History shows managers have gotten Twins teams to overachieve

Outclassed again in Yankee Stadium last week, the Twins may be headed for their first 90-loss season since 2016.

Employing many of the same players who won at a high rate in 2019 and 2020, and while dealing with many of the same problems that those two teams easily overcame, the 2021 Twins have become one of the most disappointing teams in recent franchise history.

Of course, there is another way to look at the collapse of ’21.

Perhaps 2019 was the outlier.

Remove disappointment and anger from the analysis of recent Twins teams, and perhaps Twins management should get extra credit for elevating a flawed group of players to 101 victories in Rocco Baldelli’s first year of managing at any level.

That 2019 team won 101 games while relying heavily on Eddie Rosario, who this year may be playing his way out of the big leagues; Miguel Sano, who may be playing his way out of Minnesota; Max Kepler, who may be playing his way out of a starting job; the frequently-injured Byron Buxton; and a bullpen that had to be torn down and rebuilt in late July.

With that in mind, and in the wake of the 30-year anniversary celebration of the Twins’ 1991 World Series victory, here are the five best Twins managerial performances of the franchise’s post-Met Stadium, modern era:

5. Paul Molitor, 2017

The Twins lost 103 games in 2016. They would lose 84 in 2018. With an inexperienced group of position players, Molitor coaxed the 2017 team on a late-season run that led to 85 victories, a wild-card playoff berth and even a 3-0 lead in the top of the first in the wild-card game at Yankee Stadium.

Had Ervin Santana not tried to pitch with an injured hand, the Twins might have even won that game and at least paused the incessant talk of their cursed performances in The Stadium.

4. Tom Kelly, 1991

This wasn’t Kelly’s best managerial performance, because it didn’t have to be. The ’91 team was deep, talented and experienced and would win more games (95) than any Twins team since 1970.

But that team had only three reliable starting pitchers and two primary relievers with an ERA below 3.60 – closer Rick Aguilera and journeyman Carl Willis. Kelly knew how to get the most out of lesser relievers.

3. Ron Gardenhire, 2002

His best team was the 2006 edition. That year turned around Justin Morneau’s career with an early-season tough-love talk, then presided over one of the best four-month stretches of baseball in Twins history.

He also led the Twins on dramatic late-season runs to win division titles in 2003 and 2009.

But the 2002 team overachieved relative to its talent, winning 94 games and advancing to the ALCS. He made Eddie Guardado his closer at a time when Guardado was considered a setup man at best, and won big before Johan Santana became a starter or Joe Mauer and Morneau arrived.

2. Rocco Baldelli, 2019

Now we know that Rosario, Sano and Kepler are deeply flawed players, and that building a failed bullpen is a hallmark of the current front office, Baldelli winning 101 games with this group seems like a miracle.

Of all of the young core players who made this season possible, how many have proved excellentdurable and reliable, other than aged wonder Nelson Cruz?

Baldelli deserved his Manager of the Year award even more than we knew.

Kelly, 1987

This was a flawed team, featuring just two reliable starting pitchers and a mishmash of a bullpen. Kelly nudged this team to 85 victories, then managed his pitching staff brilliantly to defeat two quality teams in the postseason.

A good manager can’t save a bad baseball team. Juggling a lineup filled with ineffective hitters, changing the order in which you use struggling relievers, or bunting more or less often doesn’t change the fortunes of a team over 162 games.

What a good manager can do is steal a victory for a good team here or there. Kelly, Gardenhire, Molitor and Baldelli all have proved they could do that, if their players give them a chance.

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