MINNEAPOLIS — The air is crisp on Opening Day at Target Field, but the sky is a cloudless, lustrous blue as 35,000 Minnesotans get their first glimpse of a Twins team no one could have predicted they would see.
Even 36 hours earlier, this new-look roster hadn’t yet come together. A remarkable whirlwind of activity from the Minnesota front office, launched in the immediate aftermath of the lockout, didn’t come to a close until a late-morning trade on April 7 — the original date of Minnesota’s opener, before the weather had other plans.
“It shocked everyone,” Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said with a chuckle of his team’s offseason frenzy. “There were times it didn’t feel like a lot of fun because it was exhausting. But it was fun.”
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder along the first-base line during pregame festivities are the players who comprise this newest iteration of the Twins. Some are young players seamheads in the Twin Cities have been following through the prospect outlets. Some are familiar veterans who have been around for years. And some are newcomers, including one bona fide baseball celebrity.
Among the Twins’ new additions were soft-spoken Sonny Gray, a Cincinnati Red last year, who has twice contended for a Cy Young Award while playing in smaller markets. There was Gio Urshela, a one-time journeyman who rose out of obscurity while playing for the New York Yankees. And there was beleaguered backstop Gary Sanchez, who burst onto the scene as a rookie in the Bronx a few years ago only to fizzle amid a chorus of disappointment and naysaying.
Most prominently, there was all 6 feet, 4 inches of Carlos Correa, the No. 1 free agent on the board when last season ended, and even more than two weeks after the signing became official, seeing him on the field in a Twins uniform was somewhat startling. The destiny of Correa was one of the mysteries that lingered through the interminable lockout, with speculations generally centering on whether he would return to Houston where he was well-loved, sign with those big-market Yankees, or join his former manager, AJ Hinch, in Detroit.
At no point did the rumor mill whisper that Correa would begin the 2022 season in Minnesota. Then one night, it just happened, leaving the baseball world stunned. Correa had joined a Twins team in a medium-sized market once known mostly for its frugality, and one that finished last season in the cellar of arguably baseball’s worst division.
“When I was on that call with [Twins manager] Rocco [Baldelli] and [general manager] Thad [Levine] and Derek, we only talked about winning,” Correa said. “When a front office is showing me that they want to do everything possible to bring in the right players and to give the players a chance to go out there and compete and win ballgames, I was up for the challenge from that moment on.”
The stunning part of it is not necessarily that Correa picked Minnesota. His contract — three years, $105.3 million with opt-outs after the first two seasons and no-trade protection — makes him one of baseball’s highest earners this season. It also gives him the flexibility to reenter free agency in search of a longer-term deal if the conditions seem ripe, or things don’t go well in the Twin Cities. The stunning part isn’t that Correa signed that deal, but that the Twins offered it to him.
After last season’s collapse, many believed the Twins would go into full rebuilding mode. They wouldn’t have been alone — even after months of pleading from the MLB Players Association that the proliferation of noncompetitive rebuilding teams be curbed, there was little progress made in the collective bargaining agreement. And before the ink was even dry, two more franchises joined in the reverse march, with the Oakland Athletics and Cincinnati Reds both going into full backpedal.
The Twins could have joined them. They did not. Instead, they traded for Sanchez and Urshela and Gray, and they signed Correa. Why? Why, in the name of Zoilo Versalles, is Carlos Correa standing there on April 8, Opening Day at Target Field, wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform?
AT THE ONSET of the 2021 season, the idea of Correa playing in Minnesota might not have seemed so outlandish. He would have been seen as a finishing piece for an organization attempting to get over the championship hump — the welcome addition of a proven winner. After all, while the Twins are working on an unbelievable 18-game losing streak in the postseason, Correa himself played in 45 winning playoff games during his time in Houston.
Last year’s Twins entered the season as nominal co-favorites with the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central. Then injuries took a toll, particularly the loss of Byron Buxton, who got off to a Mike Trout-level start before getting hurt. Then disappointing performances began to pile up, followed by the losses.
Some might have seen the moves as the first steps of a rebuild. In Minnesota, it was always about positioning themselves for a return to relevance in 2022.
“We had a conversation with ownership during the course of last year,” Falvey said. “This was near the [trade] deadline, about different decisions we had to make at that time. I view my job at the end of every year to present ownership with a lot of options, right?
“Sometimes, that’s a bit of a retool. Sometimes it’s more of a push. But one thing since I’ve gotten here, and I got here in 2016 when they lost 100 games, it’s pretty clear to me that ownership wants to find ways to win. We’ve been very consistently focused on that every year I’ve been here.”
Still, side-stepping a total reset is one thing. Signing the winter’s top free agent is another.
“How do we find a way to put a good team out on the field? That was our focus,” Falvey said. “From September, October, onward. Then the lockout hit, and we had a full pause there.”
Few seemed to notice, but the seeds of what would happen after the lockout were planted before it began. The Twins signed free-agent starter Dylan Bundy to a team-friendly deal, an acquisition that didn’t make many waves. After all, Bundy was coming off a poor season and the strategy of rebuilding teams signing struggling players to build back their value — and then trading them if they do — is an old one.
The true harbinger of the Twins’ aggressive approach was the seven-year, $100 million extension Buxton signed near the end of November. According to Cot’s Contracts, the deal contains significant bonuses for placing in the AL MVP race, something Buxton is more than capable of doing if he can remain healthy for a full season. And it contains full no-trade protection for the first five years of the agreement. It’s not the kind of contract a team looking to tumble into a rebuild tends to offer.
“I’m at peace, just knowing that I’m here for seven more years,” Buxton said during opening weekend. “We want to win. When I signed, that was a big focus of what we want, to bring a championship team here. [Since then] they brought in the pieces to do that. And the chemistry is there in the clubhouse.”
Days after Buxton signed his extension, the lockout began. A Twins roster that still had plenty of holes sat dormant, along with the rest of us, waiting to find out when baseball would return. When it did, Falvey and Levine were ready to pounce. They had been evaluating where the organization stood since long before the disappointing 2021 campaign was complete, and now they finally had a chance to put their plan into action.
“The worst thing you can do is look at it and just hope that you get better,” Falvey said with a laugh. “Then we’re not doing our jobs. You have to figure out what’s the talent in the room, where do we have gaps, what’s coming from the minor leagues.
“We felt like a lot of the talent from 2019, 2020 was still in that room. We felt like our baseline was in a pretty good place. We have a ton of respect for the other teams in the division, notably Chicago. But we felt there was a path to get this team back into a good position.”
TO SEE CORREA in a Twins uniform and holding court in the corner of the clubhouse is a little jarring if you’re used to seeing him in Astros orange and as a central figure in a tight-knit Houston clubhouse. That is very much an outsider’s perspective, because Correa seems completely at ease in his new surroundings.
“I don’t feel like the new guy,” he said on his first day at his new ballpark. “I feel like part of the family with these guys. That’s chemistry we’ve built in such a short time.”
There are $105.3 million reasons why Correa would feel totally at ease in his new home, but it’s more than that. He can feel another commonality in this clubhouse, an ephemeral buzz around the organization that indicates everyone understands the common goal: To win, to win now, and to win big.
“It hit me in spring training, like the third day, when I started talking to the guys and trying to pick their brains about what stats were important to them and analytics and all that,” Correa said. “I just felt like we were all on the same page. We all want to win. That’s a great feeling to have that soon with a new team.”
Signing a player of Correa’s stature changes an organization. To say it guarantees any kind of high-level success, or indeed that it will even work out at all, would be wrong. However, before we even know what kind of numbers Correa is going to put up, we know he is already taking an active role in trying to reshape his new club.
“Coming into a new clubhouse you want to know how things run here, what the rules are and how they prepare for games,” Correa said. “I just wanted to get a feel for what they are used to doing and maybe implement a couple of things here and there to help us improve in different ways.”
Shortly after signing the deal, Correa reached out to his new double-play partner, Jorge Polanco, about getting to work. He has talked to teammates and his front office about the need for the Twins to augment their powerful lineup with elite team pitching and defense. And even though he has a playoff resume that dwarfs any of his teammates, he is finding time to let them know when they are doing something special — beginning with Buxton.
“He’s probably the best player in the game, when you talk about talent,” Correa said. “Nobody runs faster, nobody plays better defense. The last two years, his wRC+ is through the roof. When you talk about talent, he’s the guy.
“I let him know how good he is. Sometimes when your teammates tell you and reassure you how good you are, that confidence can take you to another level. In this game, confidence is everything.”
Buxton — a former Platinum Glove winner who, when healthy, might be the most impactful defensive player in baseball — is equally in awe of his Platinum Glove-winning counterpart.
“I’m very excited,” Buxton said. “There’s not many chances you get to play with another Platinum Glove winner. And then the best shortstop, the best defender in baseball — it doesn’t make the job easy, but it makes it easier.”
During his first sit-down chat in Minnesota with the local media, Correa pushed back against any suggestion that the Twins were “his” team. That role, he insists, is already occupied by Buxton.
“When you look at the careers of Polanco, [Max] Kepler, [Miguel] Sano, Buxton, the guys who have been here for a long time, you see the success they’ve had in different years,” Correa said. “If we can put all of that together the same year, it’s going to be pretty scary.”
THE RANGE OF possibilities for this year’s Twins team is about as wide as any club in the majors. Fittingly, the consensus of preseason forecasts put Minnesota squarely in the middle, around .500, with a pitching staff that has a lot of questions to answer before that will change.
We don’t know what will happen. It could all come together and Minnesota, pushing for first place in the division, will add talent at the deadline. Or the pitching could crumble, the lineup could underachieve and Correa could find himself right back as a prominent name in the transaction rumor mill. After all, his contract allows him assurance or flexibility, whichever he prefers.
“You’ve got to see results,” Correa said. “We can talk about practice and all of that, but when we take the field, we’ve got to have to put W’s up there.”
The Twins’ start has been uneven. An offense that was expected to be potent and better-balanced than recent Minnesota attacks ranks 20th in scoring with a bottom-10 batting average and baseball’s third-highest rate of runs scored via the longball. Buxton has clubbed six early homers and looks like an MVP candidate. The perennially slow-starting Correa has followed tradition with an early batting average of .200, although he slugged the fourth-longest homer of his career in his third game with the Twins, a video game-like blow into the third deck at the vertically oriented Target Field.
Correa smiled when asked the silly question of whether Target Field was a particularly fun ballpark in which to hit home runs (it seems safe to say that all parks are fun to homer in).
“Absolutely,” Correa said. “When you go triple deck, you can’t say that in a lot of ballparks. It’s extra special.”
Buxton already has had an early injury scare, but also has once again flashed MVP production when he has been on the field. The rebuilt rotation has looked strong in the early going. Baldelli is still trying to figure out his bullpen, which lost veteran closer Taylor Rogers in the trade with the San Diego Padres for starting pitcher Chris Paddack and reliever Emilio Pagan that went down the day before the Twins’ home opener.
While the uncertainty about the 2022 Twins remains, their division has looked imminently winnable in the early going. After Minnesota extended its win streak to seven games on Thursday, the Twins find themselves in first place. Everything remains on the table.
Hope and possibility are ephemeral, fleeting concepts. But they’re also necessary for every path that ends with ultimate triumph. They can pay off in tangible ways, too, such as when you believe your team is good enough to go out and add the top free agent on the market — winning a race that few from the outside even knew you were running.
“What it does is send the message to our fans, to the front office and to everybody in the clubhouse that we’re trying to find ways to put the best team on the field that we can,” Falvey said. “My charge is to always do things that we think are impactful. Adding Carlos, the top free agent in the market, was the most impactful thing we could do.”