Turning the clock back 20 years for a division-winning recipe – Twins

Let’s set the stage as we travel back to a time in Twins history that is etched in my mind, but probably considered ancient by many reading this.

It’s 2003. Ron Gardenhire is in his second year at the helm as Twins manager, fresh off the team’s first-place playoff spot in a decade and an ALCS run. His team gets off to a dull start and crumbles into the All-Star break, trailing the division by 7½ games in mid-July when Terry Ryan pulls the trigger on one of the most legendary trade deadlines. in franchise history.

Looking back now on that fascinating journey of a 2003 season, there are a few characteristics that strike me about the Twins team of that year.

Good throw, bad shot

The 2003 Twins were also carried by their pitching team, although the forces were reversed. This team had a more ordinary rotation, at least until Johan Santana was finally released as a starter in July, but the bullpen was absolute dynamite. Led by All-Star closest Eddie Guardado and rejuvenated setup man LaTroy Hawkins, the Twins relievers ranked second in the AL in the WPA for the season.

The offense? Not so useful. During the All-Star break, the Twins hitters ranked 18th in the majors in runs scored and 21st in the WPA. As losses mounted in July – eight in a row before the break – it was clear the team needed a spark.

An obvious weakness in the lineup, at least in the eyes of Ryan and Gardenhire, was the lack of a prototypical guy at the top of the command.

In the absence of a traditional first batter

Since the start of the previous season, when Gardenhire took over, Jacque Jones had been Minnesota’s leading regular hitter. He was hardly of the typical mold: an extreme, free-swinging power hitter with modest walk rates and average on-base percentages.

The Twins seemed to like that Jones presented an immediate threat, able to put the Twins up 1-0 up from the start (much like Max Kepler today), but even Gardy – who hardly embraced the value of the OBP value at the top of the lineup – yearned for a more traditional catalyst that could work and control the strike zone.

This year’s Twins also find themselves without a traditional first batter, with odd fits like Kepler and Joey Gallo rotating regularly. Similar to the 2003 squad, there is also a noticeable lack of quality right-handed options, a perception which at the time compelled Gardenhire to (painfully) beat Jones up front against left-handers, against whom he struggled horribly. .

Hopefully the 2023 Twins get a big jolt in that regard with the impending return of Royce Lewis, who has the makings of a spark plug right atop the order. But that’s a lot of pressure for an untested rookie. The Twins might need to look the outside for their roster clash, and the 2003 season provides one of the greatest precedents of all time.

Upgrade with a big deadline trade

On July 16, the Twins traded outfielder Bobby Kielty for Shannon Stewart of Toronto, a noted leader who had hit .302 with an OBP of .369 in his first seven seasons with the Blue Jays.

Stewart played really, really well for the Twins. He slashed .322/.384/.470, ranking fifth overall among Minnesota position players in both fWAR and bWAR despite only spending 65 games with the team. His 2.17 WPA in this sample led all Twins players for the season.

He certainly didn’t do it alone, but Stewart helped lead a massive turnaround on offense. After ranking 18th in runs scored and 21st in added win probability at the top of the trade, the Twins ranked fifth in runs and fourth in the WPA with Stewart on board.

The moment of the team’s revival lent itself to a narrative that garnered wide attention – to the point where Stewart eventually ranked FOURTH in the AL MVP vote. The three in front of him? Álex Rodríguez, Carlos Delgado and Jorge Posada, all of whom have had more than 5 fWAR seasons compared to Stewart’s relatively modest 3.0 mark.

Does his high ranking in the MVP poll overstate his individual contribution? Certainly. But at the same time, this historic example is a great reminder of how a big attacking addition can have an outsized impact and energize the surrounding lineup.

Again: not putting too much pressure on the kid, but I see Lewis as a talent capable of having such an effect. And I certainly think it’s plausible that the Twins will end up fishing in deep waters at the next trade deadline.

I don’t accept anonymous rumors of Shohei Ohtani’s interest, but for a variety of reasons – redundant minor depth, urgency to spur fan interest, and developing clarity of needs – I believe the Twins front office is about to make a splash when the time comes.

While fans tend to exaggerate the practical impact of timeframe acquisitions, Stewart’s trade is a fun reminder of what those moves can look like at their absolute pinnacle of short-term success.

Another “footnote”

Since we’re talking about Stewart, I feel compelled to hit on another note in light of recent news, and… it’s kind of depressing. Although the left fielder’s Twins career began brightly, earning him a contract extension the following offseason, his end was far less glamorous.

Stewart developed a foot condition called plantar fasciitis in 2004, which limited him to 92 games that year and continued to haunt him for the next two campaigns, suppressing his production and availability.

If the illness sounds freshly familiar, it’s because Carlos Correa was also diagnosed just two days ago with plantar fasciitis, as well as muscle strain, after awkwardly rounding first base on a double earlier in the game. the week.

I’m not trying to be a doomsayer regarding Correa’s prognosis or outlook. Stewart’s case was a more serious case where plantar fasciitis became chronic and affected both feet. There’s no reason to think Correa’s problem will even approach that level. At the same time, plantar fasciitis is no joke.

To FanGraphs on Thursday, Jay Jaffe wrote about Correa’s stalled recovery after a slow start and cautioned against expecting the shortstop to return in a few days, even in a majority scenario. optimistic. “The Baseball Prospectus Recovery Dashboard contains 13 cases of players who visited IL for plantar fasciitis since 2016 (but none for 2020). Those 13 stays averaged 35 days, with a minimum of 12 (John Lackey in 2016), a median of 30, and a high of 85 (Harrison Bader last year)”

We’ll see what happens with Correa, which itself has a chance (one might say an obligation) to be the internal version of the spark plug we’re discussing here. But as we look back at the encouraging aspects of the 2003 season and Stewart’s iconic trade, we also can’t ignore how the most disheartening games are hitting close to home right now.

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