As March Madness kicks into high gear and the upsets have begun, it is fitting to consult a baseball bracket of sorts. Just as the “One Shining Moment” montage will memorialize the best from this year’s college basketball contestants, many Minnesota Twins fans can readily recall their favorite players and moments from the 1987 and 1991 World Champions.
The question remains: were those the club’s best-ever teams?
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder when completing a bracket, so too are particular statistics (and emotional sentiments) when comparing Twins squads since 1961. Pitching may be strong one year, but hitting lagged. The bats were hot for another squad, but the bullpen was found lacking. Only in the best years—whether due to skill, avoidance of injuries, or other factors—did the team win it all.
I won’t go about picking the ultimate winner—that’s for you, the reader, to decide—but here are some of the stronger candidates that merit consideration in a mythical bracket and resultant Final Four (all statistics are as compiled by baseball-reference.com):
Fans know that the 1987 Twins, winners of only 85 regular season games, were not the franchise’s all-time greatest in terms of the team’s record. Still, Kent Hrbek (34 home runs), Tom Brunansky (32), Gary Gaetti (31) and Kirby Puckett (28) provided plenty of pop. Pitchers Frank “Sweet Music” Viola (17 wins) and Bert Blyleven (15 wins) led the starting staff, while closer Jeff Reardon earned 31 saves.
The team’s ultimate result speaks for itself, as the Twins’ strong showing against Detroit and home mastery versus St. Louis were enough to raise the the Commissioner’s Trophy in manager Tom Kelly‘s first full campaign.
Rebounding from a last-place finish in 1990, the 1991 club signed key free-agent acquisitions Chili Davis, Mike Pagliarulo and St. Paul’s Jack Morris. The stronger team caught fire and won 15 straight games, finishing the year at 95-67.
The Twins overpowered Toronto, which would win the 1992 and 1993 championships, in the American League Championship Series before once more requiring seven games in a scintillating World Series against the upstart Atlanta Braves. Jack Morris gutted out a 10-inning masterpiece as Minnesota finally scratched across a run to again claim the crown.
Minnesota’s first pennant winner, the 1965 club, is also the only Twins club to win 100 games in a single season, finishing 102-60.
It featured the formidable bats of Most Valuable Player Zoilo Versailles, Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, and Tony Oliva. Pitchers included 21-game winner Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat and, in the bullpen, Al Worthington, whose 10 wins and 21 saves were the fruits of a stellar 168 ERA+. These Twins bowed to the stout pitching of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Twins’ first seven-game World Series.
This team and the 1970 edition were the inaugural AL West division champions. Both bowed in ALCS sweeps to the powerful Baltimore Orioles. The 1969 version saw MVP Harmon Killebrew slug 49 HRs and drive in 140 while playing in all 162 games. Pitchers Jim Perry and Dave Boswell each won 20 games while Ron Perranoski saved 31 with a 176 ERA+. Winner of 97 games (the 1970 club had 98 victories), the team simply couldn’t surmount the vaunted Orioles in the ALCS.
Foremost among the club’s successful rosters in the new millennium, the 2006 Twins finished 30 games over .500 at 96-66, the franchise’s best finish since 1970.
The team’s talented troika of MVP Justin Morneau (.321 BA, 34 HRs, 130 RBI), AL batting champion Joe Mauer (.347 BA, 144 OPS+) and Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Johan Santana (19 wins, 2.77 ERA, 245 Ks, 162 ERA+, 7.5 WAR) led a prolific team that scored more than 800 runs and a 114 ERA+. Amid this bounty of strong performances was the otherworldly rookie campaign of Francisco Liriano, whose 12-3 mark and 208 ERA+ electrified fans, though he made only two appearances after July 28.
Matched against the Oakland A’s in the AL Division Series, big things were expected. Instead, the A’s swept the series, with future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas hitting .500 with two HRs to match a pair by Justin Morneau, who batted .417 in the series.
The Final Four
While some advanced metrics are lacking for older seasons, four teams stand out. The 1965, 1969, 1991, and 2006 squads had both strong hitting and pitching, leading not only to success in their respective seasons, but respect for their places in the team’s all-time annals. Let’s call them our Final Four.
Here, the overall strength of two teams stands out, while a lack of starting pitching depth might hamper the 1969 and 2006 clubs. The 1965 club was a plus-174 in its margin of runs scored vs. runs allowed; the 1969 team a plus-172, but its pitching wasn’t as strong as the pennant-winning team.
The 1991 edition had three strong starters, multiple relief options and stopper Rick Aguilera in the bullpen; the 2006 team–by October–had ace Santana…and that was basically it until the bullpen intervened. Boof Bonser started Game 2 of the ALDS and an ailing Brad Radke, in the last start of his career, valiantly pitched Game 3.
In light of these and other factors, I would choose the 1965 and 1991 clubs for a championship showdown, if only because they represent two of the Twins’ three main eras of success.
As mentioned, I’m not going to choose one team as preeminent, for selecting the all-time best team in Twins history is, ultimately, an exercise in conjecture. After all, will the final showdown be held at the Met or in the Dome? It is fun speculation, however, and there seems no better time to debate such things than during March Madness.
In this case, there are no broken brackets; simply memories of seasons past. Don your best Twins (thinking) cap and see what leads you to pick a winner.
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