As we make our way through the only April with no Twins baseball since 1960, it’s time to take a step back and appreciate the better-than-average-but-still-disappointing past 20 years of baseball played in Minneapolis.
The Minnesota Twins have had seven A.L. Central Division titles and eight total postseason appearances since 2000. There were also eight under-.500 seasons and six campaigns with 90 losses or more, but we won’t dwell on that.
All in all, the lows were painfully low and the highs were ... modestly high. But that’s what this article is about: celebrating the exciting and memorable individual performances by the 20 best players who appeared in a Minnesota Twins uniform since the year 2000. That’s an even 20 seasons of baseball to choose from, and we avoid the chasm of sadness that was 1993 through 1999.
A quick note on criteria: while this list is not a straight ranking of players based on Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the metric absolutely plays into the equation. Players with one dominant season will make this list, but the ranking of a player like Nelson Cruz or Jim Thome becomes complicated when balanced with the likes of, say, Michael Cuddyer, who was steady for a long time but had a lower peak than either of those gentlemanly, late-career crushers-of-baseballs.
That said, I did my best to consider quite a few factors, including positional importance, length of stay with the Twins, and overall team success during their career in Minnesota. This isn’t a cold, hard, “WAR is the only thing that matters” ranking, but it also isn’t simply a list of players who hold a special place in the hearts of Twins fans. Otherwise, we’d have a pair of middle-infielders named Orlando with a knack for hitting clutch home runs on this list.
We’re going to start with No. 20 through No. 16, and continue the series later this week with No. 15 to No. 11 and so on and so forth. In an effort to not spoil the rest of the series, I will refrain from posting an honorable mention/just-missed list until the final installment. Until then, please feel free to bash my rankings.
That’s it for my intro. Now, please enjoy No. 20 through No. 16.
No. 20 - Jorge Polanco, 2014 to present
- Career line of .281/.339/.444
- 1x All-Star (AL starting shortstop in 2019)
Nothing like a little blast from the present, right?
Polanco eased onto the scene with five games played in the majors in 2014 and four games played in 2015. In 279 plate appearances in 2016, Polanco contributed a .282/.332/.424 line, including four home runs, four triples and 15 doubles. Of course, that was on a 103-loss team in a horrendous backslide from a surprise 83-79 finish the year prior.
Polanco had a mediocre campaign in 2017 before being handed a 80-game suspension in May of 2018 due to a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. He finished the season hot, however, and carried that success into 2019.
Last season, Polanco was one of the best players in baseball over the first month or two of the season and rode that momentum to the starting shortstop role on the American League All-Star Team. He finished the season on a bit of a cool streak, hitting .295/.356/.485 and adding 22 home runs to the Twins’ major-league record total of 307.
Polanco lands at No. 20 on the strength of roughly a season-and-a-half of All-Star-level offensive production at shortstop. His glove is nothing to write home about, however, and he’ll need to shore up his defense a bit if he wants to stay on this list moving forward.
No. 19 - Miguel Sano, 2015 to present
- Career line of .245/.338/.498
- 1x All-Star
Sano has contributed the same amount of WAR as Polanco in 45 more games over the past five seasons, but his All-Star campaign in 2017 and his strong finish to 2019 shows the heights that Sano’s bat can reach.
Sano’s raw power is in the conversation with the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Cody Bellinger for the best in the game, and if he can stay healthy, he has easy 50-homer power.
The former third baseman’s impending move to first base decreases his positional value, but he’s athletic enough to be a plus-defender at first. His ceiling as an impact bat remains sky-high.
No. 18 - Shannon Stewart, 2003 to 2006
- Line of .294/.354/.418 with the Twins
- Finished fourth in Most Valuable Player voting in 2003
Let the controversy begin.
Shannon Stewart’s Twins career is a classic case of head vs. heart. The longtime member of the Toronto Blue Jays was acquired by the Twins immediately following the 2003 All-Star Game. The Twins were on an eight-game losing streak leading into the break and promptly went on a six-game winning streak out of the break with Stewart in the lineup.
The 2003 Twins had a 44-49 record at the break but went 46-23 over the second half with a +72 run differential in August and September combined. Stewart, who had a batting average of .300 or better over the previous four seasons and a .294/.347/.449 for Toronto in 2003, was unbelievable after being acquired by Minnesota.
He slashed .322/.384/.470 in a Twins uniform and somehow finished in fourth in MVP voting that season, ahead of David Ortiz’s on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) mark of .961 and Manny Ramirez’s crazy 1.014 OPS.
Those Twins won Game 1 of the ALDS in New York before dropping three straight. Stewart another fantastic year in 2004, hitting .304/..380/.447 for another division-winning team. He struggled in 2005, however, and suffered through an injury-riddled 2006 before moving on to Oakland for the final two seasons of his career.
No. 17 - Nick Punto, 2004 to 2010
- Line of .248/.323/324 with Twins
- Part of four division-winning teams
‘Lil Nicky Punto somehow managed to go from overrated, scrappy Gardy-favorite to an underrated offensive contributor and legitimately solid defender.
Punto was originally acquired from Philadelphia along with Carlos Silva in exchange for Eric Milton. (Something I had forgotten: Bobby Korecky, he of getting-a-hit-as-a-pitcher-in-extra-innings-of-a-game-played-between-AL-teams fame, was the player-to-be-named-later in this trade.) Milton went on to have one decent season for the Phillies, but this trade was a clear win for the Twins.
Punto was a banjo-hitter miscast as a starting third baseman early in his career. Eventually, however, he logged on-base percentages that were good enough to make him a plus-player on offense. In 2006, for instance, he hit .290/.352/.373 for a 96-win club after starting the year as a bench player but ended as the starting third baseman after Tony Batista’s career flamed out.
Injuries became an issue for Punto later in his Twins career, and while he made it to the inaugural Target Field in 2010, he was a part-time player at that point. That said, he was part of four division-winning Twins clubs during his tenure.
He left the Twins and won a World Series title in St. Louis in 2011, then bounced from the Cardinals to the Red Sox before he was part of the massive Carl Crawford/Adrian Gonzalez and was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was on their NLCS roster in 2013 and finished his career as a key member of the Oakland A’s in 2014..
No. 16 - Jim Thome, 2010 to 2011
- Line of .266/.387/.562 with Twins
- Hit 500th career home run as a member of the Twins
Jimmers mashered taters right onto this list at No. 16.
Thome’s 2010 campaign was awesome enough to deliver 3.6 WAR and land him 18th in MVP voting, justifying a spot as one of the Top 20 Twins of the 2000s despite only playing one-plus season in a Twins uniform. Making things that much more impressive was that the 2010 campaign came on a salary of just $1.5 million in one of the all-time free agency bargains.
In just 108 games, Thome slashed .283/.412/.627 and clobbered 25 home runs in just 340 plate appearances. His slugging percentage of .627 was the second-best of his career, trailing only his remarkable 2002 campaign in Cleveland when he put up an OPS of 1.122.
Inexplicably, Thome batted sixth in the order for most of the season. In order to keep his back healthy and his legs fresh, he mostly split designated-hitter duties with Jason Kubel, who was not nearly as effective.
The Twins were swept in three games at the hands of the Yankees, of course, and Thome returned for the 2011 season and remained effective, albeit not dominant, for the first part of the season for a significantly worse Twins squad. He was mercy-traded to Cleveland at the deadline, and he wrapped up his career following a 2012 campaign split between Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Next up, Nos. 15 through 11...