Note: This was written on March 31st,2013, the day before the season opener, as a fantasy look-back at how the the Twins might win. I decided not to publish then, but to save it for the end of the season. Here it is unedited.
How did this happen? Six months ago the Twins entered the season projected to finish last in the division for the third straight year. How did they end up not only winning the division, but winning it convincingly?
The "Aceless Rotation"
It turns out you don't need an ace who pitches only once every five games. You need five pitchers who keep you in every game. The Twins went into the season with a bunch of castoffs and redemption projects. Four key pitchers started the year on the disabled list and one, Mike Pelfrey, probably should have.
Instead of a single ace, for the first time in three years the Twins had three pitchers get over 200 innings pitched. Vance Worley, received in trade for Ben Revere, was the opening day starter. Scott Diamond missed his first start recovering from off-season surgery, but that was the last game he missed. Kevin Correa, a widely panned off-season signing, started 33 games for the first time in his career.
But it was the depth behind those three that allowed the Twins to overcome injuries and some early season struggles. Mike Pelfry pitched well until his velocity started to fall, instead of improve. Once it was apparent he had come back a bit too quickly from Tommy John surgery, hs replacement, Rich Harden, stepped right in and dominated as a starter for the last three months of the season. Cole DeVries, before going down with a sore elbow in early August, kept the Twins in every game and was on a pace for 200+ innings. Kyle Gibons stepped in to finish out the month before being shut down for the season when DeVries was ready to pitch again.
In short, it was a rare game where the Twins were out of it after six innings. The starters didn't dominate, but they all consistently gave the team a chance to win.
Six Innings and Over
The real key to the Twins pitching success was the bullpen. Teams had to get their runs in the first six innings because, once the Twins starter left, their chances of scoring on the Twins bullpen were very slight. Glen Perkins was solid as a closer, but the setup and middle relief guys were almost as dominant. Rule 5 pick Pressly dominated the 8th inning. He got help from Rafael Perez, Jared Burton, Anthony Swarzak and Brian Duensing who were all in the game as early as the sixth inning when starters faltered. Rich Harden dominated in the bullpen before moving to the rotation and Mike Pelfry was equally dominating once he regained his velocity with some rest. While not as dominating, Fien and Roenicke did a more than adequate job keeping chairs warm for injured players. The Twins bullpen was expected to be a strength and it was both very good and very deep.
Hicks, Parmelee, Plouffe and Arcia
The emergence of Hicks, Parmelee, Plouffe and later Arcia transformed the Twins lineup into one of the most feared in baseball. Hicks skills in the leadoff spot eclipsed even his predecessor Denard Spans, as he not only got on base but started to show his power by the end of the year. Parmelee's emergence as a .300 hitter with 25 home runs made it possible that this is Justin Morneau's last year as a Twin. Plouffe's demonstration that his home run burst in 2012 was not a fluke, gave the Twins a number 8 hitter with over 30 home runs. When Morneau went on the DL for a week in late June, the Twins called up Arcia to play right field. He started hitting and never stopped. When Morneau came back, the Twins sent Drew Butera packing as third catcher and Ryan Doumit got most of his at bats as a backup catcher and bat off the bench. Arcia, Parmelee and Morneau rotated through the DH spot.
Mauer, Morneau and Willingham
Mauer and Morneau are both top candidates for American League MVP and Willingham is not that far behind. Morneau started out the year the way he did in 2010 before he had his concussion and never stopped, except for his brief stint on the DL in early July. With 40+ home runs, 120 RBI's and a .340 average he should be a shoe-in for MVP. Except that he plays first base and his teammate Joe Mauer, a catcher, won the batting title hitting .360 with a career high 30 home runs. He had an amazing .480 OBP, which accounted for some of Morneau's RBI's. Willingham repeated his 2011 season with 35 home runs, but got over 100 RBI's for the first time in his career.
Defense up the Middle
Focusing solely on pitching and offense would be a mistake. One of the key changes from last year was the defense up the middle. While Pedro Florimon never provided any offense, his defense first with Brian Dozier, and then with Levi Michael at second base, gave the Twins a stable middle infield for the first time in a long time. Michaels swift rise through AA and AAA took everyone by surprise. His defense is what got him the job, but he hit well enough to hold down the number two spot in the order the last two months of the season. With Hicks and Mauer at the other two key defensive spots, the Twins had gold glove quality defense at every position up the middle.
The Twins depth became a huge asset as the season moved along. Escobar and Carroll gave the Twins solid backups at every infield position. Escobar has even shown he is a plus defender in the outfield. Doumit, while not a great defensive catcher like Butera, provides the Twins with a switch hitting bat on the bench when he isn't catching. Mastroianni can play all three outfield positions and his offense plays at both leadoff and number two spots. He also pinch runs.
Scouting and Player Development
The Twins had four first round choices emerge this year as part of the core of the team. Hicks, Parmelee, Plouffe and Michaels are all first round choices that some people have written off as failures in the past. Scott Diamond and Ryan Pressly were rule 5 draft choices who played key roles this year.
Baseball is an unpredictable business and no one would have predicted this. But the Twins are now in the playoffs with the American League's best record. Lets hope they end this run the same way they did in 1992 when they went from last to first and then won the World Series.