6/5/2001: What If The Twins Took Prior?

In Stephen Fry's "Making History," a man sends a drug back in time to the well water of Hitler's birthplace, making mothers there infertile, and prevents Hitler from being born. The result? Facsim still rises in Germany, Jews are still murdered, but the alternate-universe Fuehrer is smarter than Hitler about persecuting Jewish scientists. So Germany develops The Bomb.

In Steven King's "11/22/63," a man actually does go back in time and prevent Kennedy's assassination. The result is global devastation on an apocalyptic scale. King is not saying Kennedy would have destroyed the world, but that mucking with history can have unimaginably strange consequences.

Anyone who follows time-travel stories knows the rule, a variation on "power corrupts." The best intentions can prove disastrous. It's a staple of almost any story involving time-travel. (Except "The Time Machine," which is just about the future being awful, and "Doctor Who," where time gets changed every two minutes and while this constantly threatens the universe a nice alien always saves us all.)

The Twins, as all know, drafted Joe Mauer and the Cubs drafted Mark Prior. Prior helped the Cubs get within one epic late-game defensive choke of the World Series (NOT BARTMAN'S FAULT!), and Mauer helped lead the Twins to division titles in 2006, 2009, and 2010.

Here's one alternate look at history. Recall that Prior/Mauer were considered 1/1A in that draft, with Prior's only edge being his estimated major-league readiness. So if the Twins had picked Prior, the Cubs almost certainly would have gone with Mauer.

Prior, as expected, hit the bigs first, in 2002. He was terrific that year, brilliant in 2003, started to show signs of injury in 2004, was very good in 2005, got hurt in 2006 and never pitched in the majors again.

Mauer came up in 2004, was immediately terrific before hit with a fluke injury, and terrific thereafter, not showing any signs of wear-and-tear until 2011 and the end of last season.

So, we switch places. The Twins, remember, made the playoffs from 2002-2004 without Mauer. How would they have done with Prior those three years? Time-travel laws tell us not to be sure, but it's quite likely they make the playoffs all three seasons, and with a killer postseason rotation. Radke/Prior/Milton in 2002, Radke/Prior/Santana in 2003 and 2004. They go further than the real Twins do . . . all the way, perhaps?

For the Cubs, it's a less rosy picture at first. They never make the playoffs in 2003 without Prior. Mauer comes up in 2004, as expected, and immediately helps. The reality Cubs were pretty bad from 2004-2006, so it's doubtful Mauer makes them more than slightly better. It's more interesting in 2007-2008, when the Cubs made the playoffs after Prior was out of the picture. Does Mauer provide that extra boost to end The Curse? Their best bet maybe would be in 2007, when Micheal Barrett (real) had an OPS of .734, and Mauer (real) .808. (Next year, Cubs catcher Geovany Soto would post .868 and Mauer .864, so vaguely similar.) Also, keep in mind Mauer had a slight drop off in 2007, so if he was his career self . . . maybe that's the year.

To be honest, what I wanted was to imagine an epic Twins/Cubs series. But the years Prior helps the Twins, the Cubs aren't good (even bringing up Mauer early in 2003 wouldn't have helped much without Prior), and the years Mauer helps the Cubs, even the real Twins with Mauer struggled. There are other considerations, too. What if Prior's early dominance had kept the Twins from moving Santana into the rotation? Recall that even after Santana's excellent showing as a starter in late 2002, once Milton went down with injury the following spring the Twins quickly signed Kenny Rogers (which pissed Johan off royally). Johan only became a full-timer after Joe Mays struggled that year. Also, keeping A.J. means no Liriano and no Nathan. Even if the alternate Cubs are better than the real Cubs in 2006, and A.J. has a near-Mauer season, no Liriano and no Nathan means no Twins playoffs for them.

Mostly, what this little thought exercise shows me is that the Twins in 2001 were a much better team than the Cubs. So they could draft for long-term rather than short term value, using Mauer's arrival to help keep the team afloat as stars like Hunter left for better contracts. The Cubs took an ace, rode him to near-heaven in 2003, then got bit by the same damn luck as always and stunk once Prior's brilliant career ended too soon.

But, as the Doctor would say, there's one thing more, just one thing . . .

I'm going to imagine one last scenario. The picks are still switched; Prior helps the Twins get oh-so-close from 2002-2004, Mauer the same for Chicago in 2007-2008. After Mauer's homer-mad 2009 season the Cubs, banking that he won't repeat it, refuse to extend his contract, and in a twisted series of moves Mauer makes his triumphant return to Minnesota. The Cubs make some unexpectedly brilliant signings with the salary cut, and somewhere in the last few years there is, indeed, a meeting of the two teams in a dramatic World Series.

It all comes down to Game 7. The Twins trail in the bottom of the 10th, until Mauer ties the game with a solo shot. As the crowd goes wild, the fan catching the ball -- a very upset Cubs die-hard on the verge of tears -- nonchalantly tosses the ball back on the playing surface, nearly beaning a Twins player. As per stadium policy, the fan is escorted out to the boos of angry Twins fans. All is forgotten when the Twins win in the 11th.

The next day, the celebratory Twins media posts pictures of the fan, a mild-mannered, headphones-wearing fellow who'd payed $2,000 for his seat. He quickly becomes a staple Minnesota joke, as in "try to attack our players, you weak-armed wimp!" His name will go down in Twins lore as a figure of mockery and ridicule.

And Steve Bartman is given lifelong season tickets to watch his beloved Cubs in his favorite spot at Wrigley Field.

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