State of the Team
1996 Record: 78-84, 4th in the AL Central
1996 Overview: A surprisingly decent season. I'd take that record in 2014, I know that.
1997 Outlook: Uncertain, although it didn't seem like the Twins were building a winner.
Players Lost - Free Agency
The Twins were coming off of a surprising 78-win season. They now had some momentum after an abysmal 1995 season had all but killed the hope of the Minnesota fan. How would the Twins respond to stepping back into the spotlight?
BY LETTING THREE MAJOR PLAYERS LEAVE FOR NOTHING! YOU CAN'T LOSE CHIP HALE, JEFF REBOULET AND BRIAN RAABE IN THE SAME OFF-SEASON, YOU JUST CAN'T!
Ok, so maybe that was overdramatic. In fact, the 1997 Twins were almost exactly the same as the 1996 Twins. They had traded Dave Hollins during the '96 season and moved Rick Aguilera out of the rotation, but beyond some free agent signings we'll discuss below, they didn't really lose much from the surprising team of '96.
Hale, Raabe and Tom Quinlan (also gone) combined for just over 100 plate appearances in '96. Reboulet was a disaster at the plate: .222/.298/.261. The only pitcher who left was Erik Bennett and his 7.90 ERA. Hmm. This could be interesting. Is a good team brewing?????
Players Gained - Free Agency
The Twins were on a Minnesota-born player binge, after recently nabbing Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor. The local boy trifecta was completed on December 5, 1996, when they signed Terry Steinbach to a two-year contract. Steinbach would make just over $5.5 million to be the starting catcher for the Twins.
Once Steinbach was in the fold, the focus moved to pitching. The first order of business was to find a reliable starter to fill the void that would be left by Rick Aguilera moving back to the closer role. As if it were told by the Mothman Prophecies, the Twins signed pitch-to-contact aficionado Bob Tewksbury to a two-year deal worth about $4 million. According to Baseball Reference's similarity scores, he can be compared to both Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn, along with honorary Twin Paul Byrd. Tewksbury did Tewksbury things with the Twins in 1997, striking out few and walking even fewer, all on his way to eight wins.
With the rotation set (Brad Radke, Rich Robertson and Scott Aldred were all hold-overs), the Twins looked to bolster the bullpen. They quickly signed Greg Swindell and Gregg Olson. Swindell was excellent in '96, posting a 3.58 ERA in 65 appearances. Olson was awful, throwing only 8.1 innings of 18.36 ERA baseball before getting released in May. Over the rest of that season and then the next two, Olson had an ERA under 4. Of course he did. I blame the extra G.
The Twins also bolstered their future bullpen, signing both Grant Balfour and Juan Rincon as amateur free agents.
Actually, just one.
With Steinbach signed and Greg Myers still on the roster, the Twins had little need for a puny backup catcher like Matt Walbeck. They moved him to Detroit in a deal that nabbed them fan favorite Brent Stentz. I made the fan favorite part up. Walbeck had an 83 OPS+ in limited duty for the Tigers in 1997. Stentz never made it to the Majors, but looking at his stats, he was a good target in a trade for Matt Walbeck.
Greg Swindell was a great pick-up. He posed gallantly at the top of the heap of all MLB relievers with 115.2 innings pitched. He was effective in his role too, with a 3:1 K:BB ratio and a sub-4.00 ERA. His 129 ERA+ was tops on the team. At just over $2 million over two years, Swindell was a decent bargain in '97. The Twins were then able to trade him (and Orlando Merced) for three prospects in 1998.
Unpopular opinion alert? I referenced Matt Walbeck's 83 OPS+ earlier. Greg Myers had an 86 OPS+ in 1996. Terry Steinbach in '97? 80 OPS+. He only slugged .394, easily his lowest total in five seasons and a huge drop from his .529 figure in 1996. The Twins paid him over $2.5 million likely based on his hometown roots and the 35 bombs he hit the previous year. He hit 30 combined home runs in his three seasons with the Twins. Not terrible, but not what they were likely looking for.
My Own Personal Heartbreak
Chip Hale! I liked Chip Hale for some unknown reason. It may have been his short name. It may have been that he didn't play a ton, so I couldn't confirm that he wasn't very good. It may have simply been that I saw him succeed once and my stupid brain remembered that over and over. Who knows? I was sad when he was gone. It looks like he will be a future MLB manager, so maybe that was why I liked him so much.
Arbitrary Overall Assessment: B-
The Tewksbury and Swindell signings were good and the Steinbach signing made sense. They didn't lose anyone of note and largely brought the same team from 1996 with them to 1997. However, the results were not great in 1997, as the Twins lost 94 games. They stayed in 4th place though! It all adds up to a completely arbitrary B-.
Next week, we'll look at the 1997 off-season. See you then!