‘It shocked everyone’: Inside Twins’ plan to turn a last-place team around — fast

  • Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09
  • Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus
  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus
  • Member, Baseball Writers Association of America
  • Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association

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?

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