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Thoughts on Minnesota and the Yankees

With New York’s 3-0 sweep of Minnesota in the American League Division Series, we see yet another failed attempt of the plucky, small-market Twins to take down the Evil Empire. This marks the fourth time since 2003 that the Twins have fallen to the Yankees in the ALDS, with three of those coming in the form of a sweep. This is leading to worries (or in some cases, gloating) about the seemingly impenetrable wall the Yankees are for the Twins when it comes to the playoffs. FanHouse’s Lisa Olson’s headline says it all – the Twins “wilt in New York again.” Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press says that the Twins “need to add attitude.” Mark Viera of the New York Times discusses how this trend defies explanation and refers to a seeming “mental block” which faces the Twins in these situations.

To be clear, when we are talking about the Twins having lost four straight division series to the Yankees, we’re talking about the 2003 Twins losing to the 2003 Yankees, the 2004 Twins losing to the 2004 Yankees, and so on. Precious little holds these teams together as the years go on. Players leave, players enter. Management changes. The only true constant is the name of the team, and even in the cases of franchises like the Expos and the old Senators, that doesn’t even hold.

Even going year to year, we see some pretty significant changes. From 2003 to 2004, the Twins added Justin Morneau and made Michael Cuddyer a starter, replacing Luis Rivas and Doug Mientkiewicz. The Yankees only common starting pitcher in the 2003 and 2004 ALDS was Mike Mussina. Even with just the turnover from one season, we can see drastically different products taking the fields. Similarly, the 2009 Twins gave multiple playoff PAs to Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Orlando Cabrera and Nick Punto. Those PAs went to J.J. Hardy, Danny Valencia, Jim Thome, and Orlando Hudson this season. The Yankees got a start out of Phil Hughes and three appearances out of Kerry Wood, neither of which would have even been considered possible in the 2009 playoffs.

This gap gets even larger when we skip ahead from 2004 to 2009. Of Twins position players, only Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer played on both sides of the gap in the postseason (Morneau also missed the ’09 ALDS), and only Jesse Crain and the injured Joe Nathan cross that gap as pitchers. The Yankees have a tad more continuity, with the “Core Four” of Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera playing in at least one part of each pair of series. Still, one can hardly claim that the 2010 Yankees and the 2004 Yankees are a very similar team, as nearly every position, rotation slot, and bullpen chair is filled with a new body.

For me, that’s what makes this whole idea of there being some mystical explanation for the struggles of the Minnesota-based American League franchise against the New York-based American League franchise in the playoffs so silly. Yes, both teams have remained in the same city and still are called by the same team names. But they don’t have the same players, neither of them plays in the same park, and the Twins don’t even wear the same uniforms anymore. The Twins still have Ron Gardenhire but have seen the keys to the front office pass from Terry Ryan to Bill Smith; the Yankees have gone from Joe Torre to Joe Girardi and have seen the team pass from George Steinbrenner to Hank and Hal. The Twins are no longer a small-market team, and the Yankees payroll now is merely roughly twice that of the Twins, whereas New York was paying three to four times as much for its on field product seven years ago.

Maybe there is a case, particularly given the type of attitude that surrounds the Twins, that change at the manager position is needed. Will McDonald of Royals Review presents this case, mainly behind the argument that Gardenhire is now the face behind the Twins postseason failure. He is one of the few constants across these series.

However, similarly to McDonald, I don’t think that Gardenhire is really the issue or even necessarily an issue for Minnesota. There are two other constants here besides Gardenhire. Firstly – and we experience this nearly every day during the playoffs – anything can happen in any individual game or any individual series. Secondly, the Yankees have just been a better team each time. I had myself convinced that maybe, just maybe, the Twins were nearly equal in talent this year, but there’s a reason that the Yankees finished with seven more third order wins than the Twins this year, and that was before the Yankees managed to jettison Javier Vazquez and A.J. Burnett from their rotation.

This whole question of why the Twins just can’t beat the Yankees just doesn’t seem to be something worth our time. We’re talking about four different teams who have lost to four different superior teams over the course of seven years. To me, at least, that doesn’t even seem like something that special. However, because we’re talking about a “small-market darling” against the franchise with the most resources, we seem to be finding ourselves asking for some sort of overarching, metaphysical reason. The real answer, I suspect, is nowhere near that complicated.