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The Rebuild Not Taken

Call it a mulligan, a take-over, or a re-do. Just don't call it a rebuild.

While the White Sox have taken one path, the Minnesota Twins - the mighty Twinkies, owners of 101 home runs in their first 50 games - have chosen a different route.

Both teams faced a similar decision after eight seasons of less than mediocre results in which neither ballclub qualified for a post-season berth. Between 2009 and 2016 when the Sox traded Jose Quintana, Chris Sale and Adam Eaton for a stable of prospects, the team finished over .500 just twice and once, in 2013, lost more than 90 games.

Meanwhile, in the eight years leading up to the present campaign, Minnesota also finished over .500 just twice, though they dropped more than 90 games five times.

Interestingly, the year before the rebuild began in 2016, the Sox were 78-84, the exact same record that the Twins posted last season.

However, unlike the White Sox, the Twins didn't clean house with a host of trades for young prospects. Yet here they are with the best record in baseball after easily sweeping the Sox in the Twin Cities over the weekend, outscoring the local darlings 24-5.

So what happened? Can it be that the Twins have turned things around without so much as contemplating the R-word?

For the most part, the same players as last year's, with a different manager in Rocco Baldelli, who replaced Paul Molitor, simply are playing better than they have in the past. General manager Thad Levine deftly signed free agents Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez last offseason, but the majority of the heavy lifting so far has been done by familiar faces.

Take outfielder Eddie Rosario, a fellow who did just fine in 2018, hitting .288 with 24 home runs and 77 RBIs. With his three-run homer, his 16th, on Sunday, Rosario already has 45 RBIs, tops in the American League.

Shortstop Jorge Polanco, a budding star, is hitting a robust .335, second only to the Sox's Tim Anderson in the American League. If Polanco continues at his present pace, he'll hit 26 home runs this season and drive in 76.

Max Kepler also hit a dinger on Sunday worth three runs in the Twins' 7-0 rout. It was Kepler's 12th homer compared to the 20 he hit all of last season. He's on pace for 88 RBIs. Last year he drove in 58.

Byron Buxton, the Twins' 2012 top draft choice (2nd overall), had been a bust offensively until this season. Acknowledged as one of the top defensive centerfielders in the game, he battled injuries last year and played only 28 games with the big-league club, hitting an anemic .156. He's healthy now, patrolling the real estate as well as ever, but hitting 100 points higher than a year ago. Lest I be remiss, he's also leading the league in doubles with 19.

The Twins could have been forgiven if they had dumped third baseman Miguel Sano, another player predicted for stardom, especially after slugging 28 homers in 2017. But Sano went downhill from there, letting his weight rise higher than his batting average, and he found himself banished to the minor leagues where he toiled before being recalled the middle of this month. In Sano's first eight games back in Minneapolis, he slammed five home runs while playing a skillful third base.

Turning to pitching, the team's ERA stands at 3.70 compared to 4.50 a year ago. However, there were no big splashes on the free agent market unless you count Martin Perez, who was released by the Rangers after going 2-7 with a 6.22 ERA last year. Levine grabbed him at the end of January, signing him for one year at $7.5 million. Something's changed for Perez in the Twin Cities, where he's 7-1 with a 2.95 ERA in eight starts.

Of the 13 Twins pitchers who were active over the weekend, nine are holdovers while Perez and three more were signed as free agents last winter. All of which means that the staff has been assembled without so much as sacrificing a single prospect.

The pitchers have received little of the buzz about the surprising Twins this season, primarily because they can feel free and easy knowing they can give up a few runs and still win a ballgame. The Twins have won 16 of their last 20 contests, averaging about 7½ runs a game. Someone like Justin Verlander could envision 30 wins pitching for these guys.

The team also has benefited from addition by subtraction. Certainly Joe Mauer will go down as one of the best players in team history, but Mauer was only a shadow of himself prior to retirement at the end of last season. Mauer had a .306 lifetime average, but he was a meager run producer at the end. Tampa Bay waived C.J. Cron, and Levine stepped in to nab the first baseman for $4.8 million. Cron is on pace to drive in 100 runs while batting in the middle of the order behind Rosario.

In retrospect, the White Sox passed on Cron, signing another free agent first baseman, Yonder Alonso, for $8 million three weeks after Cron was available. Just sayin'.

Second baseman Brian Dozier, a fixture for the Twins for parts of seven seasons, was traded to the Dodgers toward the end of last season. Dare we say Levine scooped up Schoop for $7.5 million in the free agent market, getting a player who's averaged 27 home runs and 81 RBIs over seven seasons. Schoop already has 10 homers to go with his 29 RBIs. And Dozier? He's hitting .213 for the Nationals.

Of course, all of these descriptions and numbers illustrate there are more ways to build a ballclub than the proverbial and popular Rebuild. As aforementioned, at the end of last season the Twins were in about the same position as the White Sox were at the end of 2016.

In the 9th inning on Sunday, Sox announcer Jason Benetti said, "This Twins team looks definitely the part of the best in baseball. Is this a mirage? It is not."

May Benetti be saying the same thing a year or two from now about his beloved White Sox? We'll see.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Nov 19, 2019