The 2020 postseason ended for the Twins in familiarly frustrating fashion — with a sweep (this time at the hands of the Astros) that was as meek as it was disappointing.
But the 2020 postseason continues for two teams Tuesday with the start of the World Series. And one of those teams in particular, Tampa Bay, should give Twins fans at least a little glimmer of hope for the future.
Simply put: If the Rays can make it this far, a lot of teams can. That’s obviously not to say it’s easy. It is to say that there are things the Twins can learn from Tampa Bay as they attempt to shore up some of their playoff shortcomings in years to come.
Here are five of those things:
*Postseason droughts can end: You might not believe this since the Twins with 18 consecutive playoff losses are in the midst of the worst playoff streak in North American pro sports history, but it is possible to get out of such a rut.
(I’ll pause for a moment, allowing you to inhale that statistic in, then exhale the negative emotions out).
In terms of pure comparisons, Atlanta in the NL is a more natural fit when it comes to measuring postseason frustration with the Twins. Atlanta had lost nine straight postseason series dating back to 2002 before making it to the NLCS this season and very nearly reaching the World Series opposite Tampa Bay.
But the Rays, too, had been on a pretty bad playoff bender before this year. Since reaching the World Series in their charmed 2008 season, Tampa Bay had gone just 9-16 in playoff games until this year and had been stymied in the division round in all four postseason appearances between then and now.
Granted, 9-16 is a far cry from 0-18. But it was enough to make people wonder if Tampa Bay would come up short again this season despite their 40-20 regular-season mark.
Instead, they dispatched Toronto with a two-game sweep. Then they defeated the Twins’ chief playoff nemesis (the Yankees) in five games and this year’s nemesis (the Astros) in seven games, winning that last series after leading 3 games to none, watching Houston tie it and then gutting out a Game 7 win.
See, it is possible.
*This would have been a good year to make it to the World Series: OK, this isn’t quite a lesson from Tampa Bay as it is from the weather gods. Can you imagine the Twins trying to host a World Series right now, with several inches of snow in the forecast and temperatures hovering in the 30s for the extended future?
If the Twins had made it this year, with coronavirus forcing baseball to use a neutral site in Texas, the live shots from Minnesota would have underscored this reality: The World Series, like the Super Bowl, should probably be at a neutral site every year.
*Payroll gives you a safety net, but it is not an all-encompassing excuse: In a way, these Rays are reminiscent of the Metrodome-era Twins. They play in an awful dome (Tropicana Field), where attendance is subpar and impacts payroll.
The Rays are consistently among the lowest spenders in MLB; in this pro-rated salary season, they had the third-lowest payroll in baseball ($28 million). The Twins spent nearly twice as much and the Dodgers spent nearly four times as much.
This is a slippery slope. I’m not advocating for baseball’s unfair salary system, whereby teams can greatly outspend others because over the long haul it gives those spenders a big advantage.
But it does underscore this notion: the Twins have the financial resources to make it to the World Series, and payroll alone does not explain all the playoff failures of the last two decades.
*You can construct a dominant bullpen out of homegrown Twins pitchers: Three examples of the Rays’ thrift and resourcefulness come, unfortunately, at the expense of the Twins.
Nick Anderson, Aaron Slegers and John Curtiss — who are making about half a million dollars combined this season — have been important pieces of Tampa Bay’s bullpen all season. Slegers and Curtiss are former Twins draft picks who made it to the majors in Minnesota before being dispatched away. Anderson signed with the Twins as a minor league free agent in 2015 but was traded away after the 2018 season.
There might not be a team better than the Rays at identifying and utilizing pitching talent, much of it low-cost. The Twins seem like they are on that path under Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, but it hasn’t translated yet into postseason success.
*October is the time for unlikely heroes: This might be the biggest lesson of all. Had you heard of Randy Arozarena before, say, a week ago (if you have heard of him at all?) The 25-year-old came into this postseason with 99 career plate appearances in the majors. Now he has seven playoff home runs for the Rays and was the ALCS MVP.
When was the last time a Twins player wildly exceeded expectations in the playoffs? Step-up performances have been sorely lacking, which perhaps isn’t surprising given the losing streak.
But sometimes it’s all about getting a little momentum and riding a wave — something the Rays have done this year and something that could (I promise) happen for the Twins in the future.