Twins pursue a new goal: Make most of 2021 as statement about future

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ST. LOUIS — Jake Cave remembers that sad weekend at Fenway Park three Julys ago, when the sub-.500 Twins surrendered their postseason ambitions, and a couple of popular teammates, in a trade deadline sell-off. The mood was somber, the outlook gloomy, and the Red Sox's sweep just made matters worse.

And then an unexpected thing happened.

"We started having fun," Cave said. "A bunch of young guys came up, nobody expected us to do anything, and I just remember what a blast we had playing baseball those last two months."

They left Boston, won the next day in a ninth-inning walk-off and, with the pressure of expectations lifted, went 30-28 the rest of the way, a change of direction that Cave believes played a role in the 2019 Twins' success.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happens this year," Cave said. "I'm not the manager or the [general manager], but look at a guy like [Brent] Rooker — I can't imagine why he wouldn't get a bunch of at-bats the next couple of months and hit a bunch of home runs, and I can't wait to see it. Let's see what the young guys, the young pitchers, can do. Let's have some fun."

That's an unexpected call to action for a team that's already buried further into last place than it's been in the past five seasons, for a team that has offloaded Nelson Cruz and Jose Berrios in the past 10 days. But manager Rocco Baldelli also envisions the Twins' final two months as opportunity, not pointlessness.

"We're going to be busy. We're going to be working and figuring things out," Baldelli said. "And teaching and talking about the game, sometimes from a rudimentary level in some ways, starting with the fundamentals and the basics."

That's all fine for a lost season. But using it as a springboard to better things, as the Twins insist they intend to do, that's another matter. The Twins have allowed the second-most runs in the American League and just traded their best pitcher. What makes them believe that things will be different in April?

"We feel we have a lot of talent in that clubhouse coming back in '22 and '23 and beyond," said Derek Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations. "We've added to our stable of pitching guys that are at the upper level, guys we think are really good, who can join the likes of [Twins draftees] Jordan Balazovic and Josh Winder, Matt Canterino, a number of other guys."

Maybe so. Simeon Woods Richardson, acquired in the Berrios trade, is only 20 and already strikes out one-third of the hitters he faces at Class AA. Joe Ryan, like Woods Richardson pitching for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics, has a 75-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio, exceptional for a hard thrower. Drew Strotman is bouncing back from Tommy John surgery and is developing rapidly.

Along with infielder/outfielder Austin Martin, rated even higher than the pitchers, the Twins, according to Baseball America's scouting sources, received four of the 10 best prospects traded this month, an impressive haul.

Plenty remains to be done. Signing Byron Buxton to a long-term deal is goal No. 1. At least one veteran believes in Falvey and the potential of this team.

"I'm sure [Falvey] will try to make some more moves this winter to put some pieces together," said Josh Donaldson, now the Twins' oldest and highest paid player. "I'm excited to be here, for the fact that I still think we have a window to win here. I wouldn't have signed here if I wanted to go somewhere else. This is where I want to be. I want to win here. I want to help the guys that are here continue to learn that process as well."

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