Mike Moustakas muscled a ball through the right side of the infield, raised his right arm in celebration, and had to spend the next minute or so on the lookout for a Powerade bath.
The longtime Royals third baseman had just checked off another accomplishment for the Milwaukee Brewers. Moustakas’ walkoff base hit in the 10th inning Thursday gave the Brewers a 1-0 lead over the Rockies in the N.L. Division Series. It’s been an incredible journey for the club — to 95 wins, past the Cubs in the NL Central, and now a 1-0 lead in the NLDS.
One winter ago everywhere you turned you’d read or hear people comparing the Minnesota Twins with the Brewers. Young core, a team on the rise. Both were constantly linked to some of the top starting pitchers available on the free-agent market. That was just 11 months ago.
Return to present day. A lot has changed. The Brewers are hoping to power their way through to the Championship Series. Twins executives, meanwhile are thinking through the interviewing and hiring process for finding their next manager after a disappointing 78-win season.
That 17-win gap stings for the Twins. Not because of some border rivalry. But for the simple fact that they took a step back at a time the team’s fan base expected a surge.
We can break it down any numbers of ways. The biggest difference between the Twins an Brewers over the past year is that Milwaukee got aggressive and acquired two star outfielders; the Twins went bargain shopping and banked on internal growth.
Those contrasting approaches to date have worked out much better for the Brew Crew.
Last year the Twins won 85 games and earned a trip to the Wild Card game in New York after the other American League contenders took a nap at the end of the season. The Brewers won 86 games but just missed the National League playoffs by one game in a tight Wild Card race.
For the Twins, Brian Dozier was their best player, Ervin Santana pitched like an ace, the team “rallied” around being left for dead at the non-waiver trade deadeline. Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and Eduardo Escobar were some of the best hitters around in the final two months of the season. It was an offense on fire that pushed the relatively young (read: early-stage) Twins to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
For the 2017 Brewers, Domingo Santana and Travis Shaw were the standouts. Eric Thames busted out at the start of the year, and Orlando Arcia was here to hold down shortstop for the next decade. Jimmy Nelson emerged in the rotation but the typical sentiment was that this team needed more help at the top of the rotation.
Ditto for the Twins. That’s why the offseason narrative so frequently connected the two midwest clubs a winter ago.
The Twins’ 2018 woes are well-documented in this space. They lost their ace to late-offseason surgery. Jorge Polanco got himself suspended for 80 games. The Twins lost their starting catcher pretty early in the year, and their backup plan wasn’t ready to roll. Their should-be superstars Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton had very different seasons but the common thread was falling well short of expectations. (As GM Thad Levine said the other day when the club fired Paul Molitor: the two seasons those guys had weren’t on the spectrum of internal expectations.) Brian Dozier had a bad year. We could go on, but we’ll stop there in the 2017-to-’18 carryovers.
A Twins Optimist might look at this and say:
‘Welp! That’s baseball sometimes. One club gets lucky and another gets unlucky and injuries and, man, the Twins would have won more games if they were in position to add at the trade deadline instead of subtract!’
All true. But don’t forget the other critical part of the story. It wasn’t all internal development that set each team’s course for this season. Miwaukee aggressively pursued two star players and the Twins went bargain shopping. That’s the difference.
Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw had nice years. Josh Hader emerged as a relief ace. But the big news was getting Yelich and Cain in the same week in late January.
A word in defense of the Twins’ front office. If the team’s star players — guys like Sano, Buxton, Dozier — had shown up this year, and if Eddie Rosario had sustained his first-half explosion, then the final win total would look much better.
Still, it’s worth noting that Milwaukee’s two best players were acquired with aggressive moves last winter. The Twins didn’t do a whole lot last winter to make big upgrades to the foundation, and then the foundation collapsed. And here we are.