s likely that Ortiz would have become a 30 to 35 homer hitter had he stayed with the Twins. And he certainly would have shored up a DH spot that was a gaping hole in the Twins’ lineup for much of the last decade.
What if Joe Mauer Didn’t Hurt His Knee?
Joe Mauer’s arrival in Minnesota was one of the most anticipated events in team history. The Minnesota-born phenom debuted with the team on Opening Day, 2004, and he didn’t disappoint, singling twice and walking twice in a 7-4 victory over Cleveland. But the next day he tore the meniscus in his left knee. Mauer missed two months with the injury, returned for six weeks, and then missed the rest of the year with a related injury.
If Mauer hadn’t been injured in his second MLB game, he would likely have sailed away with AL Rookie of the Year honors, and he may have been able to provide some clutch hits in the 2004 ALDS against the Yankees. But the long term effects may be harder to calculate. This was the first in a series of injuries that has plagued Mauer’s career. When completely healthy, he’s arguably the best hitter in the game. But “when completely healthy” has become a big caveat. Mauer has missed time seemingly every year with injuries, notably in 2007 and 2011. The cumulative effect of the injuries may be wearing him down before his time, forcing a position change in the near future.
What if Jason Kubel Skipped the Arizona Fall League?
A lot of people don’t remember this, but Jason Kubel was once considered a potential superstar. He blazed a trail of fire through the minor leagues, and he spent 2004 murdering AA and AAA pitching before earning a September callup. He looked like a shoo-in Rookie of the Year candidate for 2005. But disaster struck in the Arizona Fall League. Kubel collided with Tiger Prospect Ryan Raburn while chasing a foul ball. The collision caused extensive damage to Kubel’s knee ligaments. It robbed Kubel of his 2005 season, delayed his emergence as a full-time Major Leaguer by several years, and permanently sapped him of much of his speed in the outfield, agility on the basepaths, and balance at the plate. The fact that Kubel has become a solid Major League outfielder even after the devastating injury can only cause one to wonder how great he could’ve been if he stayed healthy.
There were some other negative effects of Kubel’s injury. The Twins had been on the fence about whether to retain Corey Koskie and Jacque Jones, both free agents after 2004. With Kubel out of the picture, Minnesota let Koskie go and re-signed Jones for one season. Jones displayed some power, with 23 homers, but hit just .249 as the Twins slumped to a losing season in 2005. Even worse, the Twins have not had a dependable, productive third baseman since Koskie left. Koskie latched on with the Jays and then the Brewers, where he suffered a concussion on a fluke play; that injury eventually derailed his career. Kubel’s injury certainly is not directly responsible for these misfortunes, but it may have been the first domino in the row.
If you’re starting to see a pattern here, you’re not alone. The best prospects in the Twins’ farm system make it to the Major Leagues, start fast, and then suffer catastrophic injury. Morneau energized the Twins in 2004, hitting 19 homers in a half season and finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting. In 2005, he looked to build on that success and establish himself as the first truly great Twins’ power hitter in a generation. But on April 6, 2005, Morneau was plunked in the head by Seattle pitcher Ron Villone.
After returning from the DL, Morneau had a terrible 2005. But he rebounded to have four very good seasons with the Twins. In fact, the Ron Villone incident would be completely insignificant if not for the events of last summer, when he sustained another concussion in Toronto. According to scientists, while a single concussion may be easily overcome, athletes who sustain multiple concussions face far greater health problems. Morneau missed the entire second half of 2010 with his second big league concussion, and he hasn’t been the same player since. But it’s the Villone pitch that made his latest concussion so devastating.
What if Francisco Liriano Didn’t Need Tommy John Surgery?
Liriano was yet another Twins’ Rookie of the Year candidate whose first full year in the Majors was ruined. Perhaps this one was inevitable, though. Liriano’s unorthodox mechanics and nasty, biting slider are the very things that make him an exciting pitcher, but they’re also the reason he has suffered so many injuries over the years. The big one came in September of 2006, when the rookie fireballer tore up his elbow, requiring ligament replacement surgery
Though the Twins still won the division that year, thanks to a thrilling finish, Liriano’s pitching skills could have come in handy against Oakland in the ALDS. If nothing else, he could have helped avoid a sweep and given Johan Santana another shot at the A’s. And instead of losing 2007 to rehab, he could have pitched full time in the Majors and built up confidence. That confidence (as well as some fastball velocity and slider control) has largely been lacking since, as evidenced by dreadful performances in 2009 and this year.
Every Twins’ fan whose ever had reason to complain about Bill Smith knows the details of this move by heart. The Twins shipped shortstop Bartlett and starting pitcher Garza to the Rays for Jason Pridie, Delmon Young, and Brendan Harris. Tampa rode strong performances by Garza and Bartlett to that year’s World Series, while the Twins spent three years waiting for Young to achieve even half of his potential.
This is another scenario that’s pretty easy to figure out. Bartlett would have shored up the middle infield for a few years, and he might have prevented the Tsuyoshi Nishioka debacle. Garza would have been a steady presence near the top of the rotation. It’s doubtful that this move prevented a World Series run by itself, but the Twins might well have been a better team without the trade.
What if Michael Cuddyer Was Safe?
2008 was the one year in recent memory that the Twins’ greatest nemesis – the Yankees – didn’t make the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Twins also missed the playoffs that year, thanks to a 1-0 loss against the White Sox in Game 163. Before Jim Thome hit the deciding homer, Cuddyer came closer to scoring than any other player in that game. He led off the fourth inning with a double and advanced to third on a flyout. He tried to score on another flyball, but he was gunned down at home.
If Cuddyer had scored, and the Twins had won what would have been an extra inning game, things might have been different. The Twins would have gone on to face the Rays (including Garza and Bartlett) in the ALDS. Had they won that one, their ALCS opponent would have been the Boston Red Sox. Not easy competition by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a feeling the Twins would be thrilled to play anyone other than the Yankees in the playoffs.